Thursday, 12 July 2018

The mortality of Alexander the Great

Above is a mural from the Varlaam Monastery at Meteora in central Greece depicting St Sisois meditating before the tomb of Alexander the Great. The inscription, in English, reads:

‘The great ascetic Sisois before the grave of the Hellene, Alexander, who in olden times shone with glory, is horrified, and feeling sorrow over the inconsistency of time and the temporary nature of glory, cries: “Seeing thee, O grave, I shed a heartfelt tear. I remember the common debt. How shall I go through such an end? O death who can escape thee?”’

Mortality and how even someone seemingly superhuman like Alexander the Great cannot escape it, is also part of Hamlet’s famous graveyard speech, in which the depressive Prince of Denmark, after reflecting on the skull of the court jester, Yorick, considers too the fate of Alexander:

‘Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?… And smelt so? pah!… To what base uses we may return…! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole? [For] Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?’


Unfortunately, in the Olivier film version of Hamlet, the graveyard scene is cut before the references to Alexander; though in Grigori Kozintzev's excellent Soviet version of Shakespeare’s play, the scene (below, in Russian with Italian subtitles) is complete.