The Map of Mortalitie (1604) is a broadside combining verses, symbols and cryptic diagrams, all centred on a skull or ‘death’s head’ and concerned with the idea of death. In the verses, these stark reminders of the fact that ‘all men must die’ are contrasted with the Christian idea of heavenly ‘eternitie’. The ‘map’ as a whole provokes a sense of melancholy about human decay, but also hope in the afterlife for those whose ‘conscience is pure’.
The Broadside Map of Mortalitie
This is what is known as a broadside, a cheaply-produced single-sheet of paper printed on one side, designed to be discarded after it was read, or possibly pasted on a wall or cupboard for display. Many of these broadsides, which circulated widely in Shakespeare’s day, were concerned with spiritual or moral themes and illustrated with memorable emblems. In its impermanence, the paper of the ‘map’ itself mirrors the idea of the transience of human life, which is so key to its content.
Understanding the details of the Map of Mortalitie
- The images of the broadside form the shape of a cross, with the skull at its centre, and bones entwined in a banner warning us to ‘Remember thine end’. At the bottom is a plaque containing a shrouded corpse, with a spade used for grave-making. On the right and left are images of a rooster (an emblem of the resurrection) and a swan (symbolising purity).
- The diagram at the top left depicts the Holy Trinity - God as ‘father’, ‘sonne’ and ‘holie ghoste’ – framed by a riddle describing ‘unitie in trinitie’. The words within the diagram can be read in an endless circuit. ‘The holie ghost is not the father is not the sonne’, all culminating in the word ‘God’ –‘the holie ghoste is God’, ‘the father is God’, ‘the sonne is God’.
- The image in the top middle shows Christ carrying the sacrificial lamb, symbolising his crucifixion which conquers death and gives all men and women ‘aeternall life’.
- On the top right, the six-sided ‘love knot’ symbolises ‘true love’ amongst humans – ‘brothers’, ‘neighbours’, ‘man & wife’. They are bound fast against ‘all assaults’ and framed by the love of ‘god’. The inner circle contains the numbers of a clock-face and the warning, ‘eche hour prepare. Death strikes unaware’.
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Memento mori and Hamlet
The broadside serves as a memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning ‘reminder of death’, which was used to describe the many symbols of human mortality that were so common in this era. The iconic image of Hamlet holding ‘Yorick’s skull’ (5.1.184), is now the most renowned example of memento mori. Death reduces the playful Yorick, who once served as ‘the King’s jester’, to nothing more than skull and bones. The play as a whole is obsessive in its reflections on the ‘undiscover’d country’ of death (3.1.78), suicide and mourning.
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