Death in Hamlet

One of my essays from last semester for Drama.. Hope its handy for anyone else studying :)

Ideas and superstitions surrounding the mystery of death permeate the timeless story of Hamlet, a tale that can even to this day chill its every reader and compel us to question our own faith and spirituality. From the very first scene we are propelled into a world in which the line between the living and the dead has become very fine, as one of the first characters we are introduced to is the Ghost of the former King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. In this opening scene a certain fascination with the dead is established, although Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus are quite terrified by the Ghost as he appears to them, they are also overcome with curiosity and a longing to know why he has revisited the mortal world of the living ‘Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!’. This curiosity is contagious and quickly sucks the audience into a morbid fascination with the untimely death of the King that sets the tone for the rest of the play.

Hamlet’s character is one consumed with the idea of death after the murder of his father. He is overcome by a grief that plunges him into a deep contemplative depression, in which he even considers suicide, wishing that his ‘too too solid flesh would melt’  but never acts on these considerations. He is a great procrastinator, wallowing in his own pain and simple plots to avenge his father, but almost never following these plans through. Where Hamlet is our protagonist, death (even more than Claudius) is our antagonist in the play, as it is in reality. Hamlet is driven by the knowledge that he too will some day perish, and this death drive is what compels him to plot revenge, to create (when he directs the play within the play) and to think so deeply about his own mortality and the meaning of life. In perhaps his most famous speech beginning ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, the character of Hamlet poses the eternal question to the audience that is constantly present in the back of our minds but that we must ignore in order to keep living; What difference does it make to live or to die? What is the point? The thing that disturbs this character most is not actually his fathers death, but how his mother has so quickly moved on, because he is ultimately terrified by the notion that if someone can be forgotten about so quickly after their death, then life bears no meaning at all.

Deathly imagery cements the theme of mortality firmly in the audiences mind throughout the play. The word ‘rank’ appears repeatedly in Hamlets descriptions of both the world (which he compares to an unkempt and overgrown garden), and his mothers relationship with Claudius – ‘Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely’, and ‘In the rank sweat of an un-seamed bed’  are examples. ‘Rank’ is used here as a word to describe things that seem rotten and festering, and it lends itself to the subtle suggestion again of deathly images surrounding our protagonist. Another interesting image is that of Ophelia handing out symbolic flowers in Act Four Scene Five when she has lost her mind, each flower symbolising something different that relates to each character – ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember’ (she gives this to Hamlet whom she feels has forgotten her), but where this becomes a deathly image is in the line ‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died’. The violets symbolise faithfulness, which she feels has been destroyed since her father was murdered. This image represents the feelings of hopelessness and the loss of faith that many feel when confronted with death and grief, and contemplations of their own mortality. Some more obvious imagery relating to death is of course evident throughout the play, for example, when Hamlet discusses the whereabouts of Polonius’ dead body – ‘He is at supper [..] not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots’. This grim imagery is a comment on the fact that even humans are part of the circle of life, that as we eat animals to survive some day maggots and worms will feed on our dead bodies to survive. A haunting and terrific image of mortality.

Hamlet’s ‘inky cloak’ of black which he wears throughout the play is another image that acts as a constant reminder of Hamlets relationship and obsession with death. He never changes from these black clothes throughout the play, suggesting that he is in constant mourning it would seem for his father, but the further we are drawn in to Hamlet’s psyche the more we realise that he is also mourning his own eventual death, which he becomes wholly obsessed with in the course of the play. He cannot escape the thought of death, his fathers death and the revenge he must seek for it weighs heavy in his mind, the woman he loves, Ophelia, drowns suspiciously and forces Hamlet to further contemplate suicide. The seemingly ‘accidental’ nature of Ophelia’s death presents another idea to Hamlet and the audience, a hint at the absolute fragility of life and the uncertainty that surrounds it when it is impossible to know what state a persons mind was in as they died. We never truly know whether Ophelia killed herself in a fever of madness and grief, or if her untimely death (as many of the deaths in the play are) was purely an accident. In one of Hamlets most thought provoking musings on death he concludes that fear is what stops people from committing suicide, and those who can kill themselves must no longer be afraid of death, and do so to escape the complete pain of living. It is Hamlet’s uncertainty and fear about the afterlife that stops him from killing himself.

He is obsessed by the physicality of death, and the frailty of human existence. This is perfectly illustrated in the iconic grave digging scene in which the most famous deathly image in Hamlet is found, the skull of Yorick, a man who was once his fathers jester and whom Hamlet was fond of. Hamlet and the clown  discuss how long it takes for a human body to decay in this scene, which Hamlet fervently questions and seems both enthralled and disgusted by. When they come across the skull Hamlet is shocked to learn that it is that of someone he once knew, taking it in his hands and gesturing to where the lips he had once kissed had been, hauntingly asking the lifeless bones ‘Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?’. The skull acts as a physical image and reminder of the absolute finality of death in this scene, a scene made so poignant as Hamlet literally stares death in the face for the first time since he started all of his brooding and contemplating over it. This unforgettable scene evokes in me a certain wonderment about life and death, Shakespeare is asking us here to consider our idea of what life really is, he is reminding us that we are living through our actions, our jokes, stories, gestures and traits, that perhaps something like a soul exists, but also begs the question ‘what is the point?’ if we are all to end up decaying in the ground like Yorick, never knowing if there is really anything more.

However, much more eloquently than I ever could, Shakespeare conveys a far more mature and accepting attitude towards death that Hamlet seems to adopt in this scene, which becomes a turning point in the play. A realisation seems to be reached in his contemplation over the jesters skull, that death is inevitable for all people, and that it is not something concerned with ones position or ranking in life. In death we are all common and equal, there is no vanity in it as there is in life, and Shakespeare verbalises this beautifully as Hamlet describes how both Alexander the Great and the court jester Yorick ‘returneth into dust’  in the same way when they died, as we all some day will, and as every character in the play evidently does in the final scene, a veritable bloodbath in which Hamlet finally gets what he wanted throughout the play – revenge for his fathers death in the killing of Claudius, and the ultimate escape from his own pain in living, his death.

Death is explored in every facet of the play, and from so many different angles. It is woven through almost every line and portrayed in so many images as I have discussed, and I can‘t help but feel that I have omitted so much to do with this theme as it could be explored with relation to almost every scene! Hamlet, one might argue,  is Shakespeare’s most famous play for the simple reason that it is wholly centred around death and therefore can never become dated and will always hold an irresistible allure for audiences, as death will forever remain the greatest timeless mystery of the world.



One thought on “Death in Hamlet

  1. I really like your essay. It\’s wonderful to think about this incredible play. And you\’ve done a great job. There is a lot of criticism of this play that notes Hamlet\’s inaction. I\’m not sure about that, and I\’d like to discuss it. I know it seems as if Hamlet is wallowing in self pity, especially at the start and doesn\’t act after the ghost calls on him to take revenge. But even though he\’s down on himself for not acting immediately, he really is swinging into action in his own way. For example, he puts on an antic disposition. This is an ingenious maneuver to throw off the court so they can\’t see that this guy is planning to take his uncle\’s life. The beginning of the play sets up the court as being extremely watchful, very gossipy. If Hamlet acts too fast, they will probably pick it up and prevent him. Also, he\’s not sure if he has just seen a demon or not, if this thing is just an hallucination. So the play within a play becomes his method for nailing Claudius\’s guilt for sure. He can\’t kill his uncle while his uncle is in prayer. He must catch him while he is in his \”sin\” so he shares the dismal afterlife his father has experienced. Thank you for this stimulating essay.

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