Death In Hamlet

  • Category: English
  • Words: 1679
  • Grade: 60
Death in Hamlet
Paolo Vanni M. Veñegas
March 16, 2002
        Death and the ideas related to it are among the most popular and bothersome thoughts that have plagued men everywhere since the beginning of time. The fear of the vast unknown to which death leads has haunted the minds of mortal man and has caused him to come up with various ideas that attempt to explain this mystery. It is for this purpose that religion has come to be a part human life. With few exceptions, religions all around the world exploit this mystery by promising life after death if we follow its particular dogma. Humanists would scoff at these ideas, which they consider blind and pretenseful sins against humanity. Science would say a man's death is simply the state wherein his body's metabolism ceases to perform, as with all other forms of life on earth. But still, in spite of all the attention directed to it, death remains a blind spot in human knowledge, its mysteries left untouched.
Perhaps the reason why the concept of death is popular is that it is deeply related to life, as well as the purpose of living. In the play Hamlet, in particular, death is an extremely dominant theme, and affects the actions of the characters a great deal.
""¦so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause"¦"
(Act V, Scene 2, Lines 381-384).
So says Horatio in the final few lines of the play, after Hamlet, the king Claudius, the queen and hamlet's mother Gertrude, the king's adviser Polonius, his children Laertes and Hamlet's girlfriend Gertrude, who committed suicide, and Hamlet's friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all die. In the first place, the play is set after a very significant death, that of the older Hamlet, king of Denmark, and this sets off a series of events, which make up the play.
This death comes in a very delicate time for politics in Europe, and so Claudius, the elder Hamlet's brother, immediately takes the dead monarch's place in the throne as king of Denmark. At this point, the young Hamlet knows does not even suspect foul play in his father's death, and it comes as quite a shock to him when his father's ghost appears and tells about Claudius' treachery. At first unsure of how to act and carry out his father's demands of vengeance, he decides to test his uncle's guilt, and proceeds to fake an act of insanity to throw people into confusion while he plans his actions.
In his contemplation, Hamlet ponders a lot on the ghost's demands and treats the matter quite seriously.
"I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,"
(Act I, Scene 5, Lines 106-110).
Hamlet is stating his utmost commitment to nothing short of revenge of his fathers' death, but also realizes that his life has sunk to quite a dismal state. He argues with himself in what is probably the most well-known soliloquy in Shakespeare's works.
"To be, or not to be - that is the question"¦"
(Act III, Scene 1, Line 64).
In this speech, he reflects on his existence and the misfortune to which he is subjected.
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;"
(Act III, Scene 1, Lines 65-72).
In the context of discussing death, one can see that Hamlet has come to a point where he is aware of the desperate necessity to choose whether "to be", meaning to continue living life in the pitiful situation in which he is, or "not to be", by ending his life and all the troubles with it. He states his desire to end his life quite openly, saying:
"O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!"
(Act I, Scene 2, Line133-134).
He also declares
"You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life." (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 233-235),
intended as a parting insult to Polonius, saying he would very much want him to leave, but also saying that he would much more want his life taken. This particular conflict is not only a key situation in this play; it is also a fundamental question in real life.
The question of the "meaning of life" has also been around for quite some time, and has been an important idea for many men of philosophy and literature. Hamlet's views and ideas about life and death are in consistency with those of one particular person in literature, John Keats. In fact, one can find a few things common in these two individuals. Keats is the Romantic poet of lush, even sensual, imagery. He was an educated man and an active intellectual. In the play, we see Hamlet not as a power-hungry soldier like his father was, but as a passionate, contemplative scholar, who would rather continue his studies at Wittenberg than regain honor for his slain father (before he found out that the elder Hamlet was murdered). However, both of these men came to a point in life wherein death became an appealing opportunity. In being ""¦half in love with easeful Death," (Ode to a Nightingale, Line 52), Keats, like Hamlet, expresses his want to let go of troublesome life and just sink into death's beckoning depths. A big difference between them, though, is the doubt that Hamlet expresses in what lies beyond death. In the same soliloquy, when he states:
"To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"¦"
(Act III, Scene 1, Lines 73-74),
he points out the supposed sin in the act of bringing death upon oneself, or suicide. He brings the matter into a religious light, and stops himself from giving in to the comforts of death by his own hand, for which he would surely suffer in the next life (according to Christian Doctrines). This situation gives emphasis to the hold that the Catholic Church had on the people of Europe at this time. However, Hamlet somehow concentrates on what is noble, not what is seen as morally right. He even approaches the end of his soliloquy stating,
"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all," (Act III, Scene 1, Line 91),
cowardice here being "to be", by hesitating to commit suicide because of moral constricts and the fear of damnation. He feels shame since the fear of the unknown, the haunting uncertainty of what could possibly come after death, was all that kept him from suicide. Therefore, he seems to be concluding that it is cowardice to stay alive because of religion, rather than cowardice to kill himself. In this context, it is also worth noting that Hamlet's hesitation in killing Claudius in the act of prayer (Act III, Scene 3), since this might save him from eternal damnation. This act supports the idea that Hamlet's beliefs of death and the afterlife were based on Catholic Doctrines.
        However, in contrast to this, does not seem to realize the fact that, if the Doctrines were right, in avenging his father by killing Claudius, he would be committing the mortal sin of murder, and would therefore be damned anyway. This inconsistency of thought suggests Hamlet's weakness in action and principles, since in this light, any choice, whether "to be, or not to be", would in the end deliver him to one place, after all. That is, hell.
        Continuing with the play, however, Hamlet fascination with death grows, and soon, he no longer considers his actions, wanting only to do what he sees noble, that is, vengeance, and pays no heed to what other circumstances his actions may bring. Merely reasoning out that their presence was becoming a disturbance, he arranges for Rosencrantz' and Guildenstern's death in England, which shocks Horatio. He comes back to Denmark with a new sense of courage and determination brought upon by his acceptance of the fate that his honor requires of him, and even calls himself "Hamlet the Dane" (Act V, Scene 1, Line 271), declaring himself as his father's son and rightful heir to the throne. Although he weeps bitterly when he hears of Ophelia's death, he surrenders to the idea that death is only a part of life. In a dramatic duel against Laertes, who under Claudius' manipulations is forced to take part in the treachery against the prince, Hamlet ends the play with a clean sweep in a single scene, accomplishing his vengeance against Claudius, and, ironically, puts an end to his own demise ultimately, by the means of death.
        It is very easy to see that in the end, almost every major character is dead. From the all-powerful and ambitious Claudius, ruler of Denmark, to the weak and spineless old man, Polonius. This situation presents yet another idea of death. Its power is over every single person, whether tyrant or peasant, rich or poor. It is universal. It serves as the final humiliation to the haughty, as well as the ultimate dignity for the miserable, to know that no matter how important someone is, death shall become of him and render him equal to everyone else. This idea is rightly alluded to by Hamlet in the play.
"Your fat king and your lean beggar is
but variable service"”two dishes, but to one table.
That's the end."
(Act IV, Scene 3, Lines 26-28).

Works Cited
Mowat, Barbara and Paul Werstine. Hamlet. The New Folger Library. Washington Square Press Drama, 1992
John Keats. Ode to a Nightingale.
UVIC. Death, The Undiscovered Country. Home page on-line. Available at http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLTnoframes/ideas/death2.html. Internet. Accessed 14 March 2002
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