Death in Hamlet

Instructor: Crystal Harsy

Crystal has taught middle school, high school, and college-level English and is finishing her Master's degree in Rhetoric & Composition.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the theme of death which runs throughout the tragic Shakespearean play, Hamlet by exploring murder, suicide, and the after-life within the play.

Hamlet and Death

All Shakespearean tragedies involve the death and/or ruin of some or all of the main characters. Hamlet, which is a play about a Danish royal family, is no different, but as family dramas go this one is ripe with mortality-laced meaning. Prince Hamlet and his family struggle through the death and possible murder of a king, the remarriage of the queen, disinheritance, ghosts, and several other deaths...and that's just the first act!

A Funeral, a Wedding, or Both?

Death in the play Hamlet is very prevalent--almost all of the characters succumb to it. Before the play even begins, Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, has died. Hamlet has returned home for his father's funeral which is followed soon after by his mother's (Gertrude) marriage to the king's own brother, Claudius, which Hamlet identifies as: ''But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two.'' In reality, a wedding a couple of months after a king's death would not necessarily be questionable. A marriage was as much a political arrangement as it was a love affair. Queen Gertrude would not be expected (or possibly allowed) to rule the country without a husband.

The Ghost

Hamlet might just be a petulant, displaced inheritor, until he is visited by the Ghost of his father who tells him that the new king (Claudius) is the one who murdered his father and that Hamlet must avenge his father's death by killing his uncle. The Ghost explains to Hamlet how the murder took place, and even though Hamlet questions the validity of the Ghost (it could be the devil trying to trick him), he accepts his late father's challenge to avenge his murder. Thus, the king's death sets the stage for a play filled with questions about mortality.

Hamlet's Suicide (well, maybe...)

Hamlet goes on to question his own mortality, and in Act III he delivers his famous soliloquy: ''To be or not to be.'' (A soliloquy is a speech spoken aloud by a character when there are no other characters present.) Here, Hamlet considers at length taking his own life. While he's feeling melancholy, we might even say depressed, over the death of his father, he's still hesitant to go so far as to kill himself. He worries about the repercussions. Specifically, he's worried about going to hell: ''For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.'' Hamlet's reflection on death is significant because it highlights the intellectual importance of death and the afterlife in the play. Shakespeare is presenting a multifaceted exploration of death by having Hamlet analyze all the potential scenarios that could play out if he did commit suicide.

Ophelia's Suicide

Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia, did commit suicide, however. Hamlet mistreats her (ignores, insults, and scares her) throughout the play and in Act IV her death is reported by Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. She describes how Ophelia fell into a river and allowed the weight of her clothes to pull her under. Ophelia's death is significant in that she did not seem to choose suicide, but she did not fight her death either. Her passivity is consistent throughout the play, and her death is a similar, submissive end.

Overthinking

Shakespeare has his main character analyze mortality in other situations, too. In fact, you might say that overanalyzing is Hamlet's critical flaw. For instance, when he takes up the Ghost's charge to avenge his father's death, he sets out to murder his uncle and now-king, Claudius. He finds Claudius alone and vulnerable and considers killing him right then. But, he thinks about it too much. He ponders, once again, what the repercussions would be if he did it. Since Claudius is at that moment in his chamber, kneeling as though in prayer, Hamlet decides that ''this is hire and salary, not revenge.'' In other words, if he were to kill his uncle now, he risks sending his soul to heaven and that's too good a fate for his father's murderer. The irony is that Claudius was not actually praying; instead, after Hamlet leaves he cries: ''My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/Words without thoughts never to heaven go'' indicating that his guilt prevented him from reaching solace. Claudius's death will come eventually, but Hamlet's delay creates the momentum of the play. He doesn't just take a life; he considers all the implications of the death.

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