An analysis of hamlets philosophy of life and death in William Shakespeares Hamlet
Dylan Thomas once wrote “And death shall have no dominion”. William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, is a provocative play that portrays how a young prince struggles with his philosophy of life and death after the death of his father. Hamlet, the prince, has trouble overcoming his father’s passing as he also has to deal with its aftermath. The first problem Hamlet has to deal with is his mother Gertrude’s marriage to the newly appointed king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.
Hamlet is disgusted by this, seeing it as “incestuous”(Shakespeare 1. 2.162) and begins to contemplate suicide as an alternative to dealing with his problems. His strong angst toward the newly weds grows even more acute when Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost and becomes aware that Claudius murdered his father. With this, he continues to struggle, asking himself which is easier, “to be or not to be”(3. 1. 64). After this, Hamlet’s outlook on life and death is continually changing due to a series of events until he comes to the conclusion that people should “let be”(5.
2. 238) because “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends”(5. 2.11).
Thus, through Hamlet, Shakespeare presents the idea that there is a greater power shaping everyone’s lives and no matter what life throws at people, they must persevere and let events play out as fate is in control. Hamlet has a very bleak outlook on life at the beginning of the play. He is very emotional about his father’s death and feels as though his mother and uncle’s marriage is “less than kind”(1. 2. 67). Hamlet finds the death of his father very personal and is greatly bothered by the fact that everyone is faking their sadness instead of mourning properly.
Furthermore, not only are others not mourning, Gertrude and Claudius have the audacity to tell Hamlet to stop mourning as “all that lives must die”(1. 2. 74). This is the first issue that leads Hamlet to debate if suicide would “resolve”(1. 2. 134) the problems he is dealing with. He sees death as a way to relieve himself from his earthly problems, but realizes he will be damned to hell if he commits suicide, as it is a mortal sin. Thus, Hamlet is discouraged by all the untimely events that seem to come another the other and they seem to overwhelm hi.
Hamlet’s pessimistic view on life is again seen the night that he and his friend Horatio go to find the ghost of Hamlet’s father. As they are waiting, Hamlet tells Horatio how he believes everyone is born with a “vicious mole of nature”(1. 4. 27) that with “o’ergrowth”(1. 4. 30) causes people to be victims of fate. Even if a person is genuinely “pure”(1. 4. 36), if their tragic flaw is unchecked, even the smallest amount of blemish the will cause them to lose their “reason”(1. 4. 31) and corrupt all their other virtues.
This short, but rich passage again display’s his pessimistic view on life, as he believes that a person’s fate is unavoidable. Hamlet’s ideas on life and death appear to become less pessimistic after he encounters his father’s ghost. At first, Hamlet is troubled as to whether the ghost is Satan or actually his father’s “spirit”(1. 4. 44), but follows he the ghost anyways. He does this because he wants to believe it is his “father’(1. 4. 50) and does not think following will risk his life or cause any harm to his “soul”(1. 4. 74).
Hamlet not wanting to risk his life displays how even though he wants to disappear, he still values his life. After Hamlet decides to “follow”(1. 4. 97) the ghost, the spirit reveals that he is the dead kind and he is in purgatory because Claudius murdered him. This means that Hamlet has to avenge his father’s death and so he makes an oath of vengeance, that he will kill Claudius to right his father’s murder. This new goal gives Hamlet a reason to live, but because he believes he was “born to set it right”(1. 5. 211), he implies that after he does the deed, his life will be complete and he will die.
Hamlet’s new philosophy is guided by the oath of vengeance, as it gives him a purpose in life, but a self-destructive one. Although Hamlet finds a new purpose in his life, Shakespeare continues to show how Hamlet’s outlook on life is far from positive. While talking to two old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet acknowledges that he feels like he is in “prison”(2. 2. 267). In the literal sense, Hamlet feels trapped in his home with Claudius, being the murderer of his father, and his mother abandoning him for that “adulterate beast”(1.5. 53).
On a deeper level, Hamlet is trapped within his own thoughts, as he is constantly struggling with suicidal thoughts and is also burdened with figuring out how to avenge his father. He continues to see the world as a “foul”(2. 2. 326) place and finds others “a piece of work”(2. 2. 327). This shows how Hamlet’s pessimistic view of the world is still overwhelming, despite his newfound reason to live. Hamlet’s fatalistic view on life develops even further as he seriously contemplates suicide once again. The “question”(3. 1.
64) he ponders is whether it is more noble to “suffer”(3. 1. 65) through life or to end life’s hardships by killing oneself. He comes to the conclusion that he wants “to die”(3. 1. 72), but realizes that just like “sleep”(3. 1. 72), death is not the end of all hardships. Hamlet is aware that suicide leads to damnation. It is this and the uncertainty of what comes “after death”(3. 1. 86) that scares Hamlet and makes him less enthusiastic about death. Furthermore, he observes that the more he thinks about death, the more cowardly he becomes and the less he wants to kill himself.
Therefore, Hamlet’s desire to kill himself is not great enough for him to follow through with it, as the thoughts to what comes after death scares him too much. Even though Hamlet chooses life over death, he still does not find life pleasant and wishes he could just disappear. Hamlet started off with a very bleak look on life and a skeptical view on death, but when Hamlet is talking to Horatio, readers can see him start to change his outlook to be less pessimistic. He has seriously contemplated the worth of living twice and even though he has found new meaning to his life, he still wants to cease to exist.
It is all of this that leads Hamlet to anticipate his death during a conversation he has with Horatio. It is here that Hamlet thanks Horatio from the bottom of his “heart”(3. 2. 78) for being so loyal to him. This moment between the two characters, shows that Hamlet is anticipating his own demise and wants to make sure he Horatio knows that he was appreciated by Hamlet. The fact that Hamlet is expecting to die, shows readers that the implication Hamlet makes when taking the oath of vengeance is correct. He is convinced that his life will come to an end after he avenges his father’s murder.
This shows how Hamlet is beginning to think about how people cannot control our lives, but that everyone has a certain fate. This theme is further developed through Hamlet’s actions later on in the play. Even though Hamlet’s view on life and death is still quite pessimistic, Shakespeare exposes Hamlet to the idea that humans may not be in control of their fate. Shakespeare does so through “The Murder of Gonzago”(2. 2. 564) the play Hamlet puts on, as Hamlet is aware that “the purpose of playing”(3. 2. 21) is to mirror reality. With this in mind, Hamlet adds “some dozen or sixteen lines”(2. 2.567-568) to create a mirror image of his father’s murder within the play.
Hamlet does this to see if his uncle really killed his father, and determines that he does do to his reaction. The play discusses how people live their lives “determine[s] oft we break”(3. 2. 210). This idea connects back to Hamlet’s discussion with Horatio about people’s “vicious mole of nature”(1. 4. 27) causing them to be a victim of fate and builds upon that concept. The play also considers how, what someone wants to happen and what actually happens, are totally different; people have no control over their lives.
Thus, the play builds upon the concept that no matter what people do, their efforts will be overthrown, as they cannot control fate. This exposes Hamlet once again to this idea putting it in his sub-conscience to be seen further on in the play. Hamlet has now been exposed to the idea of fate controlling people’s lives, but has not come to realize this for himself yet. This is seen when Hamlet accidentally murders Polonius and still accepts responsibility for it even though Polonius was killed due to his tragic flaw, being nosy and arrogant.
Polonius is killed after giving away his location while “intruding”(3. 4. 38) on Hamlet and Gertrude talking. Since this is how he is killed, it could be expected that Hamlet would try to rationalize Polonius’s murder as it was his fate to die in that manner. Instead of doing this, Hamlet’s sense of responsibility for the death of Polonius is at odds with his cynical view that people are a victim of their fate. This reveals that Hamlet is just beginning to grasp the concept presented in the play.
Rather than rationalizing Polonius’s death as something uncontrollable, he believes that he is an agent of divine retribution and it was his duty to kill Polonius. Thus, Hamlet twisted the words of the play and came to a different conclusion than what the play presented. Either way, Hamlet’s philosophy on life and death comes closer to his final conclusion as he is beginning to realize that people have no control over their lives. Hamlet’s philosophy on death is refined even further when he is confronted with the idea that death may not be as big a deal as he makes it seem.
He is faced with this idea when he comes across troops led by “Fortinbras”(4. 4. 15) going to “Poland”(4. 4. 16) to fight to “gain a little patch of ground”(4. 4. 19) that is useless to the troops. This puzzles Hamlet because he sees it as illogical, as the men are fighting without a “cause”(4. 4. 29). He does not comprehend how so many people are willing to die for nothing, when for him dying is a very hard thing to come to terms with. Shakespeare uses this scene to show Hamlet that death is not as significant as he makes it seem, but rather insignificant in the big scheme of things.
Although he does not grasp this concept right away, it is important in shaping his overall view on life and death at the end of the play. Thus, Hamlet is once again exposed to an outlook on life and death that contrasts his own and leads him to a new understanding about life and death. The outlook Hamlet has on life and death becomes more optimistic as he has finally come to terms with death. Horatio has just fetched Hamlet from a pirate ship bringing him back from his journey to England and they are in a graveyard near the castle.
They stumble upon a gravedigger and his friends and when the gravedigger digs up a “skull”(5. 1. 77) Hamlet reveals he is now amused by death, rather than scared of it. He jests about what the skull may be and reveals he now grasps that life is a “fine revolution”(5. 1. 92). This shows how Hamlet has come to terms with the fact that everyone dies and are all reduced to just “bones”(5. 1. 93). Instead of being bothered by this and constantly fighting death, Hamlet has become allies with it, a kind of fatalism.
Despite this, Hamlet is not fully unaffected by death, as he is still emotionally touched by it when it is personal. This is seen when the skull of “Yorick”(5. 1. 191), the old jester, is dug up. After seeing this, Hamlet beings again to conceptualize how everyone is equal in death as even “Alexander”(5. 1. 216) and “Imperious Caesar”(5. 1. 220) “returneth to dust”(5. 1. 217). Although Hamlet tries to rationalize Yorick’s death, when he finds out that the grave being dug is for Ophelia, he cannot control his emotions any longer.
Once again death affects Hamlet and he is overcome by “sorrow”(5. 1. 268) and “grief”(5. 1. 267). Thus, Hamlet has a new fatalism about him, but death still moves him when it is personal, which is continually seen through to the end of the play. Hamlet’s once pessimistic view on life and death takes a final turn when he takes everything that has happened and comes to believe that “providence”(5. 2. 234) controls life and death. After the graveyard, Hamlet tells Horatio how he escaped the ship taking him to “England”(5. 2. 44) to be killed, by authority of Claudius.
The ship was under attack by pirates and before jumping ship he wrote letters to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were taking him to England, killed instead of him. This huge escape, along with all the events prior enable Hamlet to realize how insignificant everyone is in life. Hamlet now believes that regardless of what a person does, it will not matter because “there [is] a divinity that shapes our ends”(5. 2. 11). This is seen when Hamlet admits that the deaths of “Guildenstern and Rosencrantz”(5. 2. 63) are “not near [his] conscience”(5. 2. 65).
He rationalizes their deaths because they died in the process of ingratiating themselves to the “King”(5. 2. 43), their tragic flaw, and since providence is always in control, their deaths are out of Hamlet’s hands. This contrasts Polonius’s death when even though he died due to his “vicious mole of nature”(1. 4. 27), Hamlet still felt responsible since he did not yet believe fate controls everything. Furthermore, Hamlet answers his own question “to be or not to be”(3. 1. 64) with “let be”(5. 2. 238).
He recognizes that people cannot live their lives scared of dying because “providence”(5. 2.234) has a hand in the smallest of things. This philosophical look on life and death reveals that Hamlet has accepted his fate and is now ready to die. Hamlet’s philosophical look on life continues until his dying moments. Since he has accepted his fate, he stops thinking about his actions and lives with the “readiness”(5. 2. 237) to die. He goes into a fencing match with Laertes who is there to avenge Polonius’s death, knowing he may “lose”(5. 2. 223) but does so anyways. Little does he know, Claudius and Laertes have made a plan to poison him with the sword or with a poisoned “chalice”(4.7. 183).
Hamlet is struck by the poisoned sword and is told that he only has “half an hour’s life”(5. 2. 346). It is with this that readers see Hamlet’s philosophical outlook prevail again. After killing Claudius, the leader of this plan, he acknowledges that he only has a few moments to live and takes control. He is not scared but rather calm and tells Horatio to “let it be”(5. 2. 370) and to live his life and “tell [his] story”(5. 2. 384). Lastly, Hamlet passes on the kingdom to “Fortinbras”(5. 2. 393) and recognizes that “the rest is silence”(5.2. 395);
Hamlet’s life is over. Thus, Hamlet’s philosophical look on life and death goes hand in hand with his death, as he does not fight it and he is well aware that he is dying and stays calm. This is a major contrast to how the play starts off when Hamlet is terrified to die, as he is scared of damnation. Now, Hamlet is ready to die and is okay with dying “now”(5. 2. 236). Thus, Hamlet’s philosophy on life and death has come full circle, as he started off very pessimistic and ended up with a reflective view on life and death.
Shakespeare presents the concept that life and death are out of people’s control and are shaped by “providence”(5. 2. 324) through the character of Hamlet. Hamlet believes that life cannot be controlled by people but rather, it is controlled by God and fate. He realizes that he should not live his life in fear of death and many events lead him to be convinced that no matter what people do, the way they die will still be controlled by a “divinity”(5. 2. 11). Although God plays some part in everyone’s lives, people cannot depend solely on him to shape their lives.
How a person lives does “determine”(3. 2. 210) how they die, but only that person can shape their own future. Every new generation is told that the future is in their hands and this is very true. Everyone can make their life what they want it to be and no-one has to succumb to fate, but anyone can choose that path. People need to be aware that even though fate and destiny may be considered real, everyone has the power to shape their own life.
Bibliography: Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. B. A. Mowat, P. Werstine. New York: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992.
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