Essay On The Tragedy Of Hamlet: Why People Hesitate To Commit Suicide
If the struggles of life are too terrible to bear, why do people continue to live if they could commit suicide and end the anguish immediately? In William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the topics of mortality and the afterlife are addressed through the eyes of the protagonist Prince Hamlet. The work is considered to be Shakespeare’s contemplation of death.
Claudius poisons and murders his brother King Hamlet in order to receive the royal crown and to marry Gertrude. Prince Hamlet becomes so depressed by his father’s death and his mother’s “o’erhasty” remarriage that he considers suicide. Hamlet battles with severe inner turmoil during this process. He ultimately does not kill himself because he dreads becoming insignificant and forgotten in the living world and because he fears divine retribution. Therefore, the reason why people hesitate to commit suicide is that they are afraid of what will happen to their bodies, reputation, and souls after they die.
No matter how great, virtuous, or idolized a person is during their life, they will inevitably die and turn to dust. In other words, everybody becomes wormfood and there are no exceptions. When Claudius asks Hamlet about Polonius’ whereabouts after Hamlet murders him, Hamlet replies “Polonius is At supper /… A cer- / tain 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 mag- / gots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but vari- / able service — two dishes, but to one table”. Hamlet is conveying that ultimately, everyone’s decomposed bodies are eaten by worms, no matter what their social status. In addition, “A man can fish with the worm that hath eat of a / king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm… a king may go a / progress through the guts of a beggar”. People that try so hard during life to avoid contact with the lower classes, even a person so highly respected and glorified as a king or a prince, will simply be ordinary food to a vagrant. Prince Hamlet is afraid of this. That is why he hesitates to commit suicide, even when he is suffering so greatly in life. At least while he is alive, no maggots, worms, or beggars will eat his precious remains.
Hamlet is also afraid that his remains will be used for other unpleasant purposes which will taint his dignity and prestige. He expresses this viewpoint by making allusions to heroic men such as Caesar and Alexander the Great: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander re- / turneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we / make loam… Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / might stop a hole to keep the wind away. / Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe / should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!”. When Hamlet looks at his late friend and jester Yorick’s skull, he contemplates how even such a vibrant and animated jester such as him could turn into a lifeless and cold decomposing skeleton. He then goes on to realize that glorious Alexander the Great and Caesar are also as lifeless, silent, and rancid as Yorick’s skull. Hamlet even goes as far as to think that those noble ashes of Alexander the Great and Caesar are plugging up holes in the walls. According to his logic, their corpses decompose, turn into dust, then dirt, then mud. The mud that was once Alexander the Great and Caesar now patch up walls. Hamlet cannot bear to think that if he kills himself, he will end up the same. Therefore, Yorick’s skull is a symbol of the physical consequences of death: turning to dust, then dirt, then mud and used to plug up holes. Hamlet thinks that it is both ironic and terrible that the noble ashes of such great men would be used for something as mundane as patching up holes in the wall or a beer barrel. He realizes that if he commits suicide, all the fame, honor, reputation, and greatness that he gathered and enjoyed in life will be buried and jettisoned. Hamlet is considering what will happen to him, or more specifically what will become of his prestige and his remains after he kills himself. He considers all the possibilities: he could be eaten by worms and then indirectly go through the guts of a beggar, he could be used to plug up holes, his remains could stink, etc. Hamlet does not want to be forgotten and erased. He is afraid of losing his status. Ultimately, his reputation and respect he had while living would slowly fade away as well, and this causes Hamlet to hesitate to kill himself. Hamlet is also afraid of what purgatory or possibly hell will be like; his ghost father tells him that the harrowing stories of purgatory will pierce Hamlet’s soul, chill his blood, and make his eyes jump out, leading Hamlet to fear the afterlife and not kill himself.
Therefore, people hesitate to kill themselves because they are worried about what will happen to their remains and reputation and because they fear that the afterlife will be worse than the life that they are currently living. Hamlet does not want his remains to be eaten by disgusting maggots and beggars. He also does not want his legacy to fade out, as Alexander the Great’s and Caesar’s have. Finally, he fears purgatory and hell. All three of this reasons together lead to Hamlet to abstain from committing suicide, even though his life is full of unpleasant events such as the murder of his father and the faithlessness of his mother. The cons of death outweigh the pros.
- Shakespeare, William, and Cyrus Hoy. Hamlet. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
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