Grief in “Hamlet”
Grief is a universal emotion felt by everyone at some point or another during the course of their lives. Its effects can be very diverse and adverse, causing different people to act in very different ways. It is very unpredictable because it is unique for each person, thus it is difficult to ease or even ascertain. It is accompanied by many other painful and confusing emotions and if not dealt with properly, it may prove to be cataclysmic. The theme of grief is quite prevalent throughout William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, as virtually every character in the play experiences it.
In fact, all of the main characters experience this emotion before the play is through. Grief has many causes and as a result, many outcomes, but the one thing that remains the same is that it has a profound effect on each person it touches.
Grief is sometimes caused by feelings of guilt or remorse, and in cases such as this, it affects the sufferer by making the burden of guilt even more substantial.
Oftentimes, feelings of guilty grief are intensified by placing too much blame on oneself. For example, Ophelia, who is being used by her own father and her king, tries to do what she thinks is best to help her love, Hamlet. She is told that this is the right thing to do, but suffers as a result of doing it. Polonius and Claudius use her to spy on Hamlet, but when the plan miscarries, she is the one who feels “…most deject and wretched…” saying: “[I] that sucked the honey of his musicked vows” (Hamlet, III, I, 169-170).
Ophelia already feels bad for having to lie to Hamlet, but this negative feeling is amplified by the fact that she completely blames herself for what happens. Although Polonius seems heartless in using his daughter in this situation, his grievous feelings may prove otherwise. He instructs his daughter not to see Hamlet, but if she must not to respond to his love. This is because he thinks it would be bad for his career, as the king does not like Hamlet. Nevertheless, Hamlet comes to her after seeing the ghost and truly frightens her. Being the obedient daughter that she is, she runs to her father, and he cannot help but feel in part responsible for not having protected her.
He tells her that he was somewhat worried for her to begin with and that “[He is] sorry that with better heed and judgment / [He] had not coted [Hamlet]. [He] feared did but trifle / And meant to wrack [her].” Alas he was wrong, Hamlet does more than trifle, and now Ophelia is full of dread. Polonius reprimands himself for this, saying: “…beshrew my jealousy!” (Hamlet, II, II, 124-126) He may not have been able to foresee Hamlet’s actions toward his daughter, but he blames himself anyway, intensifying his feelings of grief over what has happened to his daughter. Even the seemingly heartless all have hearts; no matter how evil one may seem one’s conscious always manages to plague one’s guilty soul and cause grief. Claudius, a man who murdered his own brother and stole his crown and wife, is a perfect illustration of this. Claudius finally has everything he wanted but he cannot fully enjoy it because of the guiltiness he feels.
“The harlot’s cheek beautied with plast’ring art / is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is [his] deed to [his] most painted word,” says Claudius in an attempt to explain how this lie he has built up now weighs upon his shoulders, “O heavy burden!” (Hamlet, III, I, 59-62) Claudius finds covering up lies and pushing them aside does not make them go away, it only makes the angst they cause worse. Hamlet learns this lesson too, not because he is hiding a terrible secret, but because he will not confront his father’s killer or do what he must to exact his revenge. He thinks about it too much and in doing so pushes his courage aside. However, his feeling of culpability continues to cause him more and more grief as the situation progresses. After seeing Fortinbras leading his army to Poland with such charisma and vigour, he wonders: how [stands he] then, [he] that [has] a father killed, a mother stained, / And let all sleep, while to [his] shame [he sees] / The imminent death of twenty thousand men /… for a plot / Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause.” (Hamlet, IV, IV, 59-66)
He becomes so angry and ashamed of his lack of action; he even goes so far as to call himself a coward. This only serves to amplify the misery he feels over the murder of his father and speedy marriage of his mother. All of these people have a reason to grieve and a reason to feel accountable, but completely blaming themselves or dwelling on this remorse does nothing but deepen their grief.
The death of a loved one also causes extreme grief, but in these cases, many people look to blame another for this misfortune. In turn, one may feel that the only way to relieve the negative feelings is to seek revenge and kill the person whom one blames for them. Hamlet clearly shows a deep love for his father, and he is utterly heart-broken over his death, especially after seeing his uncle take his place. Therefore, when his father’s ghost informs him that it is a murderer, not a snake, who is responsible for his death, Hamlet immediately responds: “Haste me to know [who], that I, with wings a swift / As meditation or thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge.” (Hamlet, I, V, 35-37) He does not even know whom he has to kill yet, but he is already sure that he must avenge his father, no matter the cost. Hamlet is so lost without his father, he needs somewhere to place the blame for his death. Thus, when this opportunity arises he endeavours to seize it in an attempt to avenge his father, and alleviate his own heartache as well. Fortinbras, too, seeks revenge for his father’s death.
However, unlike Hamlet, he does not have a ghost to incite him, only thirty years of hatred and anger toward the ruler of Denmark. He spends his whole life trying to win back the land his father lost to the Danes, take vengeance for Old Fortinbras, and regain dignity for him and his people. When, finally, he storms the castle to assume the throne and the “… rights of memory [he has] in this kingdom, / Which now to claim [his] vantage doth invite [him],” (Hamlet, V, II, 432-433) he can finally rest. His feelings of grief can be almost completely forgotten as the Great Chain of Being is restored. The knowledge that he has retaken all that his father lost in war provides him with satisfaction and appeases his soul. However, sometimes revenge is not about the soul, in fact, certain people must completely disregard it to seek their revenge. For example, Laertes, after hearing about the strange death of his father bursts into the castle to demand his revenge of Claudius.
“To hell, allegiance! [He] vows, to the blackest devil! /… [He dares] damnation…” saying to the king: “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged / Most throughly for my father.” (Hamlet, IV, V, 149-154) Evidently, Laertes cares nothing about the consequences of his actions. His grief is so strong that he will have his revenge no matter what will happen to him as a result. In his mind, his anger and scorn over the loss of Polonius can only be assuaged when the person responsible for his death is also dead. Like Hamlet and Fortinbras, he does not care who he kills, as long as someone pays for this heinous crime. This shows just how much personal grief plays a role in their desire for revenge. All three men want to kill someone, but none are sure who it is that they must kill when they make the decision to become assassins. As long as the desired result is achieved, and as long as they feel better for having killed the person they choose, everything will be all right, or at least they hope so. True justice is not an easy thing to find, so they will settle for their own grief relief.
The emotions and thoughts that accompany grief can be extremely overwhelming. These innermost feelings of sorrow, anger, and confusion can push one to the brink of insanity and sometimes even further. After seeing the ghost of his father, and hearing that Claudius murdered him, Hamlet decides to display an antic disposition as a trap for his uncle. There are both arguments for his true madness and against it, but either way the case is proved, Hamlet acts exceedingly abnormally. His sorrow drives him to act as though he is mad. According to Ophelia:
…as [she] was sewing in [her] closet / Lord Hamlet… / With a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors – he comes before [her] /…And thrice his head thus waving up and down, / He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being. (Hamlet, II, I, 87-108)
Whether Hamlet planned an antic disposition or not, he must be very shocked and bewildered by the news given to him by the ghost, and this outburst with Ophelia is clear proof of this. His woe almost triggers him to go totally mad, causing everyone around him to believe he has lost his sanity. Laertes too suffers from a brief lapse in sense after seeing what has become of his beloved sister. Ophelia does not remember who Laertes is when he returns from France, but speaks to him as though he is someone else. Laertes is astonished, he cannot believe this; he lost a father while in France, and now that he is returned, he loses his sister to madness. “O heat, dry up my brains! Tears seven times salt / Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye,” (Hamlet, IV, V, 177-178) he cries aloud, displaying to all present his crazed frame of mind.
He is already infuriated by the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, and now this. It takes great effort from Claudius to finally calm him down and stop his thoughts of self-destruction. Because his emotions are so overwhelming, he seems to lose the will to live, if only for a short while. Ophelia, the primary cause of Laertes’ near madness, also seems to lose her will to live. She loses her wits due to many reasons, mainly her father’s death at the hands of her true love. Consequently, she is completely unable to restore order to her fragile mind. She babbles and sings mindlessly, and hands out flowers that are not really there to the king, queen, and her brother. She is driven completely berserk with grief, so crazy that she drowns shortly afterward. As Gertrude recounts:
…she chanted snatches of old lauds, / As one incapable of her own distress / …Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death,”(Hamlet, IV, VII, 202-208) telling her audience just how lunatic this pitiable girl is at the time of her death. Ophelia is totally destroyed by the plethora of bad news she receives, so much that her rational mind is completely paralyzed and her mental faculties are truly lost. These three people feel grief so deeply that their minds are put at great risk. Pathos is created for all three, because of their innocence in these situations and their inability to control what has happened to them. They are victims, for the most part, of the malicious act going on around them, and the grief they feel because of this nearly drives each of them past their mental limits.
Because grief is so overwhelming, it may cause people to do things they would not usually do. Many people act quite irrationally under grief’s powerful influence. It can be so consuming that oftentimes there is no room left for logic in one’s mind, so one acts without thinking. Hamlet does this in killing Polonius, who is hidden behind the arras. He stabs through the curtain before he even finds out who is concealed within it. When Gertrude questions Hamlet: “O me, what hast thou done?” he can only reply: “Nay, I know not, is it the king?” (Hamlet, III, IV, 31-32) because he is not really thinking when he commits this fatal crime. Hamlet is a strong-minded person and is able to control his emotions for the most part. However, the added grief of his current quarrel with his mother seems to cause a lapse in judgment which in turn makes Hamlet do something that is very grave indeed, commit murder. Laertes, too, decides that murder is not out of the question when he allows his pain to consume him.
In fact, Laertes is so caught up in his fury and wrath that he would “…cut his [father’s killer’s] throat i’ th’ church” (Hamlet, IV, VII, 144) something that he obviously would not do if he was thinking clearly. During the Elizabethan Era, revenge is a commonly respected notion, but to seek revenge in a church is certainly not regarded with the same esteem. Laertes would undoubtedly go to hell if he were to go through with this rash statement, something he would decide against if he were not so frenzied by grief. Horatio also becomes taken over by his anguish, watching the whole story unfold and witness its gruesome and bloody finish. Seeing his best friend wounded and dying before his eyes makes Horatio “… more an Antique Roman than a Dane” and he is about to take his own life proclaiming, “here’s yet some liquid left” (Hamlet, V, II, 374-375).
Nevertheless, Hamlet, who is finally free of his grief and now thinking clearly, takes the cup and saves his companion. When one’s mind is full of grief it is very hard to think about anything else, like the good things in life or any reasons there may be to continue on living as usual. It is also difficult to foresee the consequences of one’s actions, or, moreover, to care about them because grief clouds the mind so. Many things that one would typically not even be able to conceive doing become viable possibilities, when grief is equated into the situation. Grief has the staggering ability to cause almost anyone to perform acts that one will surely regret later, making it a very dangerous emotion.
Grief affects each person differently because each person possesses their own causes for grief and their own mechanisms with which to deal with it. When one is grieving because of guilt over past mistakes or a personal loss, one most often blames themselves wholly. This makes the guilt worse, and in turn misery only grows stronger and stronger. It is a vicious cycle of remorse and repentance that is difficult to stop once it is begun. Grief is also caused by losing someone that is very dearly loved. To the griever, revenge often seems like the only way to find release from this mourning. Most find that it is not justice they seek, but refuge, from the heavy feelings of sorrow and anger, which they believe they can find in the death of the person responsible for this grief. These feelings of regret and resentment, caused by angst, often prove to be quite overpowering and sometimes too much to bear. Some unfortunate individuals lose their wits due to extreme emotional pain.
Some go further and lose their will to subsist, even further still, their lives. Grief also has the ability to fully envelop a person’s mind and take away their ability to think about anything except for what they are feeling at the moment. It may cause the person to act in a way they are not accustomed to or to do something they would never dream of doing in any other circumstance. It can be very dangerous, in that it can cause one to do things that are absolutely irrational and devastating to oneself or others. As is demonstrated in the play, the effects of grief vary greatly, but to all whom they affect they are profoundly detrimental and destructive. Grief can cause the loss of one’s mirth in life, the incitation to do something rash and ill advised, even the key to one’s undoing. In all cases grief is difficult to avoid, and therefore must be dealt with, and it is how one deals with grief that determines how one’s life will be affected by it.
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, (New York: Washington Square Press, 1992)
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