Questions and Secrets of Death in Hamlet
In order to truly appreciate life, or recognize its value, one must be able to comprehend the powerful finality that accompanies death. Furthermore, there also must be comprehension of this topic when seeking to destroy and inflict death on another being. This complex yet crucial concept is demonstrated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies, the development of his character is revealed; it is a transformation from inaction to action. However, it is demonstrated throughout the play that prior to successfully seeking revenge on Claudius, Hamlet must first fully appreciate the true nature of death. Evidently, Hamlet has many false perceptions of death which cause him to remain inactive. In Hamlet’s mind, death changes from a neutral subject, to one of fear. He then perceives it to be a vague abstraction, and then sees it as an illustrious yet ominous opponent which he does not have the means to conquer. It is only when Hamlet perceives death correctly – as an inevitable, brutal event – that Hamlet is able to take action. Therefore, Hamlet’s transformation from inaction to action throughout his soliloquies relies heavily on his understanding and perception of the concrete reality of death, as well as the unknowns which accompany it.
Initially, Hamlet’s view of death is very immature – like a child who has been protected from the gruesome actuality of death, and instead given rosy images to associate with the concept. Undoubtedly, Hamlet is experiencing severe depression following the death of his father and the hasty marriage of his mother. He expresses the desire to commit suicide, yet he does not seem to relate the idea of suicide with death. Instead, in his first soliloquy, Hamlet wishes “o that [his] too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (I, ii, 129-130). Obviously, death is much more brutal than simply dissolving or melting. Though Hamlet desires to leave this world, he does not seem to recognize the gruesome journey that must be taken to achieve this. Consequently, his juvenile approach to death, causes Hamlet to remain inactive and ineffective when given the task of murdering the king. In saying “it is ‘adieu, adieu, remember me.’ / I have sworn’t” (I, v, 111-112) Hamlet promises to remember and obey the ghost’s words. Be that as it may, Hamlet is only reacting in a fit of empty shock – empty, because no revenge will directly result from it. In order for Hamlet to successfully take revenge, he must be fueled with thoughts of death, as opposed to those of fleeting bitterness. Raging at his uncle’s heinous crime, Hamlet refers to Claudius saying “o villain, villain, smiling damned villain” (I,v, 105-106). He is reacting with anger towards his uncle as opposed to remorse towards his father’s death. Essentially, the only time Hamlet refers to his father is in saying he was “so excellent a king” (I, v, 139), ultimately focusing more on the past life of his father, as opposed to the death. It is quite probable that Hamlet’s immature view of death downplays the brutality of his father’s death. Ultimately, his unrealistic opinion regarding death prevents him from immediately seeking revenge, resulting in various unnecessary deaths along the way.
Prior to these deaths, however, Hamlet contemplates mortality in his second major soliloquy. Having recently destroyed his relationships with Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet considers suicide more seriously. When questioning “to be or not to be” (III, i, 56), he is essentially attempting to decide if there is greater nobility in living – and “[suffering] / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (III, i, 67-68) or dying – and “by opposing end them” (III,i, 57-60). A father recently dead, and a mother just as recently remarried – Hamlet is suffering many hardships during his present time on earth. During this soliloquy, he concludes that the primary reason death is so often avoided, is because of the unknowns which accompany death. Hamlet expresses this realization when saying “who would fardels bear, / to grunt and sweat under a weary life, / but that the dread of something after death” (III, i, 76-78). Evidently, Hamlet has begun to recognize death’s inevitable presence, as the time to kill Claudius grows closer. Inevitably, Claudius’ death will result in Hamlet’s death as punishment; therefore it is necessary that Hamlet considers this subject. However, instead of embracing this matter, it has now evolved into something ominous. Regrettably, Hamlet now fears death, referring to it as “the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / no traveller returns” (III, i, 79-80). His perception of death has transformed from an immature disregard, to an unhealthy fear of death and what lies beyond. This dread ultimately prevents Hamlet from taking action because his death is inescapable once Claudius is killed. As previously stated, it is necessary for Hamlet to focus on death in order to kill Claudius – as he did not do this initially. However, his impression of death is still faulty, which causes him to remain inactive. Therefore, Hamlet simply neglects his mission to seek revenge in order to protect himself from the looming, ominous mysteries of death which are only restrained until life ends.
Evidently, the end of life is drawing inauspiciously closer for Claudius and Hamlet. Following the play “The Mousetrap’”, as well as the king’s abrupt departure, Hamlet is confident in the knowledge that Claudius has indeed murdered his father. He now prepares for an arranged discourse with his mother, and through a short but meaningful soliloquy succeeds in exciting himself by focusing on gruesome matters. In this crazed state of mind, Hamlet claims he “could drink hot blood, / and do such bitter business as the day / would quake to look on” (III, iii, 381-383). He is determined to be brash, willing himself to “be cruel, not unnatural” (III,iii, 386). However, throughout this soliloquy Hamlet’s prominent weakness: in speech he is determined and cruel, yet he remains inactive. Essentially, Hamlet is all talk, and no game. More specifically, Hamlet refers to things related to death such as blood and daggers, yet makes no specific reference to death itself, though – undoubtedly – it is a prominent subject in his life at the moment. Consequently, Hamlet’s poeticism is dangerous as he has a tendency to generalize and familiarize death, without specifically speaking on the reality of the subject. In his mind, “to die – [is] to sleep” (III, i, 60), and death is “the undiscover’d country” (III, i, 79). These romantic terms in which he refers to something rather gruesome and brutal cloud his perception of death, and mold it into a familiar, general concept. Using this technique, Hamlet dances around death upon feet of poeticism. He does not allow himself to reflect on the subject of death, and as a result, procrastinates in killing the king. Perhaps it is a means of coping with his previous fear of death, though downplaying the intensity of death is perhaps just as dangerous. In brief, Hamlet’s habit of universalizing and romanticizing death causes him to avoid its reality, and as a result prevents him from murdering the king.
Nevertheless, it grows to be nearly impossible for Hamlet to avoid the reality of death as twenty thousand men march past him to their graves. Upon meeting and conversing with Fortinbras’ soldiers, in his final soliloquy Hamlet re-evaluates the events which have occurred. Hamlet recognizes that each man has a God-given purpose in life, and that he has not fulfilled him. He scolds himself saying “I do not know / why yet I live to say this thing’s to do, / sith I have cause, and will, and strength and means / to do’t” (IV, iv, 43-46). However, it is evident that the reason for Hamlet’s procrastination is his continual lack of understanding regarding death. His perception has progressed greatly – though it is not fully developed – causing him to remain inactive. In this soliloquy, Hamlet admires the passion and will of others, and thus scolds himself for having none. Previously, in the second act, Hamlet admires how the player “could force his soul so to his own conceit / that from her working all his visage wann’d / tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, / a broken voice” (II, ii, 547-550). Desperately, Hamlet recognizes that this is “all for nothing” (II,ii, 551). Yet the player has more passion than himself, though Hamlet has more reason for it. Likewise, as he observes “the imminent death of twenty thousand men / That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, / Go to their graves like beds” (IV, iv, 60-62), he feels similar remorse and inadequacy. He recognizes the bravery of others to be able to face death, yet concludes that he is “pigeon-liver’d and lack[s] gall / to make oppression bitter” (II, ii, 575-576). Consequently, Hamlet’s fear of death has caused him to view it as a ferocious opponent which can only be conquered with immense courage. Unfortunately – due to this false perception – Hamlet does not believe that he harbors this bravery, and therefore does not see himself suitable to encounter death.
Eventually, Hamlet’s soliloquies allow him to progress from inaction to action. However, he is only able to successfully seek revenge upon grasping the actual reality of death. Prior to this moment of realization, Hamlet views death immaturely, fearfully, and abstractly – preventing him from inflicting death. However, the discourse that takes place between the gravediggers sheds light on the reality of death. While holding a skull in his hand, Hamlet literally grasps the concept of mortality – that death is conclusive, and can conquer even the greatest of men. In saying “to what base uses we may return, Horatio” (V,i, 196) Hamlet demonstrates his momentous epiphany, that in time death will conquer every living being. Furthermore, Hamlet’s revelation is evident as he finally speaks of death in ordinary, familiar terms as opposed to poeticizing a rather gruesome concept. In speaking to Horatio, Hamlet addresses the death of Alexander the Great in appropriately plain terms saying “Alexander / died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth / to dust” (V, i, 201-203). Finally, Hamlet has recognized that death is ominous, yet it is inevitable, and Hamlet himself has the potential to play a role in inflicting death of King Claudius. Furthermore, Hamlet embraces death in the most literal and dramatic way possible – by leaping into Ophelia’s grave. He begs to “be buried quick with her” (V, i, 274), which is the most sincere plea for suicide that Hamlet has had as only now does he recognizes death for what it really is. Moreover, only now is Hamlet fully prepared to face the murder of the king – as well as his own impending death. This epiphany dramatically changes Hamlet’s reaction to the duel that has been arranged between him and Laertes. In saying “if it be now, ‘tis not to / come; if it be not to come, it will be now” (V,ii, 216-217) Hamlet is addressing that death is unavoidable. He claims that “the readiness is all” (V,ii, 218), and demonstrates remarkable peace on the subject by simply saying “let be” (V,ii, 220). Therefore, prompted by an infallible understanding of death, Hamlet is able to embrace death and finally murder Claudius.
In conclusion, throughout his major soliloquies, Hamlet progresses from inaction to action as he develops a genuine and concrete perception of death. In the beginning his view of death is childlike, fearful, and abstract. He also views himself as inadequate to confront death and kill Claudius. These false perceptions prevent Hamlet from successfully seeking revenge and confronting death. However, while holding the skull in his hand, Hamlet finally grasps the reality of death, and with this knowledge fueling his revenge, he is able to murder Claudius and face his own imminent death. In reality, the impending doom for everyone is death. It is unpredictable, and though humanity attempts to harness its power, the attempts are in vain. In truth, mortality – life and death – are the only things all of humanity has in common. Therefore, prior to accepting or rejecting others, one must first be capable of embracing the shared fate of mankind: death.
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