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Drama

The Perception of Death and Existence in Hamlet

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

A small fact: you are going to die….does this worry you (Markus Zusak, The Book Thief)? The inevitability of mortality, frightens many people. You cannot escape death nor can you prevent it. Similarly, in the tragic play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, the prevalence of death and misery acts as an unwanted guest who never wants to leave. From the presence of the ghost in the first scene to the gory, blood-soaked final scene, it seems that the play always revolves around the idea of death. However, the play can be understood in a different perspective, where death can be liberating or a beautiful process of a cycle of life. The word “perspective” and “choice” is very important when understanding this play because the theme of time, memory and mortality drastically changes through the influence of Hamlet’s perspective. Also, the understanding of death is represented differently compared to the beginning and the end. Hamlet’s perspective changes from a frightened religionist who believes in the existence of heaven and hell, to an individual who believes that death is meaninglessness. Ultimately, this all concludes to individuals attempting to make sense of their human mortality. For example, in the beginning of the play, Hamlet fears death because he does not know what will happen in the afterlife. Nevertheless, Hamlet attempts to make choices in his life, realizing that his decisions have the capacity to reconstruct and redefine his life. He develops as an existentialist, and strives to find his purposeful life. In the end, Hamlet finally accepts the inevitability of death and sees the futility in living in fear and desperation; in other words he becomes a “Christian existentialist” (which will be explained later). Therefore, “death” in Hamlet is not intended to simply show death in physical form, but it is intended to present a deeper meaning and purpose through spiritual forms of death. This complex investigation and perception of death is represented through the mind of Hamlet.

The premature version of Hamlet fears death because he does not know what will happen in the afterlife. In the beginning, Hamlet is incapable of making sense of human mortality. Especially, after his father’s death, he is scared to face death, and the idea of human mortality traumatizes him. The unsettling events that Hamlet goes through allows him to only see the world for its evil. As a result, Hamlet laments the idea of suicide. However, his Christian beliefs, which claims that there are possibilities of “eternal suffering in the afterlife”, restricts him from committing suicide: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (1.2.129-132). Evidently, for Hamlet, suicide is not a desirable option because of his religion. Hence, death, or specifically, “suicide” is the representation of unpreventable, never ending pain. In the beginning of act 3, Hamlet questions his thoughts about suicide, he states that: “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn. No traveller returns” (3.1.80-82). In this text, Hamlet contemplates death. He wonders why nobody dies and escape our rotten world, and questions the afterlife. This is an undeniably valid statement, and an unchangeable fact. This question of afterlife imprison humans in a rotten, miserable and faithless world. As for Hamlet, his questioning of the afterlife puts him in a dilemma. At last, Hamlet questions his consciousness, and comes to a conclusion that his thoughts restrict him from taking action in real life: “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1.84-85). In this text, Hamlet tries to figure out what to do about the ghost’s claim that Claudius killed King Hamlet. In other words, the presence of death or the thought of death makes Hamlet a coward, and too much thinking limits his actions. Therefore, through a deep understanding of death is what weakens people. Death has the ability to take control over one’s life, and evidently, this is the exact case for Hamlet. However, later in the text, Hamlet experiences a character development. He acknowledges the flaws in his ideology.

Further into the play, Hamlet attempts to make choices in his life, realizing that his decisions have the capacity to reconstruct and redefine his ideologies. He develops as an existentialist, and strives to find his meaning of death. Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to define his essence, deliberation and responsibilities as a man. It is safe to say that Hamlet is in the beginning stages of existentialism, which is called “the existential attitude”. According to Søren Kierkegaard, “The existential attitude is a feeling of bewilderment and stress, as an individual who is introduced to the concept of existentialism is encountered with absurdity and meaninglessness of their reality” (Kierkegaard, Being and Nothingness). In other words, at this point in one’s existential journey, the individual should live their life meaningfully to create their own unique essence, and they must take responsibility in their own actions to protect their essence. In the play, Hamlet demonstrates his existential journey through his creepy yet serious obsession with physically of death. In the beginning of act 5, he acknowledge the physical transition between life and death when he holds up Yorick’s skull in the grave: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once” (5.1.64-65). Hamlet explains that, Yorick, the court jester, who could have been an extremely successful jester, is now reduced to a decaying skull with no purpose. He thinks about the dead people in the perspective of their previous position in the social hierarchy. However, as Hamlet continues to wonder about the meaning of death, his ideologies change. He believes that, once people are dead, they are nothing but a dead body, their essence does not live on: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. / O, that earth, which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!”(5.1.220-224). Hamlet explains that, even Caesar, who was of the highest status, is nothing after he is dead. Hamlet’s ideologies changes from believing in individual and their social class even in the afterlife, to everyone and their same status after death. In a way, Hamlet as an existentialist finally rejects viewing his life through religious stand points. Where as before, he believes the religious perspective of afterlife, trusting that consciousness of people live on even after death. However, he finally breaks free from his shackled life, and constructs the meaning of death from his own perspective and ideologies. Hamlet ultimately realizes that death is impartial and unalterable.

Hamlet finally accepts the inevitability of death and sees the futility of living in fear and desperation. Ironically, at the same time, Hamlet values the presence of God, despite his rejection of religion when he constructs his own meaning of death. He states that, “the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be” (5.2.106-107). Hamlet acknowledges the fact that death is inevitable, but he comes to accept it and realize that some events are destined to happen. Hamlet also references the ‘fall of the sparrow’, which is mentioned in the bible section, Matthew 10:29, explaining the meaning and importance of god: ‘two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father’ (Matthew 10:29) This text means that God is in control of life and death of all human beings, even for a small animal like a sparrow. Therefore, connecting back to Hamlet’s text, he believes death is controlled by destiny, and it is irrelevant if he dies now or later. Hamlet talks about death without fear or longing. He concludes that death is a part of the natural sequence of life. In a way, Hamlet’s ideologies are perceived very similarly to the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. They both practice the same school of thought as a, “Christian existentialist”. Unlike traditional Christian beliefs which is a religion of extreme surrender to a theology of almost peasant like simplicity. Both Hamlet and Kierkegaard believes in the idea of ‘leap of faith,’ where, “one would not apply their mind to attempting to prove the existence of God, but switch off one’s faulty rational faculties, and jump into the idea of God as the total solution” (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death). As Kierkegaard would say, “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God”(Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death). Therefore, according to Kierkegaard’s studies, Hamlet believes in the Christian themes of Kierkegaard’s existentialism study, and trusts that the ‘leap of faith’ will allow him to fully sell himself to God, instead of trying to seek reliance upon our reason. Again, Hamlet changes his perception of death and finally accepts the inevitability of death, and sees the futility of living in fear and desperation

Therefore, “death” in Hamlet is not intended to simply show death in physical form, but it is intended to present a deeper meaning and purpose through spiritual forms of death. This complex investigation into death is represented through the mind of Hamlet. For instance, in the beginning of the play, Hamlet fears death because he does not know what will happen in the afterlife. As a result, Hamlet acknowledges his flaws and attempts to make choices in his life, realizing that his decisions have the capacity to reconstruct and redefine his life. He develops as an existentialist, and strives to find his purposeful life. However, in the end, Hamlet finally accepts the inevitability of death and sees the futility in living in fear and desperation and becomes a “Christian existentialist”. All in all Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, does not provide definitive answers to surrounding question on the idea of death. However it provides interesting discussions regarding the different perspective on death and its implications.

This is why iIndividuals should think within the “grey” answers because it is a process of deconstructing the black and white that influence the idea that hope exists. However, the paradox is that accepting multiple realities can make you more miserable. Similar to 1984, when you realize there is no “answer,” the world viewed through the grey might be a dystopia. Hence, viewing realities through grey answers is the extremes of hopelessness and death or hope, unleashing our abilities to question the definitive answers, allowing us to think in “grey,” whether the answers revealed are the ones we hope to find or not.

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