HamletPosted: March 2, 2013
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (The Seagull Reader) is a classic. It’s been analyzed and experienced for centuries. It is one of – if not the most – influential piece of literature ever written, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. My intrigue, though, lies with one of the more obsessive themes of the play: Death.
Death is transcendent because we’ve all been touched by it. In Hamlet, it’s explored right from the start with the appearance of his father’s ghost, urging him to seek revenge on Claudius. The debate on the existence of the ghost has been ongoing, but Hamlet’s grief is clear – and manifests through his anger and resentment towards Gertrude, Ophelia, and almost every character in the play; save for Horatio.
As the play progresses, the theme of death becomes even more pervasive, mirroring real and volatile emotions, while alluding to death’s many profound effects, and how it shapes lives. For example, Hamlet’s feelings of distrust (though he typically has good reason to feel this) mirrors our initial feelings of betrayal and distrust from our loved ones when they pass – and even our faith. With unresolved feelings, it can turn into cynicism. And if we ignore it, it consumes us, and starts to unravel our stability, and perhaps, become the cause of our demise – just like the play’s ending.
Though death is everywhere in Hamlet, there are two scenes where his comments on this topic really stands out.
When Claudius asks for Polonius’ dead body, Hamlet replies: “A certain 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 maggots” (IV.iii.140). Here, Hamlet reflects on the absurdity of the cycle of life; we eat “creatures…to fat us” but once we’ve passed, and in our graves, maggots end up feeding on us. This reflection is morbid and cynical, but it perfectly defines Hamlet’s point of view because he’s angry and disgusted with death.
Another example is when Hamlet says: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. / O, that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw” (V.i.165-166)! This is another cynical view on life and death, basically saying Caesar, who once ruled the world, is now nothing more than clay; that once death happens, the person is no longer valued, further showing his frustration with death.
Morality and faith are also explored through the ideas of murder, revenge and suicide – all linked to death. When Hamlet isn’t able to murder Claudius while he’s praying because he’s afraid he’ll go straight to heaven, it bleeds into questions of morality and faith. When is it justifiable to take someone’s life? Revenge? Self-defense? War? And does faith protect you when you harm someone for these reasons? All these moral questions and the ethical implications are part of the play’s intrigue.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare speaks on the complexities of death and grief, and how they don’t often have rhyme or reason, because death itself is a mystery. It is ambiguous and startling, and Shakespeare uses it as motive and a backdrop for dread and atmosphere to enhance the tone and immerse the reader. In the final scene when Fortinbras finds everyone dead, he claims the kingdom and becomes the ruler. In doing so, Shakespeare suggests: When something ends, something else begins, just like the cycle of life – and death.