Hamlet is a tragedy concerned with tension and anxiety until the end of the play. The world of searches, judgement, revenge, love, death, and other themes are very well developed. Although it is important to highlight that revenge is the central theme. Death is another important aspect since there are no less than nine deaths in the play, one before it begins and eight during the course of the action.
In Shakespeare’s time, poets used death as an element to call public attention and make them attracted by the tragedies.
The first death that takes place in the play is caused by Claudius who kills Hamlet senior, his brother, in order to marriey Gertrude and be crowned King. Claudius’ actions toward Hamlet senior created numerous and unforseen consequences which spoiled the whole reign of Denmark.
But it is especially the prince himself, Hamlet, who is responsible for the enormous interest of the play.
Hamlet is informed by the ghost of his father that he has been murdered by the man who is now King of Denmark and new husband of Hamlet’s mother. After informing this to Hamlet the ghost charges him to avenge this murder. At that moment, Hamlet accepts without hesitation but the rest of the play is concerned with Hamlet’s process of revenge-taking. Hamlet becomes afraid of the request of the ghost because he is in doubt if it could be a demonic or heaven-sent apparition.
Ghost: "I am thy father’s spirit" (Act I, scene V, page 41, l. 9)
Ghost: "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder." ( Act I, scene V, page 41, l.25)
Hamlet: "Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift (...)
May sweep to my revenge." (Act I, scene V, page 41, l. 29-31)
Ghost: "But know, thou noble youth
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown." (Act I, scene V, page 41, l.37-39)
A Company of players arrives at the castle. Hamlet hoping to assure himself of the guilt of Claudius, arranges for them to perform The Murder of Gonzalo, which he alters to fit more nearly the circumstances of his father’s death. He becomes convinced of the murder because of Claudius’ reaction.
After the play Claudius goes to a place where he could pray. Hamlet would take the opportunity to kill his uncle while he is praying, but killing him at the moment he was asking God to forgive his sins would be a gift, not a revenge. Hamlet thinks that he doesn’t deserve to go to heaven; he wants Claudius to suffer the same way that his father did by going to purgatory.
"Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t - and so he goes to heaven;
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge." (Act III, SCENE iii, page 133, l. 73-79)
At that time Catholics (the majority of Europeans) believed that there were four places a soul could go once it had left the body: Heaven, Hell, Limbo, and Purgatory. The latter of which is where souls go if they hadn’t confessed recently and clearly themselves of sin.
After the play, Gertrude wants to talk to Hamlet about her disappointment. Hamlet, who is very angry because of Claudius’ involvement in his father’s death and also her marriage with the King, is very rude with her. During their discussing, Gertrude calls for help, Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, who is hidden behind the wall covering in order to listening their conversation, answers, and Hamlet kills Polonius thinking that he is the King. Polonius dies by paying the price of his own trickery. There is a passage that illustrate Polonius’ death very well, which means that he has met his death because he was too occupied with other people’s affairs.
"I took thee for thy better.
Take thy fortune
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger." (Act III, scene iv, page 137, l.34-35)
We can notice that even when Hamlet knows that he has killed Polonius instead of the King, he doesn’t feel guilty. He acts in a very passionate way, maybe because at that time there was no preoccupation with a judgement of crimes especially if it happens in the royalty.
As a consequence of Polonius’ death Ophelia, who was always conducted by his father, can not support his death. Now she doesn’t have his protection anymore and feels very insecure and desolated. Even her brother Laertes is not there to console her. So, because of his father’s death and Hamlet’s behavior, Ophelia goes mad and commits "suicide". Her death is the most unostentatious and poetic; the way she died, make us feel sorrowful and we do not feel so shocked as the other deaths.
"O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven- times salt,
Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye! -
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,
After the thing it loves." (Act IV, scene V, page 150, l.152-160)
"One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow - your sister’s drown’d, Laertes." (Act IV, scene VII, page 185, p.164-165)
Although there is no textual evidence to support that Ophelia commits suicide, since the play supports that she has drown’d, it really seems that she can not see any good destiny to her future life. Her future life would be only death.
Laertes after being aware of his father’s death he tries to take revenge on Claudius but he says that he has no involvement in this situation and tries to direct Laertes’ anger towards Hamlet and they both plan to kill him. Laertes plans to challenge Hamlet to a duel so he could use a poisoned sword. Claudius plans, in case of failure, to have a poisoned drink in hand.
During the duel, the match appears to be going well for Hamlet when his mother decides to drink to his health; she drinks the poisoned wine.
Although we have no evidence in the play, it seems that she has foreseen the poisoned wine and decides to drink that in order to save Hamlet’s life.
In a passage of Act V, scene ii, page 221, l. 300-301, it seems that she only knows about the poisoned wine after she has drunken it.
"No, no, the drink, the drink - O my dear Hamlet -
The drink, the drink! - Iam poisoned"
But when we read this passage of Act V, scene ii, page 219, l. 273, it seems that she has already foreseen, since she asks Claudius to pardon her, as a way of saying to him that she is going to die. And it seems to be a choice of hers.
"I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me."
Hamlet, who is already hurt and has also hurt Laertes, becomes very nervous and angry after Gertrude tells him that she is dying because she has been poisoned. Laertes informs Hamlet that the responsible is Claudius. He also says to Hamlet that they are both going to die soon, because of the poisoned sword. Laertes, who was blind by the desire of revenge, dies.
Laertes, different from Hamlet, acts by an impulse, he has not thought about the consequences. He was a fool, manipulated by Claudius.
"Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric,
I am justly killed with mine own treachery." (Act V, scene ii, page 221, l.287-288)
Hamlet, in a frenzy, runs towards Claudius with his sword, then forces the poisoned drink down his throat, so he could taste of his own poison. He, who has poisoned Hamlet senior, now is revenged with poison, too.
The King, because of his ambitions, dies and Hamlet accomplished his revenge.
Before dying, Hamlet asks Horatio, his confidant and better friend, one who provides information necessary to move the play along, to tell his story to everybody and also tells Fortinbras that he approves him as a successor to the Danish throne.
We have the end of a reign and the beginning of another.
Another two deaths that are important to mention are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death, who are killed by a trick of Hamlet.
Claudius realizing that Hamlet is attempting to kill him, sends the Prince to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry a letter asking for Hamlet’s death. Hamlet changes Claudius’ letter, instructing the King of England to kill them.
Something that is very interesting in Hamlet is concerned with the death of the two women. It is not clear in the story if they died in a casual way or if they commit suicide, and it can be another way of Shakespeare conception of women, that women are very fragile and do not support difficult situations. We can even compare this with the famous sentence of Shakespeare: "Frailty, thy name is woman!"
Gertrude and Ophelia have a number of characteristics in common. Both are weak-willed and are essentially victims of the action, rather than participants in it.
So, as we can see, Hamlet is about betrayal, murder, love, death, friendship and also politics. All these subjects are eternal (universal) in relation to people’s experience and that is why Hamlet’s story is so fascinating until today. It speaks as eloquently to the twentieth century as it did to the 17th, 18th, and 19th. And after all the deaths that we have seen in the play, it seems that in Hamlet’s conception it doesn’t matter if we are intelligent, rich, poor or if we have properties or not. Death is the only solution for Hamlet’s dilemma.
"That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once" (Act V, scene i, page 193, l.69)
"Why, e’en so. And now my lady Worm’s;
chapless, and knocked about the mazzard
with a sexton’s spade. ..." (Act V, scene i, page 193. l.80-84)
"There’s another. Why may not that be
the skull of a lawyer? Where be his
queddits now, his quillets, his cases, his
ternures, and his tricks? ..." (Act V, scen i, page 193, l.89-101)
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