Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an extensive and tragic play exploring the complexity of monarchy, murder and mortality. Its main characters undergo horrific and cathartic breakdowns and revelations, and they expand upon their personal philosophies of their actions and their humanity. The play is set in 16th century Denmark, which acts as an important element as one of the main factors which influence the characters’ development is the devotion toward religion and importance of the presence of sin. As a result of this atmosphere of tragedy, horror and betrayal, through development, Shakespeare provides two schools of thought on the nature of repentance, grief, murder, suicide and death, evident by the actions of the dominant characters in Hamlet. These schools of thought, or approaches to death are the contemplative, entertaining approach, as shown by Hamlet and King Claudius’ soliloquies, actions and characteristics, and the second, dismissive approach portrayed by Queen Gertrude’s lack of grief and “death as a part of life” attitude, and Ophelia’s quiet and direct action of powerlessness following Polonius’ death.
Contemplating death – Claudius and Hamlet
The first death and, consequently the beginning of tragedy in the play is that of Old King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father and king of Denmark. Portrayed as a beloved king by his subjects, his death is not a part of the storyline presented in Hamlet, but only following his death does the play begin. During the play, it is revealed by the Ghost of Old King Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius.
Later added by Claudius when praying for repentance, the cause for the fratricide was the desire Claudius had for the throne, Queen Gertrude and the position of ruler over Denmark.
“KING CLAUDIUS: Of those effects for which I did the murther, My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.” Shakespeare, Act III.iii. 1-2. Claudius is a man of discipline, vanity, ambition and diplomacy. Despite his guilt and desperation for Holy forgiveness, he is able to keep up his mask of innocence and calmly pertains to his position of King, grieving brother, and husband to Queen Gertrude. His behavior is of utmost importance, as it proves his true intentions of the initial murder. Although personal and pernicious, the betrayal that is fratricide was committed by Claudius for what he believed would be an improvement to the entirety of Denmark. His entitlement to the throne and devotion to the Danish common folk shown through his attempts to ward off Norway and to rally the grieving nation proves that he believed the ends would justify the means.
Although initially ambitious, Claudius fails to keep up the facade to himself, once his guilt and transgression of the Holy law catch up to him. All of his vanity and pride is crushed once he makes a pathetic attempt to repent, filled with fear of what awaits him in the afterlife. His entire soliloquy meant to reveal his inner thoughts, guilt and fear revolves around his contemplations and indecision. He is unable to repent, as he still believes the reasoning behind the murder is justifiable.
Considering all of this, Claudius, although not concerned with the act of murder, when done for the greater good, fears the punishment for his mortal sins in the afterlife and entertains highly the nature of death and personal murder, as well as his guilt and regret of his actions once he realizes that a higher power judges his unjust actions.
Hamlet’s contemplative, skeptic and intellectual nature lead him to question many things throughout the play. His position as son of a murdered king, an incestuous mother and being a prince and student, makes him a perfect vessel for Shakespeare to include his many theories and philosophies of death and the afterworld through. His seven soliloquies and dialogue with many other characters provide an extensive yet indecisive line of thinking, where Hamlet expresses his disgust for his mother and uncle’s incestuous relationship, his plans for avengence, murder and consequently, the nature of death and what follows it. In contrast to Claudius’ direct feeling toward the afterlife and the punishment that awaits, Hamlet shows his skeptic nature by questioning death. Additionally, Hamlet is the sole character which contemplates taking his own life. One of the reasons Hamlet stands out as a character, is due to the procrastinative state he enters after being ordered to avenge his father. He represents the foil of Laertes, Claudius and Fortinbras, due to his indirect, and sometimes absent approach to taking action, and overfilled pride and selfishness. His foils represent the three main characters directly interacting with the story, which only makes his contrasting characteristics shine brighter in the spotlight. His extensive contemplations arise from this procrastination and prolonged planning, which leads Hamlet to stop and consider his, and other people’s actions. Additionally it is worth to note that taking immediate action is usually considered a masculine trait which serves to alienate Hamlet from the rest of the male cast as well as have them serve as his foil. As previously mentioned, Hamlet ponders taking his own life, as the extreme form of personal murder. His overencumbered mind filled with anger, questions and orders of vengeance make his will to live scarce, thus considering suicide as a justifiable way out, an in a broader aspect, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. He inevitably changes his mind once he realizes that dealing with a current problem is better than sending oneself onto a plain of unknown, fearsome and mysterious existence, or lack thereof. “HAMLET: The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than to fly to others that we know not of.” Shakespeare Act III.i 30-34. This excerpt from the “To be or not to be” soliloquy shows the exact moment Hamlet realizes the permanence of death, and this realization is what leads him to continue planning on avenging his father.
Dismissive approach to death – Queen Gertrude and Ophelia
Queen Gertrude, considered to be a quick-witted, strong monarch by not wasting time after her husband’s death to move on so as to not look weak in front of her enemies, is possibly the least concerned character with death and murder in the whole play. Unaware of her inner thoughts, due to her lack of soliloquies and indifferent and cold dialogue, one can only assume that she didn’t grieve nor find any moral issues with her husband’s sudden death. Whether or not she was aware of Claudius’ guilt, she never takes a moment to contemplate the morality of her family, and she only looks forward to the betterment of the country and tries to get everybody to move on before more conflict arises.
As mentioned previously, gender norms play a prominent role in the play, as it is obvious that the two women which are actively involved in the play’s intriguing conflict are not able to express themselves in ways which reveal their thoughts, as Claudius and Hamlet are. This fact is part of the reason why the women are a part of the dismissive group, and are considered to be quiet, cold and generally a lot less present. Although gender norms are present, there is another justification for Queen Gertrude’s indifference. As previously stated she is a monarch, which means she must put her subjects and their safety before herself. If she were to announce the internal familial conflict in front of the whole country, many opposing countries, including Norway would take the offensive stance and attack Denmark while they’re weak. Instead of creating this detrimental conflict, Gertrude, as well as Claudius, attempt to quicken the grieving period for everyone in the country, in order to not suffer war. As a parent not just to Hamlet, but to the entirety of Denmark, she understands that she must sacrifice personal feeling for the safety of the country in the long road, regardless of whether she deems the murder of her husband unjust or not. One of her first interactions in the play proves her plans in order to set her role for the audience initially.
“QUEEN GERTRUDE: Good Hamlet cast thy nightly colour off, And let thine eye look like a friend to Denmark. Do not for ever with thy vailed lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust; Thou know’st ‘tis common, all that lives must die, Passing through nature, to eternity.” Shakespeare Act I.ii 24-29.
In this interaction she urges Hamlet to move on and not grieve his father, but be happy and help her rally her subjects back to their initial strength. Additionally, she mentions the fact that death is a part of life, a very noble and wise conclusion which Hamlet fails to understand even at the end of the play and consequently, his life.
Hamlet, isn’t overwhelmed with chaotic revelations and anger, or on the other hand is too overwhelmed, that her thoughts aren’t able to arise and assess her situation in a sane way. Instead of this, she takes a much quieter approach, accepting her fate, leaving her final silent goodbyes in the form of symbolic flowers, and drowning peacefully and quietly in a pond. Ophelia is the character in the play which represents ultimate purity, powerlessness and obedience. She provides very little dialogue and no monologue or soliloquy. In each attempt to protest against her father, her brother or Hamlet, she is shut down and must agree to their word. Due to this, she accepts her role of childlike innocence and accepts that there is no reason for her to continue living. Ophelia, although lacking a direct line of thinking on the subject of death, shows an indifference through escapism and unlike Hamlet, takes direct action after saying her final goodbyes and woefully drowns.
Evidently, the characters that fit into this dismissive approach to death tend to show a lack of interest as to the nature of dying, nor the moral complications that come with murder or suicide. They are either concerned with nobler matters, or come to terms with death and make peace with their impermanence. Additionally they die much more peacefully and subtly, as opposed to the second group of characters engaged with the philosophy of death.
It is evident through the vastly different actions of these four highly influential characters, that death has many interpretations, which are what make it such a mighty mystery, intrigue and fear. Whether it be the focus of death’s permanence, or the cowardice of people who don’t pursue it due to its seemingly haunting absence of existence, or the consideration that death leads to salvation, being the easy way out of the hardships of life, it is a fact that Hamlet and the conflict that it puts its characters in creates a perfect space for analysis of human comprehension of their own mortality, morality and monarchical duty. Aside from the obvious differences between Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia, being their gender, characteristics and power, through analysis, the aforementioned branches of thinking help further justify and explain their actions throughout the play. Additionally, they help prove that this play is still valuable in terms of developing theories and philosophies to this day.
Finally, the seemingly never-ending takes on death in the play, ending with no closure nor proof of any character’s leading theory on the matter, leaves an incredibly large space for interpretation, symbolism and analysis on the conflict of death.
Works CitedWilliam Shakespeare “Hamlet”, Penguin Popular Classics, 2001
Camden, Carroll. “On Ophelia’s Madness.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2, 1964, pp. 247–55, https://doi.org/10.2307/2867895
Davis, Tenney L. “The Sanity of Hamlet.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 23, 1921, pp. 629–34, https://doi.org/10.2307/2939352
Altick, Richard D. “Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1954, pp. 167–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/2866587