Hamlet's Death Analysis
Hamlet is undoubtedly the most famous play penned by Shakespeare. It practically sealed his reputation as the leading dramatist of the world. This tragedy was written around 1601 or 1602. The tragedy made Shakespeare very prominent in his time and even up to the present.
According to American novelist, John Irving, in his work The World According to Garp, it is a life-redeeming work in which everybody dies. This saying is particularly applicable to William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Death is the pervading theme of the play.
The tragedy of Hamlet delves on life, love and tyranny. All the major protagonists and antagonists in the play die in the end. In the process, they all redeemed themselves by dying because somehow their deaths advanced the cause each of them stands for.
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, the title character, and the hero of the play. He is the son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet. The present king who happens to be his mother’s new husband is his uncle Claudius.
The play revolves entirely on death. It was the death of Hamlet’s father that becomes the focal point of the play. Little by little the revelations come with the aid of his father’s ghost. His uncle, Claudius, killed his father and married his mother, Gertrude.
In a fit of anger, Hamlet impulsively killed the man behind the curtain thinking it was Claudius. It is unfortunately, Polonius the father of his intended Ophelia. The death of her father drives Ophelia crazy. She committed suicide not long after. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, vows to avenge his father and sister’s death. He stabs Hamlet with a poisoned blade but wounds himself and dies. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine and dies. Hamlet musters his final strength to kill Claudius before he himself dies.
How did Hamlet become so obsessed with the idea of death? It is important to get a closer look at his character to understand his way of thinking.
At the start of the play, Hamlet’s character leaves a lot to be desired. For one, he is weak. Hamlet is not a commanding figure. As a matter of fact, he is depicted as weak and vacillating person. This may not be the best description of the leading character but Hamlet does appear to be confused in the beginning.
Hamlet is also a loner, bitter, and distrustful. He hates his uncle because he is aware of what his uncle did to his father. He dislikes his mother intensely because of her decision to marry his uncle right after his father passed away. Hamlet is actually an introspective young man who studied at the University of Wittenberg. He is indecisive and hesitant but sometimes can be impulsive in his decisions too.
His indecisiveness becomes apparent when his father’s ghost appeared before him to tell him that Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet was at first passive after being told of the truth of the death by the ghost of his father. Hamlet, instead of acting on what he knew for certain, spends his time laboring on how to prove that his uncle is guilty before taking actions.
The knowledge of the tyranny done to his father further fuels Hamlet’s quest for more introspection on the basic questions of life such as if there is truly an afterlife, if suicide is permissible, so on and so forth. He is constantly contemplating death even suicide and its consequences. Perhaps, his muddled mind could have made it plain that his only way out of the situation is by dying.
Hamlet’s weakness in character becomes very apparent in the scene where he quoted the most famous line in the English language in Act III, scene i (58) “To be or not to be.” In this scene, Hamlet was contemplating suicide and was weighing the consequences of his action. He ponders “which is nobler? To suffer life, “[t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end it? As Hamlet ponders on this question, he realized that it leads to more questions rather than answers. Hamlet restated his question by adding dreaming to sleep. He says that the dreams that may come in the sleep of death could be intimidating so much so that they “must give us pause.” In other words, Hamlet realizes that the bigger question in suicide is what will happen to him in the afterlife?
He answers his own question by saying that no one wants to live except that “the dread of something after death” which means the fear of the unknown forces people to accept suffering rather than end their lives and regret later to find that they are in an even more desperate situation. Hamlet believes that the uncertainties of the afterlife caused extreme moral concerns that leads to inaction: “conscience does make cowards of us all . . . thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.”
Hamlet is afraid to die because of the uncertainties of the afterlife. But his choices all boil down to death –suicide or killing his uncle Claudius. He tried to end his inner struggles by turning to religion to seek valid reasons to either commit suicide or find the strength to kill Claudius. When religion does not suffices, he uses philosophy by asking the immortal line “to be or not to be” to be able to come up with the right answer but still find the reasons insufficient. These words emphasized Hamlet’s inner struggle to cope with two opposing forces operating within him which are preserving moral integrity and the need to avenge his father's murder. This scene is important because it reveals the quality of Hamlet's mind. He is deeply passionate by nature. He could be impulsive, rash and thoughtless but at times he appears to be logical, wise, reasonable and noble.
All the characters around Hamlet also appear weak. Claudius is probably the weakest, being a tyrant and a murderer. Gertrude married Claudius barely two months after Hamlet’s father dies which earned her the ire of her only son. So much so that young Hamlet said in jest, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (I.ii.146).
Ophelia gives up her love for Hamlet when her father and brother told her to do so. The news that Hamlet turns mad must have weakened her. So much so that when her father dies she becomes insane. Laertes is so blinded by fury of the death of his father and sister that he refuses to listen to reason and plans to avenge their deaths by killing Hamlet. All characters just like Hamlet are not immune to weakness. Each knows how it feels to be vulnerable and in pain.
Somehow, Shakespeare gives the characters the chance to attain redemption through their deaths because it put an end to their vulnerabilities. Death makes all invulnerable and immortal. Perhaps, that is why Shakespeare deems it necessary to kill all major characters because their death would settle all scores. Death would signify triumph of good over evil.
Also, death solves Hamlet’s dilemma of whether retaining moral integrity, nobility and rationality and will or giving in to apathy, cynicism and vengeance. Death offers him no choice. His capacity to choose and exercise free will is effectively curbed by death. In the end, after all the characters died, there were no more struggles and no more choices left to be made. Death decides their fate, for all of them. After all, death is the greatest leveler of things. Kings and pauper become equal when they die because they leave behind their titles and treasures. They go alone and bare to meet the Creator stripped of all the vanities and masks that characterize our earthly lives. Death offers us all redemption because it is in death that we attain our true being and at this point, we arrive at full circle in life.
Claudius cunning does not spare him death. Laertes learning does not put off his fate. Gertrude’s charms do not ward it off. Ophelia’s youth isn’t enough to stop death. Every character learns to cope with the inevitable and the uncertainties that come with death.
Hamlet (2000) an Adaptation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet
A modern adaptation to Shakespeare Hamlet is the movie of the same title released in 2000. It starred Ethan Hawke in the lead role. The story ran for 2 hours. In this movie, Hamlet (Hawke) is a student film-maker who is the heir to Denmark Corporation based in New York. His mother Getrude played by Diane Venora is marrying Claudius (Kyle Maclachlan).
This is largely the same Shakespeare’s story but in a modern setting. Even the dialogue of the characters are extracted from the original play. Technology is very much a part of this film. For instance, Hamlet’s father’s ghost ( Sam Shephard) appeared to him through a closed-circuit TV. Video cameras and black-and-white films are used considerably.
The ‘play’ which Hamlet hatches to catch make the King admit the murder of his father is now a student project film. Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is taking photos of flowers instead of collecting real flowers in the movie. Instead of a palace, one sees various locations in New York for the setting. There are no medieval costumes and stone castles here.
I like the original play but I understand the movie better because of its visual portrayal of the play. It certainly helps. Also, it is set in the modern times which is something that we all could relate to.
The film is definitely a creative adaptation of the original. It may not have the swordfight at the end but it certainly merits praise for being able to portray the essence of Hamlet’s story – a son’s quest for justice for his father’s death.
The universal appeal of Hamlet is based largely on the fact that we can all empathize with his struggles and ideals. Each of us, at one point or another, has to face the dilemma of making a crucial choice between two conflicting needs. Hamlet's dilemma on how to deal a corrupt world at the same time preserving his moral integrity is a classic example of the choices every human being has to make. His conflicting thoughts, agitated reactions and unstable character may make him weak but at the same time perfectly human.
His last act of dying is befitting to his flawed but human character. It is also a way to redeem himself. His death proves his capacity for inner strength which is a huge deviation from his weak character depicted all throughout the play. He attains justice for the death of his father at all cost, even at the cost of his life.
The same way, the other characters realize their full potentials when faced with the struggles of imminent death. They also redeem themselves by facing the uncertainties of death which Hamlet so strongly dreads at a point of the story. By dying, they are able to overcome the dread and fears that are associated with death.