Shakespeare has dealt with the subject death and its connection with life in many of his writings. But none of them is so much concerned with the subject as in Hamlet. In fact the whole play is darkened by the shadows of “death” and “life after death”. In the opening scene we see a dead’s man spirit appearing on the stage; the very first time we see Hamlet, we see him in black-mourning for his dead father; whenever he is left alone by himself all he ponders on is either his own death, or revengeful murder, or dealt in general.
In fact, the whole play consists of a “series of murders” and suicide, and ends with the major characters death. In the opening scene an aspartic appears on the stage which resembles the visage of the late King of Denmark. This ghost bridges the world of life and the world of death. It disturbs the normal calmness of the night; it seems to bring some kind of message from the region existing beyond this world. Later on in the fourth scene of act I, the ghost communicate with Hamlet and tells him that it is the ghost of his father and commands him to avenge his death.
We also come to learn how the late king was murdered by his own brother who “now wears his crown”. The episode of the ghost remind us of Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”, where the ghost of the murdered Andrea, along with the spirit called Revenge appear from the underworld and roam around on earth to witness the process of vengeance. But they do not communicate with the living. The ghost of Hamlet however, comes with a mission for the murder. It advises Hamlet “Taint not thy mind” which suggests that the ghost does not consider the matter of revenge too difficult a task and is anxious that Hamlet should not become too disturbed about it.
To the ghost the challenge is probably like that which as the Danish King he accepted all those years ago when he agreed to face old Fortinbras of Norway in a single combat and had killed him. The ghost also tells Hamlet a little about the existence after death and the domain of death. The dead King burns in hellfire for dying without repenting for the sins he had committed during his lifetime and also includes that it is necessary to burn in order to attain salvation.
Though the ghost instructs Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius, he forbids him to do any harm to the queen: “Leave her to heaven” he says, and suggest her earthly punishment should be the pangs of her conscience: “those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her. ” The ghost’s commands indicate not only the pursuit of personal satisfaction but the existence of a world beyond the human world responsible for justice in the human world. It therefore can be considered as an “ambassador of Death. “[G. Wilson Knight].
Hamlet vows to “remember’ the ghost “whiles memory holds a seat/ in this distracted globe”, that is to say, as long as this disordered world attributes nay value to the past to establish standards of virtue and justice. Here to remember means to maintain and to restore it. In the section “Of Redemption” Nietzsche’s The Spake of Zarathustra, he says, “This, yea, this is very vengeance! – wills abhorrence of time and its “It was”. It is quite articulate that Hamlet is not prepared to accept the “It was”.
Of time and that he regards revenge as a task of restoring the society that has fallen to pieces. The first Act ends with – “The time is out of joint: o curs’d spite That ever I was born to set it right. ” Thus he takes up the responsibility of retaking revenge and vows to stick to it. In his soliloquies, we see Hamlet rebuking himself for his procrastination in taking revenge and calls himself a ‘muddy-mettled rascal”. Other than Hamlet, we also see young Fortinbras and Leartes as avengers in the play, both want to avenge the deaths of their fathers.
Fortinbras ultimately does not take revenge by murder but Leartes invites Hamlet to a duel in order to kill him. Unlike Hamlet they immediately consider it their duty to take revenge and without thinking much arrange the means by which to take revenge. But to Hamlet revenge is not merely for restoring honor; he thinks of it in terms of the values of the eternal world. In his fourth soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates on his unaccomplished mission and thinks whether to take revenge or not.
He considers “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or “to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And be opposing end them. ” The murder of the Danish King by his brother, is identified with the murders of Abel his brother Cain thrice in the play. This murder of the king by Claudius is similar to the first murder that shattered the human family. This very murder given rise to all the mishaps in the play; Claudius kills the Senior Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear while the latter was sleeping the orchard.
Rene Gurard expounds this murder from the psychological point of view. According to him the two brothers suffered sublime rivalry and since the one achieved all (the throne, the woman they both love) the other kills him. Even after achieving what he wanted Claudius is often haunted by the memory of murdering his brother and strives in prayers to wash off the stain of blood in his hands. But unfortunately before shaking of his first guilt, he plans a second murder, this time of his nephew. He decides to send Hamlet to England to breath his last.
But instead, Hamlet’s succeeds in getting Rozencrantz and Guildenstern killed, who were carrying the King’s letter. Hamlet secretly changes his name and writes the names of his two friends in the letter and thus sends them off to England only to be executed by the English King. Hamlet’s killing of Polonius mistakenly is a very important phase in the play. From this murder the catastrophe of the play steams. It initiates the second cycle of revenge for a murdered father, that of Leartes for Polonius. This revenge attains success and ends in the death of Hamlet.
Therefore, by unwittingly killing Polonius, Hamlet brings about his own death. Suicide and thoughts of suicide also envelop the atmosphere of the play. Ophelia, unable to bear Hamlet’s cruel attitude towards her and the death of her father, is driven towards madness, followed by suicide. Her death is rather a pathetic one. Hamlet on the other hand vacillates from “to be” or “not to be”. In his first soliloquy Hamlet wishes that the strong flesh of his body melts and dissolves into a liquid and says that had God “not fix’d/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”, he would have embraced death.
The melting of the flesh brings back to our minds Faustus’s last speech where he wished to be drawn up “like a foggy mist/Into the entails of yon laboring cloud,” and also Prufrock’s wished to be turned into a crab in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The abhorrence of human existence seems to eat up the soul of Hamlet. He sees nothing worthwhile in this universe. To him the world is like an “unkempt garden” where only weeds grow in abundance and take over the whole place.
He suffers to see the world under the clutches of the wrong people who make everyone indulge in futile and vile activities. These thoughts lead to suicidal thoughts in him. In Act – III, Scene- I, during one of his contemplations of death, he decides to terminate his life because he feels that to die “to sleep”. Therefore, by dying he would be able to put and end to his “heart-ache” and “sea of troubles”. But then abruptly he changes his mind because he does not know what death has in store for man; he feels scared to think that he might “dream” after death and thus still have a turbulent mind.
He adds that if there were no fear of such dreams, any human being would put and end to his life, because nobody willingly goes through the ordeals of life. He thinks of “the dread of something after death” and the “undiscover’d country” from where “no travelers returns” and he shrinks from it. In this soliloquy, he contemplates killing others, then himself – both are ways of taking arms against “a sea of troubles”, and wither way is seen against the background of a world beyond the living world, where he might be inflicted with punishments by God as he had heard from the Ghost earlier.
Therefore, he questions whether “’tis nobler” to take revenge or to go on enduring pain, and the thought of being punished by God for making a wrong choice terrifies him. His fearful imagination of life after death is echoed in Measure for Measure, where Claudia “Ay, but to die and go we know not where”, and considers the “weariest and most loathed worldly life” “a paradise” compared to “what we fear of death”. On this subject L. C. Knights comments – “An over-strong terror of death is often one expression of the fear of living.
Only those who take an affirmative attitude towards life can take an affirmative attitude towards death. ” In the grave-digging scene Hamlet observes a grave-digger digging the grave of Ophelia and in the process throwing of some skulls and bones. This scene makes him sink into deep thoughts concerning the meaning of life and death. Looking at a skull he thinks of the ultimate goal of a man’s life. The body of a lawyer ends up being the same as skull and bones as Yorick, the jester in the grave. Even the bodies of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are turned into mere clays.
Earlier when Claudius had asked Hamlet about the body of Polonius, he replied that worms are feasting on it. But in the grave-digging scene, Hamlet reminds himself that death diminishes all vanities in man, for it is the ultimate end of every man. Yorick’s jaws that made the courteous roared with laughter are shapeless now. Therefore, he sarcastically tells the skull of Yorick to go and tell the women who in order to beautify themselves “paint an inch thick on their faces”, must meet their ends just the same way as he did.
Afterwards he dejectedly asks Horatio – “To what base uses we may return Horatio! ” At the end of the play Gertrude is killed by chance, Leartes and Claudius are slain by Hamlet and Hamlet dies wounded by the poisonous sword of Leartes, only Horatio lives to tell the story to the Danes. But the end does not only consist of human deaths but also death of beautiful things.
“The King that’s dead” is referred to as “the majesty of buried Denmark”. Much later the first words of the mad Ophelia are “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark? this suggests that the death of the old King marks the end of an era. The story of Hecuba and the dounbshow called “mousetrap” are also concerned with ‘death” similes of death, for example “bosom black as death’ recur in the play. The play is in fact, envelope by the smoke of “death”, rendering it the mysterious darkness that critics have found interesting for ages. No other play of Shakespeare is so much obsessed with the subject as is Hamlet.