Critics, it seems, have never been in any doubt as to what is the main theme in Hamlet. Wilson Knight declares that, ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’, while C. S. Lewis has no doubt that, ‘death is the subject of Hamlet’. Fintan O’Toole in his book Shakespeare is Hard but so is Life, agrees and provides another interesting theory when he says, ‘Hamlet is a play about death. Or rather, it is a play about the survival of the individual in the face of death’ (p.45). He goes on to say that in Hamlet, ‘death is the picture, not the frame’. The cynic in me always wants to point out that when ‘the hurly burly’s done’ there are so many princes and courtiers dead in Elsinore that the next King of Denmark is from Norway! (This is akin to the FAI’s ‘Grandfather Rule’ for eligibility for Irish soccer team selection)!
Hamlet’s own final summary of what has happened in the play lends weight to such statements; he talks of:
Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause… V, ii, 379
It might be said that in all Shakespeare’s tragedies death is inevitably a major concern (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Coriolanus, all die), but it is in Hamlet that it receives its most elaborate and extended treatment. The play broods deeply on the nature and significance of man’s life. Wilson Knight points to the almost obsessive preoccupation of the hero, Hamlet, with death: ‘Life that is bound for the disintegration of the grave, love that does not survive the loved one’s life – both in their insistence on death as the primary fact of nature, are branded on the mind of Hamlet, burned into it, searing it with agony’ (The Wheel of Fire, p. 31). For Claudius, the fact of death is something to be presented in the form of platitudes (‘All that lives must die’). But for Hamlet, it is an ever-present reality. Death is at the heart of the two main plots: Hamlet’s bereavement and his consequent mental suffering are paralleled in Ophelia’s loss of her father and her subsequent madness. Violent death, violent grief and its quick termination in The Murder of Gonzago are a reflection of the events and emotions involving the King Hamlet-Claudius-Gertrude triangle. Five characters are killed and Ophelia buried before our eyes. The plot is set in motion by a particularly hideous death, graphically described by its ghostly victim. The activities of Fortinbras involve the slaughter of thousands of men. Hamlet sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.
The treatment of death in Hamlet is more ambitious and adventurous than in the other tragedies of Shakespeare. In these, death is the end. Their characters, as C. S. Lewis remarks, ‘think of dying: no one thinks, in these plays of being dead. In Hamlet, we are kept thinking about it all the time whether in terms of the soul’s destiny or the body’s. Purgatory, Hell, Heaven, the wounded name, the rights – or wrongs – of Ophelia’s burial, and the staying power of a tanner’s corpse: and beyond this, beyond all Christian and pagan maps of the hereafter, comes a curious groping and tapping of thoughts, about what dreams may come’ (The Prince or the Poem?’). We are told by the Ghost of terrors beyond the grave, where spirits are daily ‘confined to fast in fires’, and are made to confront the possibility of such terrors by Hamlet himself as he contemplates ‘ the dread of something after death / The undiscovered country’. The repulsive bodily effects of death are given detailed exposition by Hamlet as he comments on the corpse of Polonius. Hamlet is much preoccupied with morbid reflections on bodily decay after death, particularly in the graveyard scene, visualising with no little relish how a king (one like Claudius) may go in progress ‘through the guts of a beggar’.
We know from the time when Claudius and Laertes formulate their plants against Hamlet’s life that his death is imminent; the long scene of Ophelia’s funeral keeps the issue in suspense for a time, but the same scene keeps the death theme before our minds. Death in Hamlet is presented in many forms. That of Polonius is gruesome. He is killed like a rat behind the curtain, his body is lugged about and thought of by Hamlet as being eaten by worms even before it is buried. Ophelia’s death by contrast, is a beautiful tableau; her own song is her requiem; she is garlanded with flowers in the stream and in the grave. The graveyard scene is one of the most potent evocations of the nature of life and death in all literature. The tone is largely humorous, but behind the jokes of the singing gravedigger is a powerful affirmation of the permanence of the grave. ‘Who builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?’ asks the second gravedigger. ’A grave-maker’ replies the first; ‘the houses he makes last till doomsday’. Just as he is saying this, Hamlet, the manner of whose death, we know, is already planned, comes upon the scene, and the skulls the gravedigger unearths leads him to meditate most movingly or mortality.
The graveyard scene is marked by one singular stroke of inspiration easy to miss on a casual reading or watching. Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger raises the subject of his own birth. When Hamlet asks him how long he has been at the trade, it transpires that ‘it was that very day that young Hamlet was born’ (V,i,145). The terrible inevitability of death is suddenly brought into a new focus; the very day on which Hamlet came into the world, a gravedigger began his occupation. To add a further chilling emphasis to the point, the procession that soon enters the graveyard includes the King and Laertes, who plan to end Hamlet’s life.
Two of Hamlet’s soliloquies look on death from another aspect: as a welcome escape from the weariness of the world. This emphasis is present even before the encounter with the Ghost:
O that this too, too, solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter…(1,ii.129)
This world-weariness intensifies after he has learned the full truth about his uncle. Nobody, he reflects, would willingly endure ‘the whips and scorns of time’, would continue to ‘grunt and sweat under a weary life’ were he not restrained from suicide by the dread of an uncertain hereafter. Thus he rejects suicide as an option because in suicide the afterlife would be unknown, unpredictable. However, by Act V he is ready for what lies ahead, and he tells Horatio, ‘the readiness is all’ (Act V, Sc ii, 165). He is ready for his death and as Fintan O’Toole also concludes, ‘he has rehearsed it, (and) it will be all right on the night’ (p. 57).
DECEIT AND SUBTERFUGE – APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY
This meditation connects the death-theme to another: the relation of reality to appearance. Critics who have analysed the image-pattern in Hamlet have pointed out that Shakespeare makes crucial use of images derived from art to express ideas of concealment and exposure. One such image used by Claudius in an aside perfectly, expresses this theme:
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word
Then Ophelia enters, ‘the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia’ of Hamlet’s love letter. Her purpose here, however, is to act a part, to be false to herself, to let herself be used by Claudius and her father to trick Hamlet. The words used by Polonius as he prepares Ophelia for the interview with hamlet belong to the pattern of images of appearance contrasted with reality: ‘Tis to much proved, that with devotion’s visage / And pious action, we do sugar o’er / The devil himself’ (III, I, 47). Hamlet’s famous attack on her extends to a denunciation of all female efforts to conceal reality (‘I have heard of your paintings, too…’). Art, of course, can also penetrate beneath appearance to uncover the reality, as in the Play Scene, which exposes the King’s concealed guilt.
All through the play the characters and the audience are disturbed by the problematic nature of appearance versus reality. The very mechanism that sets the action going, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, is, in the eyes of those who encounter it, of dubious origin and significance. It may be, to use Hamlet’s words, ‘a spirit of health or a goblin damn’d’; it may be, Horatio thinks, some fiend sent to lure Hamlet to his ruin. And yet, this phantom heralds some painful realities for Hamlet and the court of Claudius. Appearances in that court blatantly contradict realities. Claudius can smile and smile and yet be a villain; Polonius can appear a tedious, garrulous old fool and still be a scheming, dangerous instigator of mischief. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can hide treacherous intent under the mask of friendship. Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is, he assures his friends, merely an appearance, a convenience; this is not how it seems to Claudius and Polonius, who go to most elaborate lengths to probe what they feel is its hidden significance. Claudius discovered at prayer by hamlet is, perhaps the most striking instance of the pattern of appearance versus reality in the play. Consider the appearance. For all Hamlet can see, the act being performed by Claudius has every mark of genuine devotion, ‘some relish of salvation’. If he dies now at the avenger’s hand, his soul will be saved. But then we discover the reality, though Hamlet does not. Claudius cannot really pray at all. If the reasons Hamlet gives for not wanting to kill the king at this moment are genuine, they are based on a pardonable misreading of appearances, which totally contradict the reality underneath.
Like almost everybody else, Hamlet gets caught up in the general pattern of concealment, deceit, disguise and pretence, much as he condemns these traits in others, particularly in his mother. He reminds her that her mourning for his father was nothing but a show, whereas his outward show of grief corresponds to what is within (‘I know not seems….’). Soon, however, Hamlet will be telling his friends that he will be assuming his own kind of disguise, his ‘antic disposition’, with a view to concealing his real self from the world. Again, in relation to this, it becomes a matter for much debate how real Hamlet’s ‘madness’ is: how much is feigned, how much unfeigned.
Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” In The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2001. (17-49).
Lewis, C. S.: “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem”, in selected literary essays, ed. Walter Hooper, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity press, 1969), p.98
O’Toole, Fintan, Shakespeare is Hard, But so is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy, Granta Books, 2002. Print.