Death is one of the central themes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The play opens with the vision of Hamlet’s deceased father, it is hinted at throughout the play as the prince himself contemplates the futility of life, and it leads to the tragic resolution as all characters die in the final act. However, in “Hamlet,” death serves a greater function than the mere reminder of the inevitable end and a way of communicating tragedy. Instead, it also represents both a mystery and its resolution in the play, incorporating both the question and the ultimate answer.
The concept of death as a mystery and a question that is posed to the lading characters is represented at the very beginning of the play, thus setting the tone for the profound discussion of the notion of death as a whole. Namely, as Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, the latter introduces his son to the mysterious circumstances of his death, pointing to Claudius as the murderer (Shakespeare). Afterward, the theme of death receives further development, implying that it could also be seen as approaching the answer to the central question.
This idea of death turning into the answer to the question that people ask themselves throughout the entirety of their lives culminates in the famous monologue. In his desperate search for the right thing to do and his desire to avenge the murder of his father, Hamlet questions whether the death could be seen as reconciliation with oneself and the acceptance of the inevitable end. In fact, Hamlet outright states that he contemplates the idea of death as a form of relief: “To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream” (Shakespeare).
However, Shakespeare further develops the topic of death, implying that the answer, however, it might be, may turn out not quite as satisfactory as one might want it to be. Specifically, in the same monologue, the lead character adds the following sentiment: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause” (Shakespeare). Although the specified fragment sounds like Hamlet confirms his idea of death being the end of painful existence, defining the point of final rest as “pause” instead of some semblance of finality indicates that death as the answer will not provide the desired reconciliation. Thus, Hamlet implies that death should be seen as both a mystery and a solution, locking an individual in a perpetual circle of looking for the meaning of life.
Remarkably, eh notion of death as the answer becomes all the more poignant toward the end of the poem. Specifically, the fear of death is reinforced in the characters such as the king, whereas Hamlet seems to be entirely devoid of the fear of the inevitability of death. Thus, Shakespeare draws a thick line between the characters that she considered redeemable and the ones that are past the point of any redemption.
In addition, about Claudius, the notion of death is closely linked to the concept of revenge, which is another critical leitmotif for the play. Specifically, the fact that Hamlet does not want to kill Claudius while the latter is praying so that the king could not go to heaven indicates that the concept of death is seen as the idea of the beginning of a new phase. Specifically, the concept is framed as the step toward either being redeemed or being believable and relatable: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (Shakespeare). As a result, the notion of death gains another meaning in the poem, allowing the reader to develop a clear understanding of the characters’ relation to death and their understanding of it. As a result, the ideas underpinning the poem, including the fear of death, the need to reconcile with one’s mortality, the concept of revenge, and the related issues become obvious. Death is treated as a mystery and a solution in itself, representing both the question and the answer.
Overall, the multidimensionality of death is emphasized as a theme throughout the play consistently, with every character and minor detail indicating that Shakespeare offered a much more nuanced and original answer than the reader would have ever expected. The poem points to the inevitability of death, positioning it as a mystery, yet representing it as the answer later on.
Although on the surface, death in “Hamlet” can be seen as the means of creating a tragic atmosphere and resolving the conflict, on a deeper level of understanding the play, it also represents the twofold notion of the question and the answer. Namely, death haunts the lead characters as the mystery that some characters try to deny, some attempt at avoiding, and some, like Hamlet, seek to explore and embrace. Thus, as a concept, death incorporates the fears and presumptions of characters, also leading to the resolution of their internal conflicts. As a result, death becomes the twofold notion of the mystery and the gateway to understanding the answer to it.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Gutenberg.org, 1609.