Death seems to be a common occurrence and a haunting figure in Hamlet. From the very beginning of the play, Hamlet’s aim to avenge the death of his father is clearly demonstrated. On the contrary, when he already has the chance to kill Claudius, he is hesitant not to do it. For centuries, critics have aroused many questions for such delay, and exactly what Hamlet’s goals concerning death and murder are. Many critics in the eighteenth century propose the idea that the delay is essential to make the plot longer, but this does not fit some facts because Shakespeare has no reason to make such postponement, and the postponement does nothing to prevent the conclusion, or the ultimate death scene at the end of the play. Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, A.W. Schlegel and S.T. Coleridge argue that Hamlet depicts the incapability of a person in his actions because he is philosophizing too much, and that he is aware of the consequences of his actions. However, Laertes reacts to the death of his father in the opposite way. He deals with vengeance differently, he becomes unsophisticated and he is prepared to be Claudius’ instrument to destroy Hamlet. (Chan 24). Thus, death seems to help characterize the most important characters present in Hamlet.
Along with the concept of death and characterization, religion (which always carries with it the focus of the afterlife) comes into play to help reflect on characterization in Hamlet. Catholicism and Protestantism, both play important roles in Hamlet. These two influential religions serve as significant references in the plot. For instance, the ‘ghost’ that asked Hamlet to avenge him is contradictory to what Catholicism says about death and an afterlife. Catholics believe in soul purification and purgatory; once a person dies he will lose the ability to communicate with the living world. Also, revenge is not accepted by Catholics; it must be left in the hands of God. That’s why Hamlet is given a very difficult mission; he is in between two tough responsibilities; to revenge or to maintain his moral integrity. Therefore, Hamlet’s decision to murder, or to create death, helps to reflect on his overall character and reflects that he does have feelings of guilt and morality (Blankenship 34).
As Hamlet continues his struggle between vengeance and honor, a fatal destiny marks the end of his struggle. Laertes, who is now furious at Hamlet and is ready to kill him by any means, duels with Hamlet in accordance with Cladius’ wicked plan to eliminate Hamlet. Both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded by tragic events in their lives (mainly, the deaths of their fathers, and the death of Ophelia) and seem to care little whether they come out of the duel alive. Strangely enough, the two seem to lack the realization that they have more in common than they realize until it is too late. For instance, both are affected by tragic deaths of loved ones (in one way or another, influenced somehow by Claudius), both are driven to murder and create death, and both reflect feelings of morality. Hamlet’s morality has already been reflected on; for Laertes, he comes to terms with his actions as he is dying and reveals the truth to Hamlet.
It is at the moment that Hamlet allows his emotion to dominate over his intellect that Claudius is killed. Hamlet is consumed by the thoughts of his father’s demise and is haunted by the knowledge that his father’s soul will not be able to rest until his death is avenged. Hamlet willfully concludes, “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (Act IV sc iv). It is then that Hamlet finally has the ability to suppress his idealistic nature, and do what is needed. The murder is not a well-planned scheme and occurs in the heat of the moment. Hamlet, after the murder of Claudius never once wavers in his decision. He has done what is right and believes that “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (Act V sc ii). Oddly enough fatalism is part of idealistic theory and therefore Hamlet always remains true to himself and his idealism.
Hamlet’s idealism makes him the perfect tragic protagonist and leads to the theme of indecision and death. Without his intense regard for the ideals of truth, justice, goodness and beauty there would be no play. His fatal flaw, the belief that men and therefore the world are inherently good, created a moral dilemma in which the characters, and plot revolves. Even Hamlet, the academic, comments on the presence of hamartia in human nature. He states:
oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Their virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (Act 1, sc 4).
Hamlet continues late in the resolution of the play, “though I am not spleenative and rash Yet have I in me something dangerous” (Act V. sc i.) Hamlet’s idealistic nature is mismatched with his pragmatic circumstances, which creates the ultimate theme and driving force behind all the rising action, falling action, and resolution of this tragedy—which is, ultimately, death.
The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, clearly gives the insight into how a certain individual responds to injustice and to unfortunate circumstances, and how death can come into play and affect one’s morality. There may come a point that an individual will choose to punish the sinner using his own bare hands because the law itself is not reliable enough to do such punishment. However, revenge and hatred is not the key to achieving the justice that one is longing for. Vengeance and punishment must not be placed in our own hands so as not to experience the tragic flaw of Hamlet.
Death, then, comes from the corruption present in the play. It is evident from the text that Elsinore is an extremely corrupt place that breeds blind ambition, betrayal, and evil. The qualities and character of life that the Elizabethans so intensely cherish are traded for money and power. Elsinore is a place of double-dealing, backstabbing, and cheating. Claudius and Polonius are two of the top official in Elsinore and therefore responsible for the destruction of a good society and the good people residing within it. “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” refers to both of them and the climate of an evil society they have created. He compares the world to an “unweeded garden”(I. ii. l.135) This is why Hamlet must and does reject his kingdom, his family, his destined seat on the throne of Denmark. Rejecting those things is ultimately the rejection of evil. He is unable to adjust to the stained society of Elsinore which confirms he is a nobleman with honorable motives. The audience feels sympathy for him and understands what it is like to be a good person in a horrible world – struggling to hold on to integrity (Friedlander 34).
By portraying Hamlet in this way, the play becomes a large context for the battle of good and evil. Hamlet’s pain and anger come not just from the loss of his father but the realization that the world in which it has been tainted and he simply cannot exist in such a world. He is disgusted by what he sees and by the honor codes of the time, he must seek to vanquish the evil from Elsinore and world – if this means murder then so be it. Hamlet’s torturous behavior comes from the betrayal of his family and his home and the inner conflict of having to destroy those people which he loves. This is particularly true with Ophelian (Hamlet 3). When he realizes that Ophelia was a party to the corruption (probably unknowingly) he can not bear to be in her presence. The same is true for the treatment of his mother and his friends. The mistakes they have, the path they have taken is evil one and it is Hamlet’s responsibility to restore the natural order of society. Hamlet by nature is not a cruel man, if he was he would have to kill swiftly and leave. However, he lingers in Elsinore hoping to find the truth or a piece of hope that will give him an excuse not to kill those he loves.
Gertrude and Claudius are both evils that Hamlet must fight against. Claudius will only “skin and film the ulcerous place…. while it / Infects unseen”(III, iv, ll.149-151). Hamlet must seek out the people who murdered his father. He puts on a play to parallel the murderous plot and comments that he hopes to “catch the conscience of the king”(l.603). Hamlet is a noble prince who struggles with the inner conflict between the love of his family and what is right for society. He is intelligent, maniac, broken, and honorable. In the end, he gives his life to the betterment of society – just as any good Elizabethan would do.
Blankenship, Harmonie. “Hamlet Haven: Theological.” 2007.
Chan, Katie. “Why Hamlet Delays His Revenge.” 2004. Web.
Friedlander, Eric. Enjoying “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare “. 2003.
“Hamlet.” 2007. Web.