One of my essays from last semester for Drama.. Hope its handy for anyone else studying :)
Ideas and superstitions surrounding the mystery of death permeate the timeless story of Hamlet, a tale that can even to this day chill its every reader and compel us to question our own faith and spirituality. From the very first scene we are propelled into a world in which the line between the living and the dead has become very fine, as one of the first characters we are introduced to is the Ghost of the former King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. In this opening scene a certain fascination with the dead is established, although Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus are quite terrified by the Ghost as he appears to them, they are also overcome with curiosity and a longing to know why he has revisited the mortal world of the living ‘Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee, speak!’. This curiosity is contagious and quickly sucks the audience into a morbid fascination with the untimely death of the King that sets the tone for the rest of the play.
Hamlet’s character is one consumed with the idea of death after the murder of his father. He is overcome by a grief that plunges him into a deep contemplative depression, in which he even considers suicide, wishing that his ‘too too solid flesh would melt’ but never acts on these considerations. He is a great procrastinator, wallowing in his own pain and simple plots to avenge his father, but almost never following these plans through. Where Hamlet is our protagonist, death (even more than Claudius) is our antagonist in the play, as it is in reality. Hamlet is driven by the knowledge that he too will some day perish, and this death drive is what compels him to plot revenge, to create (when he directs the play within the play) and to think so deeply about his own mortality and the meaning of life. In perhaps his most famous speech beginning ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, the character of Hamlet poses the eternal question to the audience that is constantly present in the back of our minds but that we must ignore in order to keep living; What difference does it make to live or to die? What is the point? The thing that disturbs this character most is not actually his fathers death, but how his mother has so quickly moved on, because he is ultimately terrified by the notion that if someone can be forgotten about so quickly after their death, then life bears no meaning at all.
Deathly imagery cements the theme of mortality firmly in the audiences mind throughout the play. The word ‘rank’ appears repeatedly in Hamlets descriptions of both the world (which he compares to an unkempt and overgrown garden), and his mothers relationship with Claudius – ‘Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely’, and ‘In the rank sweat of an un-seamed bed’ are examples. ‘Rank’ is used here as a word to describe things that seem rotten and festering, and it lends itself to the subtle suggestion again of deathly images surrounding our protagonist. Another interesting image is that of Ophelia handing out symbolic flowers in Act Four Scene Five when she has lost her mind, each flower symbolising something different that relates to each character – ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember’ (she gives this to Hamlet whom she feels has forgotten her), but where this becomes a deathly image is in the line ‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died’. The violets symbolise faithfulness, which she feels has been destroyed since her father was murdered. This image represents the feelings of hopelessness and the loss of faith that many feel when confronted with death and grief, and contemplations of their own mortality. Some more obvious imagery relating to death is of course evident throughout the play, for example, when Hamlet discusses the whereabouts of Polonius’ dead body – ‘He is at supper [..] not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots’. This grim imagery is a comment on the fact that even humans are part of the circle of life, that as we eat animals to survive some day maggots and worms will feed on our dead bodies to survive. A haunting and terrific image of mortality.
Hamlet’s ‘inky cloak’ of black which he wears throughout the play is another image that acts as a constant reminder of Hamlets relationship and obsession with death. He never changes from these black clothes throughout the play, suggesting that he is in constant mourning it would seem for his father, but the further we are drawn in to Hamlet’s psyche the more we realise that he is also mourning his own eventual death, which he becomes wholly obsessed with in the course of the play. He cannot escape the thought of death, his fathers death and the revenge he must seek for it weighs heavy in his mind, the woman he loves, Ophelia, drowns suspiciously and forces Hamlet to further contemplate suicide. The seemingly ‘accidental’ nature of Ophelia’s death presents another idea to Hamlet and the audience, a hint at the absolute fragility of life and the uncertainty that surrounds it when it is impossible to know what state a persons mind was in as they died. We never truly know whether Ophelia killed herself in a fever of madness and grief, or if her untimely death (as many of the deaths in the play are) was purely an accident. In one of Hamlets most thought provoking musings on death he concludes that fear is what stops people from committing suicide, and those who can kill themselves must no longer be afraid of death, and do so to escape the complete pain of living. It is Hamlet’s uncertainty and fear about the afterlife that stops him from killing himself.
He is obsessed by the physicality of death, and the frailty of human existence. This is perfectly illustrated in the iconic grave digging scene in which the most famous deathly image in Hamlet is found, the skull of Yorick, a man who was once his fathers jester and whom Hamlet was fond of. Hamlet and the clown discuss how long it takes for a human body to decay in this scene, which Hamlet fervently questions and seems both enthralled and disgusted by. When they come across the skull Hamlet is shocked to learn that it is that of someone he once knew, taking it in his hands and gesturing to where the lips he had once kissed had been, hauntingly asking the lifeless bones ‘Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?’. The skull acts as a physical image and reminder of the absolute finality of death in this scene, a scene made so poignant as Hamlet literally stares death in the face for the first time since he started all of his brooding and contemplating over it. This unforgettable scene evokes in me a certain wonderment about life and death, Shakespeare is asking us here to consider our idea of what life really is, he is reminding us that we are living through our actions, our jokes, stories, gestures and traits, that perhaps something like a soul exists, but also begs the question ‘what is the point?’ if we are all to end up decaying in the ground like Yorick, never knowing if there is really anything more.
However, much more eloquently than I ever could, Shakespeare conveys a far more mature and accepting attitude towards death that Hamlet seems to adopt in this scene, which becomes a turning point in the play. A realisation seems to be reached in his contemplation over the jesters skull, that death is inevitable for all people, and that it is not something concerned with ones position or ranking in life. In death we are all common and equal, there is no vanity in it as there is in life, and Shakespeare verbalises this beautifully as Hamlet describes how both Alexander the Great and the court jester Yorick ‘returneth into dust’ in the same way when they died, as we all some day will, and as every character in the play evidently does in the final scene, a veritable bloodbath in which Hamlet finally gets what he wanted throughout the play – revenge for his fathers death in the killing of Claudius, and the ultimate escape from his own pain in living, his death.
Death is explored in every facet of the play, and from so many different angles. It is woven through almost every line and portrayed in so many images as I have discussed, and I can‘t help but feel that I have omitted so much to do with this theme as it could be explored with relation to almost every scene! Hamlet, one might argue, is Shakespeare’s most famous play for the simple reason that it is wholly centred around death and therefore can never become dated and will always hold an irresistible allure for audiences, as death will forever remain the greatest timeless mystery of the world.
Death has been considered the primary theme of Hamlet by many eminent critics through the years. G. Wilson Knight, for instance, writes at length about death in the play: "Death is over the whole play. Polonius and Ophelia die during the action, and Ophelia is buried before our eyes. Hamlet arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The plot is set in motion by the murder of Hamlet's father, and the play opens with the apparition of the Ghost." And so on and so forth. The play is really death-obsessed, as is Hamlet himself. As as A.C. Bradley has pointed out, in his very first long speech of the play, "Oh that this too solid flesh," Hamlet seems on the verge of total despair, kept from suicide by the simple fact of spiritual awe. He is in the strange position of both wishing for death and fearing it intensely, and this double pressure gives the play much of its drama.
One of the aspects of death which Hamlet finds most fascinating is its bodily facticity. We are, in the end, so much meat and bone. This strange intellectual being, which Hamlet values so highly and possesses so mightily, is but tenuously connected to an unruly and decomposing machine. In the graveyard scene, especially, we can see Hamlet's fascination with dead bodies. How can Yorick's skull be Yorick's skull? Does a piece of dead earth, a skull, really have a connection to a person, a personality?
Hamlet is unprecedented for the depth and variety of its meditations on death. Mortality is the shadow that darkens every scene of the play. Not that the play resolves anything, or settles any of our species-old doubts and anxieties. As with most things, we can expect to find very difficult and stimulating questions in Hamlet, but very few satisfying answers.
Elsinore is full of political intrigue. The murder of Old Hamlet, of course, is the primary instance of such sinister workings, but it is hardly the only one. Polonius, especially, spends nearly every waking moment (it seems) spying on this or that person, checking up on his son in Paris, instructing Ophelia in every detail of her behavior, hiding behind tapestries to eavesdrop. He is the parody of a politician, convinced that the truth can only be known through the most roundabout and sneaking ways. This is never clearer than in his appearances in Act Two. First, he instructs Reynaldo in the most incredibly convoluted espionage methods; second, he hatches and pursues his misguided theory that Hamlet is mad because his heart has been broken by Ophelia.
Claudius, too, is quite the inept Machiavellian. He naively invites Fortinbras to march across his country with a full army; he stupidly enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his chief spies; his attempt to poison Hamlet ends in total tragedy. He is little better than Polonius. This political ineptitude goes a long way toward revealing how weak Denmark has become under Claudius' rule. He is not a natural king, to be sure; he is more interested in drinking and sex than in war, reconnaissance, or political plotting. This is partly why his one successful political move, the murder of his brother, is so ironic and foul. He has somehow done away with much the better ruler, the Hyperion to his satyr (as Hamlet puts it).
It's worth noting that there is one extremely capable politician in the play -- Hamlet himself. He is always on top of everyone's motives, everyone's doings and goings. He plays Polonius like a pipe and evades every effort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do the same to him. He sniffs out Claudius' plot to have him killed in England and sends his erstwhile friends off to die instead. Hamlet is a true Machiavellian when he wants to be. He certainly wouldn't have been as warlike as his father, but had he gotten the chance he might have been his father's equal as a ruler, simply due to his penetration and acumen.
In Act Two scene two Polonius asks Hamlet, "What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet replies, "Words, words, words." Of course every book is made of words, every play is a world of words, so to speak, and Hamlet is no different. Hamlet is distinguished, however, in its attentiveness to language within the play. Not only does it contain extremely rich language, not only did the play greatly expand the English vocabulary, Hamlet also contains several characters who show an interest in language and meaning in themselves.
Polonius, for instance, is often distracted by his manner of expressing himself. In Act Two scene two, for example, he says, "Madam, I swear I use no art at all. / That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity, / And pity 'tis 'tis true. A foolish figure, / But farewell to it, for I will use no art." Of course this is typical Polonius -- absurdly hypocritical, self-enamored, dull-witted. Just as he is extremely windy in recommending brevity, here he is fussy and "artful" (or affectedly artificial) in declaring that he is neither of those things. Polonius' grasp of language, like his political instinct, is quite shallow -- he gestures toward the mastery of rhetoric that seems like a statesman's primary craft, but he is too distracted by surfaces to achieve any real depth.
Another angle from which to consider language in the play -- Hamlet explores the traditional dichotomy between words and deeds. In Act Four, when talking to Laertes, Claudius makes this distinction explicit: "what would you undertake, / To show yourself your father's son in deed / More than in words?" Here deeds are associated with noble acts, specifically the fulfillment of revenge, and words with empty bluffing. The passage resonates well beyond its immediate context. Hamlet himself is a master of language, an explorer of its possibilities; he is also a man who has trouble performing actual deeds. For him, reality seems to exist more in thoughts and sentences than in acts. Thus his trouble fulfilling revenge seems to stem from his overemphasis on reasoning and formulating -- a fault of over-precision that he acknowledges himself in the speech beginning, "How all occasions do inform against me."
Hamlet is the man of language, of words, of the magic of thought. He is not fit for a play that so emphasizes the value of action, and he knows it. But then, the action itself is contained within words, formed and contained by Shakespeare's pen. The action of the play is much more an illusion than the words are. Hamlet invites us to consider whether this isn't the case more often than we might think, whether the world of words doesn't enjoy a great deal of power in framing and describing the world of actions, on stage or not.
By the time Hamlet was written, madness was already a well-established element in many revenge tragedies. The most popular revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan period, The Spanish Tragedy, also features a main character, Hieronymo, who goes mad in the build-up to his revenge, as does the title character in Shakespeare's first revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. But Hamlet is unique among revenge tragedies in its treatment of madness because Hamlet's madness is deeply ambiguous. Whereas previous revenge tragedy protagonists are unambiguously insane, Hamlet plays with the idea of insanity, putting on "an antic disposition," as he says, for some not-perfectly-clear reason.
Of course, there is a practical advantage to appearing mad. In Shakespeare's source for the plot of Hamlet, "Amneth" (as the legendary hero is known) feigns madness in order to avoid the suspicion of the fratricidal king as he plots his revenge. But Hamlet's feigned madness is not so simple as this. His performance of madness, rather than aiding his revenge, almost distracts him from it, as he spends the great majority of the play exhibiting very little interest in pursuing the ghost's mission even after he has proven, via "The Mouse Trap," that Claudius is indeed guilty as sin.
No wonder, then, that Hamlet's madness has been a resilient point of critical controversy since the seventeenth century. The traditional question is perhaps the least interesting one to ask of his madness -- is he really insane or is he faking it? It seems clear from the text that he is, indeed, playing the role of the madman (he says he will do just that) and using his veneer of lunacy to have a great deal of fun with the many fools who populate Elsinore, especially Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps this feigned madness does at times edge into actual madness, in the same way that all acted emotions come very close to their genuine models, but, as he says, he is but mad north-nothwest, and knows a hawk from a handsaw. When he is alone, or with Horatio, and free from the need to act the lunatic, Hamlet is incredibly lucid and self-aware, perhaps a bit manic but hardly insane.
So what should we make of his feigned insanity? Hamlet, in keeping with the play in general, seems almost to act the madman because he knows in some bizarre way that he is playing a role in a revenge tragedy. He knows that he is expected to act mad, because he thinks that that is what one does when seeking revenge -- perhaps because he has seen The Spanish Tragedy. I'm joking, of course, on one level, but he does exhibit self-aware theatricality throughout the play, and if he hasn't seen The Spanish Tragedy, he has certainly seen The Death of Gonzago, and many more plays besides. He knows his role, or what his role should be, even as he is unable to play it satisfactorily. Hamlet is beautifully miscast as the revenger -- he is constitutionally unfitted for so vulgar and unintelligent a fate -- and likewise his attempt to play the madman, while a valiant effort, is forced, insincere, anxious, ambiguous, and full of doubts. Perhaps Hamlet himself, if we could ask him, would not know why he chooses to feign madness any more than we do.
Needless to say, Hamlet is not the only person who goes insane in the play. Ophelia's madness serves as a clear foil to his own strange antics. She is truly, unambiguously, innocently, simply mad. Whereas Hamlet's madness seems to increase his self-awareness, Ophelia loses every vestige of composure and self-knowledge, just as the truly insane tend to do.
Harold Bloom, speaking about Hamlet at the Library of Congress, said, "The play's subject massively is neither mourning for the dead or revenge on the living. ... All that matters is Hamlet's consciousness of his own consciousness, infinite, unlimited, and at war with itself." He added, "Hamlet discovers that his life has been a quest with no object except his own endlessly burgeoning subjectivity." Bloom is not the only reader of Hamlet to see such an emphasis on the self.
Hamlet's soliloquies, to take only the most obvious feature, are strong and sustained investigations of the self -- not only as a thinking being, but as emotional, bodily, and paradoxically multiple. Hamlet, fascinated by his own character, his turmoil, his inconsistency, spends line after line wondering at himself. Why can't I carry out revenge? Why can't I carry out suicide? He questions himself, and in so doing questions the nature of the self.
Aside from these massive speeches, Hamlet shows a sustained interest in philosophical problems of the subject. Among these problems is the mediating role of thought in all human life. "For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so," he says. We can never know the truth, he suggests, nor the good, nor the evil of the world, except through the means of our thoughts. Certainty is not an option. And the great realm of uncertainty, the realm of dreams, fears, thoughts, is the realm of subjectivity.
Like madness, suicide is a theme that links Hamlet and Ophelia and shapes the concerns of the play more generally. Hamlet thinks deeply about it, and perhaps "contemplates" it in the more popular sense; Ophelia perhaps commits it. In both cases, the major upshot of suicide is religious. In his two "suicide soliloquies," Hamlet segues into meditations on religious laws and mysteries -- "that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter"; "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come." And Ophelia's burial is greatly limited by the clergy's suspicions that she might have taken her own life. In short, Hamlet appears to suggest that were it not for, first, the social stigma attached to suicide by religious authorities, and second, the legitimately "unknown" nature of whatever happens after death, there would be a lot more self-slaughter in this difficult and bitter world. In a play so obsessed with the self, and the nature of the self, it's only natural to see this emphasis on self-murder.
It's worth mentioning one of the major interpretive issues of Hamlet: was Ophelia's death accidental or a suicide? According to Gertrude's narration of the event, Ophelia's drowning was entirely accidental. However, some have suggested that Gertrude's long story may be a fabrication invented to protect the young woman from the social stigma of suicide. Indeed, in Act Five the priest and the gravediggers are fairly certain that Ophelia took her own life. One might ask oneself -- why does it make such a difference to us whether she died by her own hand or not? Shakespeare seems, in fact, to inspire this very sort of self-interrogation. Are we, like the characters in the play, so invested in protecting Ophelia from the stigma of suicide?
Which is the star of this play, Hamlet or Hamlet? T.S. Eliot, for one, unequivocally endorses the latter: "Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary." In effect, Hamlet is a play about plays, about theater. Most obviously, it contains a play within a play, detailed instructions on acting technique, an extended conversation about London theater companies and their fondness for boy troupes, several references to other theater (including to Christian mystery plays, and to Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar), and still more references to the stage on which it is being performed, in the globe theater with its ghost "in the cellarage."
But what is the point of this constant metatheatrical winking? Hamlet, among other things, is an extended meditation on the nature of acting and the relationship between acting and "genuine" life. It refuses to obey the conventional restrictions of theater and constantly spills out into the audience, as it were, pointing out the "real" surroundings of the "fictional" play, and thus incorporating them into the larger theatrical experience.
Most specifically, Hamlet is an exploration of a specific genre and its specific generic conventions. It is the revenge tragedy to end all revenge tragedies, both containing and commenting on the elements that define the genre. Modern audiences are quite comfortable with this sort of "meta-generic" approach. Think of modern westerns, heist movies, or martial arts movies. All of these genres have become almost obligatorily self-aware; they contain references to past milestones in their respective genres, they gleefully and ironically embrace (or alternatively reject) the conventions that past films treated with sincerity. Hamlet, in its relationship to revenge tragedy and to theater more generally, is one of the first dramas of this kind and perhaps still the most profound example of such post-modern concerns.
To put it cutely, Hamlet itself is the main character of the play, and Hamlet merely the means by which it explores its own place in the history of theater. To make things yet dizzier, Hamlet seems, deep down, to know that he is in a play, to know that he is miscast, to understand the theatrical nature of his being. And who's to say that we aren't all merely actors in our own lives? Surely, from a philosophical perspective, this is one of the basic truths of modern human life.