Death as a Theme in Hamlet

Holding the skull of Yorick from Hamlet

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Death permeates "Hamlet" right from the opening scene of the play, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father introduces the idea of death and its consequences. The ghost represents a disruption to the accepted social order – a theme also reflected in the volatile socio-political state of Denmark and Hamlet’s own indecision.

This disorder has been triggered by the "unnatural death" of Denmark's figurehead, soon followed by a raft of murder, suicide, revenge and accidental deaths.

Hamlet is fascinated by death throughout the play. Deeply rooted in his character, this obsession with death is likely a product of his grief.

Hamlet's Preoccupation With Death

Hamlet’s most direct consideration of death comes in Act 4, Scene 3. His almost morbid obsession with the idea is revealed when asked by Claudius where he has hidden Polonius’ body.

At supper ... Not where he eats, but where a 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. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.

Hamlet is describing the life-cycle of human existence. In other words: we eat in life; we are eaten in death. 

Death and the Yorick Scene

The frailty of human existence haunts Hamlet throughout the play and it’s a theme he returns to in Act 5, Scene 1: the iconic graveyard scene. Holding the skull of Yorick, the court jester who entertained him as a child, Hamlet ponders the brevity and futility of the human condition and the inevitability of death:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

This sets the scene for Ophelia’s funeral where she too will be returned to the ground.

Ophelia's Death 

Perhaps the most tragic death in "Hamlet" is one the audience doesn't witness. Ophelia's death is reported by Gertrude: Hamlet's would-be bride falls from a tree and drowns in a brook. Whether or not her death was a suicide is the subject of much debate among Shakespearean scholars.

A sexton suggests as much at her gravesite, to the outrage of Laertes. He and Hamlet then quarrel over who loved Ophelia more, and Gertrude mentions her regret that Hamlet and Ophelia could have been married.

What's perhaps the saddest part of Ophelia's death is that Hamlet appeared to drive her to it; had he taken action earlier to avenge his father, perhaps Polonius and she would not have died so tragically.

Suicide in Hamlet

The idea of suicide also emerges from Hamlet’s preoccupation with death. Although he seems to consider killing himself as an option, he does not act on this idea Similarly, he does not act when he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and avenge the murder of his father in Act 3, Scene 3. Ironically, it is this lack of action on Hamlet’s part that ultimately leads to his death at the end of the play.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Death as a Theme in Hamlet." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). Death as a Theme in Hamlet. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Death as a Theme in Hamlet." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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