Death Before Glory: Death and Its Influence in Hamlet

It constantly fascinates me that the human race is so obsessed with death. It is the one constant and one of the most difficult unknowns to make sense of. Throughout literature, from the Greeks, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, to Hemingway, Plath, and all the way to Shakespeare, death reigns supreme. Shakespeare explores death’s influence on the living throughout Hamlet. From the very opening scene and the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost, we are driven into a world obsessed with death and obsessed with its influence. From Hamlet, to Ophelia, all the way to Fortinbras II, the appearance of death’s hold in one form or another is always apparent in the minds and lives of the characters. It is most notably (and also extremely apt), in Act 5.1, the scene in the graveyard (the final resting place).

Early in the scene we get somewhat of a prologue. The first clown (gravedigger), mentions that the beginning of his employment was signified by the death of Fortinbras I by the sword of Hamlet I. We also know Hamlet I has been haunting his son and others throuout the course of the play. As the scene progresses we see the characters completely consumed by even more ghosts (not physical spectres this time but death in the form of memory and loss, which can be even more powerful). In his famous speech to Horatio regarding “poor Yorick”, Hamlet laments upon innocence and happiness lost. He contrasts Yorick’s life of “infinite jest” and “most excellent fancy” with what he is now, “chop-fallen”! This is only the beginning, as he the proceeds to rant about how even the greatest of champions, like Alexander and Julius Caesar, run their courses and then eventually end up as dust. This is a very interesting speech that Hamlet gives because it is very much a paradox to how he has acted up to this point. He has been haunted by his father’s ghost and has dealt directly with a human corpse (Polonius), but here he trivializes that now the mighty dead have been made into plaster good enough to fill a hole in the wall. This seems strange coming from a man obsessed with the dead and exacting revenge upon his dead father’s murderers. This reminds me of any period of mourning. Emotions usually run high, memories tend to consume our thoughts and the recently deceased never leave our presences until we decide that we cannot keep going on in that way. Sometimes that realization never comes and we die in mourning. Like Hamlet, many of us grieve and seek retribution, and sometimes even in a maddening way.

Also in the graveyard are Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes, mourning the death of Ophelia. Her grave has been dug and as they are about to close it up forever. Laertes and Hamlet decide to let their longing for Ophelia turn the funeral into bedlam. They both jump into the grave and proclaim their love for her, (Laertes going as far as exclaiming “Hold off the earth a while, Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.”). Hamlet exclaims that they will both be interred with her and will fight for her love even after death. This of course is madness, but it just goes to show us that even the idea of death can lead us to preposterous choices. And death follows us all the way to the end of the play, with a bloodbath fit for royalty alone. As Shakespeare moved into the Jacobean era, the presence of the macabre and the obsession with death will become even more apparent. But Hamlet was a significant turning point in his career. First performed at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Hamlet signified in Shakespeare’s work, a fascination that would only strengthen moving forward.

One thought on “Death Before Glory: Death and Its Influence in Hamlet

  1. Hamlet’s constant questioning of death is what I think makes it one of Shakespeare’s most-studied plays. While death is present in many of them, and especially in Macbeth, a play that is often compared to Hamlet, none of them question what death is. Macbeth is a play drenched in blood, but only shows what death and murder do to change people. In many of the other plays, such as Othello and Romeo & Juliet, death is the result of many compounding actions, but it is indeed an end. In Hamlet, the question of why death is, what death it, and what occurs beyond death are brought up constantly. And at the end we are left with the same answer that we had at the beginning. That being no answer at all.

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