Death is one of the most poignant themes in Hamlet. The central character’s views on death change throughout the play. He contemplates the link between mortality and religion, fearing the afterlife. Hamlet continues reflecting on the topic and comes to accept it. Death doesn’t seem too scary or dreadful until he starts to see the value of life.
From the beginning, he asks himself if it is worth living and fighting, or is it not better to leave this world? As the story develops, Hamlet’s concept of death progresses as follows:
- Fear of life, and thoughts of suicide, death is like a dream.
- Suicide is impossible because of God.
- Reconciliation with and acceptance of the inevitability of death.
- The passing of Ophelia deeply affects Hamlet, and he recognizes the value of life.
After Hamlet learns about his father’s death and his mother’s second marriage, he thinks about suicide more than once. The value of human life is crumbling his eyes. His father is a wonderful man, but he dies, and the criminal triumphs. Later in the play, Hamlet, an advocate of humanity, becomes the cause of several people’s death.
In Act III, Scene 1, in his suicidal soliloquy Hamlet compares death and sleep:
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep
Although Hamlet has an obsession with death, he does not have a formed idea about killing himself. His desire to die remains shaky and ambiguous. For Hamlet, suicide is impossible because God does not allow it.
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
(Act I, Scene 3).
Life is complicated, but killing yourself to get rid of its horrors isn’t hard. After all, death is like a dream. However, Hamlet doubts what awaits a person after death: if the same things happen in the afterlife, death does not relieve suffering. He is not sure if mental anguish ends with death. What on the other side of life is “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”
Hamlet’s fear of death prompts him to renounce action and struggle. Hamlet is forced to admit that its premonition deprives the man of his determination.
In Act V, Scene 1, Hamlet’s conversation on the graveyard indicates that he has reached a peace of mind. The gravedigger, accustomed to the sight of dead bodies, makes rude jokes about human transience. In contrast, Hamlet cannot reconcile himself that even the great are doomed to death.
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
However, the tone and meaning of Hamlet’s thoughts about death are now different than before. He was previously outraged by the injustice of nature. The very idea of death aroused fear in him. Currently, there is a bitter irony in his words. Hamlet reconciles with the inevitability of death.
When Hamlet learns about Ophelia’s demise, his newly found indifference to death instantly leaves him. In a rush of grief, he runs to Ophelia’s grave. At this moment, he realizes what a terrible, irrevocable loss is death. In Act V, Scene 2, before Laertes kills Hamlet, the prince fights to defend himself. He used to think about suicide, now he understands the value of living and wants to save his own life.