An Analysis of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark: Shakespeare’s Philosophy of Life
When Shakespeare has the gravedigger unearth the remains of Yorick and says, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well,” Shakespeare is making a serious comment on life and its meaning. In an essay of 500 words, interpret Shakespeare’s philosophy of life and what we consider important, such as family, possessions, wealth, health, etc. Only discuss the significance of the remains.
‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ is well remembered as one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. It begins in death and ends in death- in the interim reflecting on life, politics, greed, and evil. Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost one night at Elsinore Castle who tells him that his uncle Claudius-the late King’s own brother had him murdered in order to marry his wife Queen Gertrude and so inherit the throne. Scarcely a month has passed when the wedding is completed. Despondent and melancholy, Hamlet feigns madness so as not to arouse suspicion while delving into the intrigues of the palace, especially as he finds out that his mother has been poisoned. Even in his madness, there is method and purpose. Hamlet is coherent at very few points in the play, and here we see him waxing on the philosophical, as he tries to attach significance to the meaning and purpose of life and death.
“Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well”. These words are spoken by Hamlet in Act 5, Scene 1, as he stands over the grave of Yorick, the Court jester. The gravedigger picks up the skull and hands it to Hamlet, who takes it and asks the gravedigger to identify it. When the gravedigger says that it is Yorick’s skull, Hamlet takes the skull in his hands and immediately recalls his childhood days, wherein he had ridden on the jester’s back many a time. Reminiscing a bit further, he lovingly recalls and talks to the skull, asking it where all its wit and ability to jest and cause laughter at the royal tables had gone now. He further reminisces that Yorick was one of the few who could jest with his mother the late Queen that despite all her makeup she could still not look better than himself. What Hamlet is trying to say here is that ‘the evil that men do lives on after them, the good is often interred with their bones’- Shakespeare’s reference to Julius Caesar in the speech given by Marc Antony (Act 3, Scene 2). Indeed, we are seldom remembered for our good actions, while infamy lives on as in references to Hitler, Attila the Hun and other cruel men even today. Hamlet further states to the gravedigger whether he thinks that the skull of Alexander the Great looked and smelled just as bad, and would make a great stopper for a hole in a barrel. Hamlet is reflecting upon life and the importance we give to possessions, wealth and family, when the ultimate reality is that when we depart this life we will take nothing tangible with us- nothing but our good and bad deeds with which to be judged in the life thereafter. For all his fame as a conqueror of the entire known world at the time, legend has it that before Alexander the Great died he asked that his remains be paraded with open and empty hands- a reminder to people that we cannot take any of our wealth- whether hard-earned or ill-gotten- to eternity. Such is the sordid and stark realities of life and death (Bevington, 2004).
We must all face the fact that life is but a journey, a passage from birth to death. From dust, we came and to dust we shall return- skull, bones and all. Hamlet’s reference to Yorick not only reflects Shakespeare’s philosophy of life but forces us to look into ourselves and our deeds and misdeeds-invoking in the more thoughtful a desire to make amends before departing this earth. It is all very well to accumulate wealth and possessions- but to what purpose when we have no use for them in the life thereafter.
Bevington, David (ed.) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Pearson Education, 2004.