Death is a potent symbol in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Since the beginning of the play, the death of Hamlet’s father haunts the prince and he is left wondering throughout the play about the very nature of life. Death is also a practical reality in the play and this is seen more clearly at the end of the play where a number of characters meet their end. The death of a character also becomes a reason for a series of events based on the need for revenge on the part of both the living and the dead. The uncertainty of death and an afterlife is another issue that the play tackles through the indecision that characterizes Hamlet as a person in the play.
The death of Hamlet’s father throws him into a state of suspicion regarding most things and the order that was given by the ghost only increases his confusion. This confusion rises to the level where he feels that the only way out for him was to escape from the burden of responsibilities by committing suicide. This, he feels, is a decision that was a choice between existence and non-existence. This is expressed in his famous “to be or not to be” (III, i 58) speech where he talks of the indecision that man faces regards the ending of his own existence through suicide. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, raises a question that was later raised by thinkers of the twentieth century like Albert Camus and Emile Durkheim. The importance of the question can be gauged from the fact that the soliloquy that it is a part of, is one of the most famous in English literature. The conflicting pressures of religion and the hardships of a life on earth force men to be in a constant state of indecision regarding suicide. The distaste for a life full of misery is counterbalanced by a fear of hell that awaits the sinner.
This, however, does not prevent the members of the play from treating life in a frivolous manner. Laertus and Hamlet, the two young men in the play who seek revenge for the murder of their fathers too treat the lives of others with scant respect. The numerous deaths in the play signify the lack of respect that the lives of people are given in the play and in the country of Denmark as it is portrayed in the play. This is due to the “rotten” (I, iv 67) state of affairs that plagued Denmark, as Marcellus puts it, symbolizing the death of a dynasty and a way of living in Denmark. The regeneration of the society as is seen in a tragedy is seen in the entry of Fortinbras. The entry of Fortinbras marks the entry of a new dynasty that too is the result of the quest for revenge; however, Fortinbras’s revenge is the result of ambition. The state of indecision that pervades the play is part of the larger question of death and suicide that the play deals with.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Folger, 2007.