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In Shakespeare's, Hamlet, there are two symbols that directly relate to the theme of death in the play. Death is almost an overpowering theme. We first "see" it in learning that Hamlet has returned home for his father's funeral. Next we hear Old Hamlet's ghost describe his dishonorable death.
Two symbols directly relate to "death." The first is blood, symbolic of life—and death. It surrounds Hamlet's thoughts of vengeance against Claudius for Old Hamlet's death. We know that death is especially prevalent in the last scene of the play, but until then, for Hamlet, it centers around revenge: the new King's death at his hand.
In Act One, Old Hamlet relates that the story he will tell of his murder will freeze one's blood, as to kill the listener.
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood… (I.v.19-20)
In Act Three Hamlet has proof of Claudius' guilt with the King's reaction to the play. Hamlet is on fire, ready to act. First he must see Gertrude. Alone he speaks of his intent to act on things he has hesitated over too long. He notes that it is late, the "witching hour," when he could do such terrible things—like drinking the blood of one just killed—that the world would shake at it. Again, the reference to blood is directly connected to Old Hamlet's murder, and Hamlet's intent to kill Claudius—more death.
'tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. (III.ii.371-375)
In Act IV, Hamlet and Rosencrantz come upon Fortinbras' army; the soldiers are ready to die over a worthless piece of land, fight only on principal. If they can lay down their lives for something of such small importance (he chastises himself), how—under his own circumstances—can he do less? From this moment on, his thoughts will center on vengeance and shedding Claudius blood, or nothing.
How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep… (IV.iv.58-61)
O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (67-68)
The other symbol that supports the theme of death is Yorick's skull. It is the skull of the old king's jester, and Hamlet comes upon it quite accidentally as he and Horatio travel through the graveyard. It is where Hamlet now faces the inevitability of death—of all people—in the graveyard that holds bodies of those dead by disease or poison, where decay and death are all around. These images pertain to the state of Denmark (where something is "rotten"), as well as with Claudius and the poison he used on Old Hamlet—such as the poison that he figuratively spreads now to protect himself. (E.g., Claudius will poison Laertes' mind against Hamlet.)
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! A poured
a flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir,
was Yorick's skull, the King's jester… (V.i.167-169)
[Takes the skull.]
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. (172-174)
Hamlet has faced his father's death; soon he will face his own. Death is a theme that "flourishes" in the play, by foul play, or as a natural part of life. The theme is supported by symbols: blood (Hamlet's plans for Claudius' death) and Yorick's skull (death and decay).
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