How does Shakespeare present the idea of mortality in act 5, scene 1 and how does this relate to Hamlet's character in the rest of the play?

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Throughout the play, Hamlet has been meditating on death or mortality. Was his father's death murder or did he die a natural death? How should revenge take place? So far, most of Hamlet's thinking has been from the point of view of the afterlife. In his "to be or not to be" soliloquy, for example, his thoughts about suicide hinge on whether it will lead to oblivion--in other words whether he will melt away or evaporate like dew, which is what he would like--or if their actually is an  afterlife that might lead to hell. That fear of an afterlife keeps people from suicide, Hamlet thinks.

The afterlife is uppermost in his thoughts about killing Claudius as well: for example, he refrains from killing him while he is in prayer, because he doesn't want Claudius to go straight to heaven. 

In Act V, scene 1, Hamlet meditates on death from the point of view of how the dead are remembered by the living rather than from the perspective of the afterlife. He and Horatio stumble across a gravedigger digging a fresh grave, and Hamlet wonders, as he picks up a discarded skull, who it belonged to. The gravedigger tells him it's the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Hamlet remembers Yorick carrying him about on his back when he was a child and is shocked at the idea that Yorick now is reduced to this smelly skull. Hamlet thinks about death as the great leveller or equalizer of people ( a common trope of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)--and Hamlet muses that even someone like Alexander the Great is no more than dirt and dust now. 

Hamlet realizes in this scene that from the point of view of the living, we are all destined for the same fate, whether beggars or kings: to become a pile of bones that decay into dirt after a few short years. When he discovers the grave being dug is for Ophelia, and when the mourners arrive for her burial, he mocks their words and gestures of grief with his own hyperbole: they are not really going to do anything for her, no matter what their words: in reality her death means very little. 

All of these thoughts are in the mind of this most contemplative of men as he heads to the final confrontation with Claudius and Laertes. When he warns Laertes that there is something dangerous about him: "I have something in me dangerous,/Which let thy wisdom fear," he may be alluding to his lack of fear of death, for he knows we all end up as dust. 

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Act V, Scene 1 presents Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" soliloquy, in which we find our prince yet again pondering death. This time, Shakespeare presents death through the eyes of a few unlikely sources: first, through a pair of gravediggers; and second, indirectly through a jester's skull.

As the gravediggers prepare for Ophelia's funeral, we get a much different view of death from that presented thus far in the play. This pair pokes fun by literally joking; the first proposes a riddle to the second, to which they themselves are the answer. Their jests contrast sharply with their task, especially in light of the fact that they also debate Ophelia's funeral rites because they believe she committed suicide. Suicide has been an idea Hamlet has pondered since Act I; yet for him, it has never been a joking matter. He has seriously considered the act but has always feared for his eternal soul.

When Hamlet reveals himself to the gravediggers, he asks about the skulls they have unearthed. They reveal that one of the skulls belonged to Yorick, who was Hamlet's father's court jester and Hamlet's childhood companion. The reality of the certainty of death settles upon Hamlet. He reflects upon all the great men in history who are now no more than dust and bones. At this point in the play, Hamlet is able to see beyond himself and his present circumstances, which he has not been able to do before now.

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Throughout the drama of Hamlet, Prince Hamlet contemplates death in the fear of the unknown; however, in Act V, Hamlet's thoughts take a very serious turn as he realizes what an equalizer death is. This turn of thought prompts maturity and action.

In the early acts, Hamlet is obsessed with the meaning of life and the question of death. He wonders what happens after death, and his anxiety about the afterlife prevents him from acting on the ghost's appeal and from committing suicide to end his dilemmas--"To be or not to be." This preoccupation precipitates Hamlet's meditations on the uncertainty and absurdity of life, as well as his hesitation in killing Claudius lest he become a martyr as he prays, and thereby earn heaven.

But, in Act V as Hamlet beholds the skulls, particularly that of Yorick, this experience of realizing that Death is the great equalizer finally removes Hamlet from his youth. For, after this experience, Hamlet abandons his "antic disposition," and he himself envisions a new man emerging as he declares, "This is I/ Hamlet the Dane" (5.1.226-227). Further, he warns Laertes, "Yet have I in me something dangerous (5.1.232). As renowned Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom writes, Hamlet is "beyond maturity at the close."

Indeed, in Act V, Hamlet has finally looked into the existential condition of man, and has gained the knowledge that he needs to finally act upon what he has deliberated for the previous four acts. Moreover, his famous "To be" soliloquy is the existential foundation for much of what he utter in Act V. Bloom calls it Hamlet's "death speech in advance, the prolepsis of his transcendence."

Additional Source:

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998. Print.

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