Please provide some references to the the theme of "The many forms of death" in Hamlet.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet, much given to rhetorical questions, finds himself asking so often about death.  In fact, one critic contends that Shakespeare's Hamlet engages in an "extended dialogue with death" throughout the play.

1. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet rues that his flesh cannot "...melt/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew" (1.2.129-130) because he is so distraught over his mother's quick marriage to his uncle within a month after the death of King Hamlet. Melancholy fills Hamlet, but he does not contemplate suicide; instead, he just wishes that the situation were different.

2. Hamlet is called to speak with his father's ghost. King Hamlet's ghost demands of the prince that his assassination be revenged.  But, faced with the idea of regicide, Hamlet is hesitant because killing a king upsets the Chain of Being; also he is not yet convinced that Claudius has assassinated his father.  As he agonizes over what action to take, Hamlet bemoans,

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!(1.5.209-210)

3. In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet raises the existential question of the meaning of life with his famous rhetorical question: "To be or not to be," concluding that people do not commit suicide because "conscience doth make cowards of us all"; that is, people do not end their lives for fear of eternal damnation.

4. Hamlet accidentally kills the meddling Polonius who hides behind the tapestry in Gertrude's room. However, for all his angst about other lives and issues, Hamlet feels little for Polonius:

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!

5. This death of Polonius effects the death of the distraught and fragile Ophelia, who goes mad and kills herself. The loss of Ophelia strikes deep in Hamlet's heart:

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her? (5.1.270-271)

6. Upon learning that Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are on a mission for his death, Hamlet changes the orders that Claudius has written and has his two former friends, who have betrayed him, killed by the English.

7. In his final acts as Prince of Denmark, Hamlet removes that which is "rotten in Denmark," slaying Laertes, Claudius, and indirectly Gertrude, who drinks the poison intended from Hamlet.  It is with a sense of righteousness that Hamlet orders Claudius,

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
Follow my mother. (5.2.332-334)

He accepts the forgiveness of Laertes, and asks Horatio to tell his story. The rule of Denmark Hamlet bequeaths to the noble Fortinbras:

But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with the occurrents more and less,
Which have solicited—The rest is silence (5.2.367-370)