What did Hamlet think about death in Shakespeare's play Hamlet?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet is confused about death. He doesn't understand how death can be so distressing and personal, like the death of his own father, and so impersonal and meaningless, like the deaths of thousands of Fortinbras 's soldiers over "a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Hamlet is confused about death. He doesn't understand how death can be so distressing and personal, like the death of his own father, and so impersonal and meaningless, like the deaths of thousands of Fortinbras's soldiers over "a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name." (4.4.18-20)

HAMLET. Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw.
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. (4.4.26-30)

Hamlet questions what happens after death and comes to no conclusion.

HAMLET. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause ...

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (3.1.73-75, 83-89)

It seems odd that Hamlet doesn't know what happens after death since the ghost of Hamlet's father came to him, clearly from beyond the grave, and from a place that the ghost said was too horrific to reveal to Hamlet.

GHOST. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood... (1.5.17-20)

Two scenes later, Hamlet rationalizes not killing Claudius, even though he has a perfect opportunity to avenge his father's death, because Claudius might go to heaven.

HAMLET. Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. (3.3.76-80)

Hamlet seems to have no qualms about killing Polonius—even if accidentally, thinking that Polonius was Claudius hiding behind the arras in his mother's bedroom—sending him wherever people go when they die and then unfeelingly dragging Polonius's body into the lobby.

HAMLET. Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune.
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger. (3.4.35-37)

Hamlet also has no second thoughts, and no regrets, about changing Claudius's letter to the King of England and thereby sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. He flippantly dismisses their deaths as part of their job, and they should have known better than to come between him and Claudius.

HAMLET. Why, man, they did make love to this employment!
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
'tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites. (5.2.61-66)

Hamlet thinks about killing himself, but he considers it a sin against God.

HAMLET. O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! (1.2.132-135)

Later, Hamlet thinks again about suicide but in an abstract sense.

HAMLET. To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune(65)
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. (1.3.63-67)

At the end of the play, Hamlet seems to accept death, or perhaps even welcome it, but he still doesn't comprehend death, either in its meaning or in its consequences to the living or the dead.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the play abounds with images of death from the very beginning.

At the start, Hamlet is struggling with his father's death; he greatly resents his mother's hasty remarriage to his father's brother (and Hamlet's uncle) Claudius. He is so distressed that he has considered suicide and is upset that God has forbidden it:

HAMLET:

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! (I.ii.132-135)

At the beginning, Hamlet does not seem to be concerned with dying. Hamlet is given to believe that life after death is not pleasant, specifically for those who have died with sins still upon their souls at death—which is the way his father, Old Hamlet, died.

By the end of Act One, Hamlet goes to see if the ghost on the battlements is really his father. Old Hamlet relates that he is in purgatory where "for a time," he must walk at night and burn in the fires during the day. The ghost warns of horrors after death for a soul unabsolved.

But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand an end

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine. (I.v.18-24)

In Act Five, scene one, Hamlet and Horatio are in the cemetery, having returned from Claudius' failed attempt to have Hamlet executed there. When Hamlet realizes that Ophelia has died, he says he is ready to die himself. He jumps into the grave with her body, overcome with grief that she is gone. He argues with Laertes that he (Hamlet) loved Ophelia more than anyone, and his grief is genuine.

HAMLET:

'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do.

Woo't weep, woo't fight, woo't fast, woo't tear thyself?...

I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine,

To outface me with leaping in her grave?

Be buried quick with her, and so will I. (275, 277-280)

In Act Five, scene two, Hamlet is aware that Claudius and Laertes are probably planning his death in the "friendly" sword fight in which the two younger men are to engage. Again, Hamlet seems not to fear death. He has lost so much, that death is like a shadow. Horatio tells Hamlet that if he has a bad feeling about the contest, Horatio will make an excuse to delay the event. Hamlet tells him not to worry: the time of his death is already set—whether it be today, or tomorrow or sometime in the future. Hamlet notes that once dead, a man will not be aware of what happens after his death, so dying early should be of no concern.

HORATIO:

If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall

their repair hither and say you are not fit.

HAMLET:

Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special

Providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to

come, if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now,

yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has

aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be. (209-215)

Hamlet is a tragedy. The main character is a tragic hero. The play reeks of death. Once Hamlet's father dies, depression sets in. His distaste for his uncle, his assumption that his mother has forgotten his father, and then Ophelia's death have changed the man we can believe was once happy, into a shadow of his former self. Death seems not to scare Hamlet.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team