Which of the characters in William Shakespeare's Hamlet "deserve to die"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In an ideal world, no character in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet “should have died,” with the possible exception of Claudius, and ideally even Claudius would have confessed his crime, repented for it, and suffered some punishment other than death (although this latter possibility seems hard to imagine). All the other deaths seem highly unfortunate and greatly regrettable. Consider, for example, the deaths of the following characters:

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Admittedly they serve the interests of Claudius, but they have no way of knowing that Claudius is a conniving and murderous hypocrite, nor do they know that they are carrying Hamlet’s death warrant with them to England. Hamlet’s conscious decision to arrange for their own deaths makes him, in a sense, the only other person in the play besides Claudius who is actually guilty of deliberately taking lives. Horatio, an extremely virtuous character, seems shocked by Hamlet’s decision to have the two men killed, and Hamlet seems to sense that shock and tries to dismiss his friend’s concern:

Horatio. So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't.

Hamlet. Why, man, they did make love to this employment!

They are not near my conscience . . . .

  • Ophelia. She is perhaps the most innocent person in the play and is certainly the most innocent of all the people who die. Her death is completely unmerited.
  • Laertes. He tries to kill Hamlet because he blames Hamlet for the death of his father – a death that Hamlet did indeed cause.
  • Polonius. He is killed by Hamlet not because Hamlet actually knows that he is killing Polonius but because he thinks that he may be killing Claudius. Polonius is a servant of Claudius in much the same way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are. His motives are not malign and vicious. Nevertheless, Hamlet does not seem particularly bothered that he has taken this life.
  • Gertrude. No firm evidence in the play suggests that Gertrude participated in the killing of her first husband or even knew that he was murdered. If she had participated or had known, she might conceivably “deserve” to die, but instead her death seems just one of the many tragic deaths in this work.
  • Hamlet. Ironically, for the reasons mentioned above – especially those involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but also those involving Polonius and even, to some extent, Ophelia – Hamlet may be the one character in the play besides Claudius who conceivably “deserves” to die. He killed Polonius (if only by accident) and he deliberately arranged for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His mistreats Ophelia, and he even (arguably) mistreats his mother. Although it goes against the tradition of seeing Hamlet as a hero to say so, perhaps Hamlet, if anyone besides Claudius in this play, is a character who “deserves” to die. He is responsible for three deaths and doesn't seem especially sorry about any of them.