Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
Haunted both literally and figuratively by the death of his father, Prince Hamlet is preoccupied by the subject of death throughout the play. Indeed, life and death—who lives, who dies, and what happens after death—are some of the central framing devices of Hamlet. In act III, Hamlet’s existential “To be or not to be” soliloquy captures many of these larger thematic ideas. One of the most famous passages in all of English literature, Hamlet’s speech poses a series of questions: To live, or to die? Why does one choose to live, when life is often painful, rather than face the unknown of death? Is it cowardly not to act decisively and choose death, or is it “nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” Hamlet, as he is throughout the play, is plagued by indecision in answering these questions.
In the opening scene of Hamlet, the guards and Horatio spy the ghost of King Hamlet, and this spectral encounter sets the tone of the play moving forward. In the world of Hamlet, life and death are not separate realms, but closely intertwined, and communication from beyond the grave is not only possible, but necessary to further the action of the story. The ghost of King Hamlet reveals to Prince Hamlet that he will wander Purgatory until the young prince avenges his murder; as is so often the case with hauntings, a ghost appears to the living in order to address the unfinished business of its life. This suggests that one possibility of the afterlife in Hamlet’s world is one in which ghosts walk among—and communicate with—the living, at least until their wishes are acted upon.
As he continues to mourn his father, Hamlet is greatly disturbed by Queen Gertrude’s marriage to the late King’s brother Claudius. Because his father passed away only two months prior, Hamlet thinks the marriage is disrespectful, and he later suggests that Gertrude and Claudius's marriage is unnatural, even incestuous. Of course, Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s remarriage is amplified tenfold when he learns the true cause of his father’s death. Hamlet’s concern for the proper respect of the dead is linked thematically to his broader contemplation of death itself. What does it mean to be remembered, he wonders, and will his actions in life matter after he himself is dead? The answer to this question, ultimately, is “yes.” In the bloody final scene of the play, Horatio—at Hamlet’s dying request—pledges to tell newly crowned Fortinbras the story of Hamlet and his demise.
In his soliloquy, Hamlet says,
To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
In his mourning of his father, his outrage at the murder, and his doomed love affair with Ophelia, Hamlet experiences a significant amount of heartache. He questions whether any of this is really worth it and suggests that to end the suffering of life is “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”—in other words, a desirable action and end to his troubles. This soliloquy appears right before Hamlet’s “nunnery” scene with Ophelia, in which he insults and rejects her, and it makes sense that Hamlet is pondering the futility of life and love before doing so. He has decided that he cannot marry Ophelia, and even suspects her of conspiring with Claudius and Polonius against him. Hamlet is devastated by this, but for once, he is firm in his decision to tell Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery.” What is the point of bearing children, Hamlet asks, if they will all end up sinners like Claudius and Gertrude? Why continue the human line at all? Hamlet’s suicidal, misanthropic musings eerily foreshadow Ophelia’s death, which was either a suicide or a terrible accident; the court does not know with certainty. Either way, Hamlet’s demands that she leave him and not produce any children are gruesomely met when Ophelia drowns.
Perhaps the most important part of Hamlet’s soliloquy are the following lines:
To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
This is the crucial problem at the center of Hamlet’s thoughts. If we cannot know what happens after death, he says, we are afraid of “what dreams may come” after we die. The fear of the unknown allows people to continue to live, even though, according to Hamlet, life itself is misery. Better the devil you know, he suggests: “rather bear those ills we have / Than to fly to others we know not of.”
Throughout the play, Hamlet’s uncertainty and unwillingness to act allows King Claudius to continue to live. In the third scene of act III, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius but shies away from it, thinking that if he kills Claudius while he is praying, Claudius might go to heaven, an unacceptable outcome for Hamlet, who wants Claudius to suffer for his crimes. In general, Hamlet muses, it is too much thinking that prevents people from taking decisive action: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, / And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Ultimately, Hamlet’s own inaction results in the bloodbath that is the final scene of the play, an irony given that he spent so long deliberating how and when to kill King Claudius. Ultimately, Hamlet does not have control over his own fate, but he does tell Horatio that he is ready to die prior to the duel scene. Perhaps Hamlet’s acceptance of death is his own kind of action.