Critical Analysis of the Main Theme in Hamlet
Death has always been a part of life but is a mystery nobody experiences to tell. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses loss as a theme, which permeates throughout the play. There are several ways this theme develops throughout, from where the ghost introduces the idea of death and its consequences, to Hamlet’s preoccupation of death, to the idea of suicide.
To begin, the theme of loss is an idea that recurs in most parts of the play. The events relating to death and loss that take place throughout Hamlet play a vital role as they all help to enhance this theme. The first sign of death is the mention of a ghost several times. In act one, scene one, Bernardo and Marcellus urge Horatio to keep guard with them, because they hope to show the ghost of King Hamlet, who has recently died and which they claim has appeared before them in the late hours of the night. Horatio does not believe them in the beginning, but then the ghost suddenly appears before them. At the beginning of act one, scene one, Horatio remarks: As thou art to thyself.
Such was the very armor he had on
When he was ambitious Norway combated.
So frowned he once when in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
‘Tis strange (1, 1, 58-63).
This portrays the belief of Elizabethans back then in that the line between the dead and the living is very fine. It was normal for ghosts to appear to everyday people at the time. A ghost does not portray good, and as Hamlet and Horatio discuss what the ghost was talking about, they find out that there is a “deep corruption at the heart of Denmark’s throne”: Claudius murdered King Hamlet to take his throne. This disturbs Hamlet so much that he develops an obsession with the idea of misconduct, rot, decay, and the nature of death and loss. This ghost is the recently dead father of Hamlet, and he enhances the idea of loss in Hamlet’s mind as he introduces the idea of death and vengeance in him. Likewise, the appearance of the ghost symbolizes tough times are coming ahead. The ghost is symbolizing and foreshadows the upcoming commotion in Denmark as Hamlet prepares to take revenge against Claudius. It shows that the ghost is not a good spirit, but rather an evil one for the state of Denmark and Claudius. In act one, scene five, the ghost speaks to Hamlet, claiming to be his father, and the mounding up of details that the ghost uses to describe how he was killed stokes up that fire of retaliation within him, he says: “Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (1, 5, 38-40). Hamlet is appalled after finding out that his father has been murdered. “O my prophetic soul!” he cries (1, 5, 40). When somebody is sleeping, it is one of the most innocent states that a person could be in. To take a person in this innocent state, especially by a person who should be heavily trusted as a family member, that immediately makes people side with the ghost and Hamlet. This pent-up sadness has caused Hamlet to agree to seek vengeance for his father by killing Claudius. This idea of the ghost introducing the idea of revenge to Hamlet for the murder of King Hamlet further enhances the idea of loss in the play.
In addition to the mention of the ghost several times, Hamlet’s preoccupation with death also enhances the theme of loss and how it is portrayed. Death usually plays a side role in people’s busy lives, but when it hits one personally, things change. Most people have a natural fear of death, but some develop an obsession where they cannot think about anything else. Hamlet fills his mind with thoughts of revenge and suicide, hoping to bring justice to his father. This obsession affects everyone in the play, further enhancing the theme of loss. Polonius is the first person to feel Hamlet’s obsession with death. Hamlet kills Polonius thinking that it was Claudius, and all he says is, “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!” (3, 4, 32). Hamlet does not care that he kills an innocent man in this scene, he makes himself think he deserved to die for intruding. This illustrates Hamlet’s character. Hamlet acts blindly through impulse, which he rarely does, and kills the wrong one. One should not let themselves lose control when people cannot differentiate between what is a good deed and what is a bad one. But, Hamlet does not kill the right person, thus he cannot perform the great deed given to him. In addition, as a result of Hamlet killing Polonius, Ophelia goes into a state of insanity. With Laertes gone and her father dead, she has no one to depend on. Horatio tells the Queen to speak with Ophelia and says: “She speaks much of her father, says she hears / There are tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart” (4, 5, 4-5). Ophelia is mourning her father, as the lines from her “songs” means grieving over an aged relative “His beard as white as snow / All flaxen was his poll” with flaxen here indicating a white or grayed head of hair (4, 5, 190-191). This line is referring to an old man. She continues singing by saying: “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end” (4, 5, 180-181). This emphasizes how much the loss of her father affected her, in that people just see that she is spewing utter nonsense when really she is mourning her father. Later on, Ophelia drowns herself in the river because she feels that there’s nothing else she can live for, everyone in her life is gone. Polonius and Ophelia were affected by Hamlet’s obsession with death, which ended each of their lives. Hamlet’s preoccupation and an unhealthy obsession with death caused the theme of loss to be enhanced as many people died in the play due to this.
Moreover, Hamlet is so overwhelmed with loss that he contemplates suicide. The audience first learns this in act 1 in Hamlet’s soliloquy. It takes place after the king and queen say they believe Hamlet has already grieved, Claudius says: ”How is it that the clouds still hang on you” (1, 3, 66). Hamlet’s father, who he dearly loves has just died, recently, and Hamlet comes back to Denmark, not only to find that his beloved father has died because of a freak accident but also to find that he has married his mother and taken the spot of the king. In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet refers to the world as an ‘unweeded garden’ where gross things grow in abundance. He hopes that his physical self might cease to exist on its own without requiring him to commit a mortal sin: “O that this is too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” (1, 2, 128-130). Though saddened by his father’s death, the larger cause of Prince Hamlet’s misery is Queen Gertrude’s disloyal marriage to his uncle. She announces the new marriage even though it has not been a month since late King Hamlet’s death. He feels he has lost everything, his mother, father, and the throne. This soliloquy shows Hamlet’s deep affection for the late King Hamlet. Similarly, Hamlet further contemplates suicide in a soliloquy in act three, scene 1. Hamlet feels extremely depressed and is fed up with everything in the world. He contemplates putting an end to himself.
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,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles (3, 1, 57-62).
In this quote, Hamlet contemplates whether it is easier to die compared to continue living with life’s problems and the element that comes with choosing to live life on this earth. Hamlet also says he is dealing with the natural fear of the unknown, thus living life is preferable. This is because nobody returns from the grave to talk about what happens after one passes away. Where do people go, what happens? The irony of this is that the tragic consequences of Hamlet’s inaction are the multiple unintended deaths he causes. Hamlet decides that after his father’s death there is nothing left to live for even though he has a kingdom to run and his mother is still living.
To sum up, the loss is a very evident theme throughout Hamlet. This is done through the appearances of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Hamlet’s preoccupation with death, the idea of suicide, and how Hamlet feels that living is not worth anything after the terrible loss of his late father he has experienced. This is how the theme of loss is introduced and enhanced.
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