Death and mourning in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In this essay I compare death and mourning in act one of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – the death of King and the appearance of his ghost, with those in 4.7 (Ophelia’s death), and 5.1 (Churchyard scene). I conclude that death is a pervasive theme in Hamlet and that Shakespeare approaches death from a number of different perspectives. That is: death in terms of our spiritual presence and our physical presence, and in terms of circumstance – murder, suicide or natural. At the end of the play, the audience finds itself with more questions than answers, with the events left largely open to interpretation.

In 4.7, Queen Gertrude informs Laertes of Ophelia’s death: “So fast they follow: —your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.”, and explains: “Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke; /When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook.” Ophelia is said to have been singing songs while in the water: “Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes; / As one incapable of her own distress,”. Before, in 4.5, her singing indicates her declining mental state. Whether this led to her suicide, or her failing to notice the danger she was in remains equivocal. The willow’s branches move in the stream until they break and wash away; Ophelia – mentally broken – suffers the same misfortune. Leaving this scene, the audience has not had her death confirmed to be an accident; it is only implied: the branch “broke”. Then, in the scene that follows, 5.1, it is suggested that her death may have been a suicide by the two gravediggers: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?” If in fact Ophelia has taken her own life, she is not eligible for Christian burial. This shows the important role of religion in the way death and mourning were considered at the time; this is also in line with Emma Smith’s comment that “death and life are more intertwined, running in parallel”, because even after death, the living are preoccupied with the dead’s absence through their mourning ritual. Physical decay is then brought to the audience’s attention. This happens in an almost comical way, through dialogue between Hamlet and the gravediggers – who Shakespeare named ‘clowns’ – and the initial subject of conversation: Yorick, the court jester, who Hamlet calls “a fellow of infinite jest”.

Aforementioned scenes show the perception of death and mourning to be one subject to strong cultural and religious influences. The body holds no inherent value; it simply perishes: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth;”. The physical consequences of death are discussed light-heartedly, in so far as they do not have spiritual/religious implications. Shakespeare mocks these ideas, with the juxtaposition of strong Christian values and the power of aristocrats. If Ophelia’s died by her own doing, the latter clearly takes precedent. Similarly, act one seems unconcerned with the physical representation of death, and preoccupied with a spiritual one: the ghost of King Hamlet. Whether this ghost is a product of Hamlet’s imagination or a real presence (“’He waxes desperate with imagination.” – Horatio, 1.4), it is at least a symbol of the transcendent presence of the dead – or their memory – among the living. In addition, the representation of death in this way may also mock religious customs: the ghost is a purgatorial spirit, but it is one that asks to commit murder as an act of revenge – which defies the point of purgatory: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.4). The ghost also appears to Prince Hamlet, who is assumed to be a Protestant, and purgatory is a Catholic principle. Act I sets Hamlet up for his internal struggle with death as a concept, and the question of how to go about revenging the unjust and unnatural death of someone close to him.

In conclusion, Shakespeare’s Hamlet discusses many views of death: the significance of physical and spiritual absence, relating to the question of what happens after death, and the multitude of religious interpretations of this questions. It also considers the significance of the circumstances in which death comes about, where suicide has spiritual implications, and murder continues to haunt the living by influencing the process of mourning, and by suggesting the need for revenge. Hamlet’s interaction with his father’s ghost sets up this juxtaposition, which is further explored in the subsequent acts; yet it is up to the audience to read between the lines and interpret the events.

Resources
Raffel, B. (2003). Hamlet, William Shakespeare, fully annotated. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Shakespeare, W. (1998). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1524

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