Study Guide

Hamlet Mortality

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Act I, Scene i

What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

Hm. The Ghost keeps appearing on the castle battlements—almost as if the "whole kingdom" hasn't really been able to move on after Old Hamlet's death.

Act I, Scene ii

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on 't! ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

When the play starts, Hamlet is clearly suicidal; the world he sees is so totally corrupted that he wishes his "flesh would melt." But there's a problem: suicide ("self-slaughter") is a sin. That's a lot of internal conflict for one tortured adolescent.


Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.

King Claudius begins by acknowledging Old King Hamlet's death and says it "befitted" the "whole kingdom" to mourn Old Hamlet's loss (emphasis on the past tense.) But, he also asserts that it is "wise" for the "whole kingdom" to move on quickly. Self-interest ("remembrance of ourselves") and self-preservation are both far more important. But why? Well, Claudius, as we will soon learn, is responsible for murdering Old King Hamlet so it's no wonder he wants to sweep the guy's life under the rug. Claudius has also helped himself to Old Hamlet's wife and crown so it's in his best interest if the kingdom moves on and forgets Old Hamlet. Pretty crafty, King Claudius.


Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailèd lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Even Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, tells Hamlet to stop grieving for his father. Death, she argues, is "common." But, when you think about it, losing a father isn't common. Sure, everyone's parents die—but your particular parents only die once.

Act I, Scene v
The Ghost

I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. 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
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

What's worse: dying, or being completely forgotten after death? In Hamlet in Purgatory, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that the Ghost represents a common fear (among the living) of being completely forgotten after death.

Act III, Scene i

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
And, by opposing, end them (3.1.64-68)

Sure, you could say that Hamlet is starting to sound like a broken record with the whole suicide thing. But in this later soliloquy, he just might be moving on. Instead of obsessing about whether or not to kill himself, he's exploring the reasons why people in general don't commit suicide—which might be one reason he doesn't use the word "I" or "me" in this whole soliloquy.

Act IV, Scene iii

Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?

At supper.

At supper where?

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A
certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at
him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We
fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves
for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is
but variable service—two dishes but to one table.
That's the end. (4.3.19-28)

Hamlet tells Claudius that Polonius is "at supper," but what he really means is that Polonius is being eaten for supper. (There goes our appetite.) Is this part of his "antic disposition" or is this really how Hamlet sees things?

Act IV, Scene vii

There on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Sure, all this detail makes us wonder if Gertrude didn't actually witness Ophelia's death—and, if so, why didn't she pull the poor girl out? But, we're a little more interested in the way she describes the death, all peaceful and lovely and honestly a little erotic. Is Ophelia sexier in death than she was in life?

Act V, Scene i

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing
once. How the knave jowls it to the ground as if
'twere Cain's jawbone, that did the first murder!
This might be the pate of a politician which this ass
now o'erreaches, one that would circumvent God,
might it not?

Underneath our skin, we all look pretty much the same. 

   No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither,
   with modesty enough and likelihood to lead it, as
   thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
   returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth
   we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
   was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!

Hamlet has been obsessed with the physical reality of death since Act 1, and here he finally seems to get the philosophical implications: even Alexander the Great "died," "was buried," and "returneth into dust." Is this a sadder and wiser Hamlet?

Is she to be buried in Christian burial,
when she willfully seeks her own salvation?
I tell thee she is. Therefore make her grave
straight. The crowner hath sat on her and finds it
Christian burial.
Will you ha' the truth on 't? If this had not been
a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o'
Christian burial.
(5.1.1-5; 24-26)

According to the two gravediggers or "Clowns," Ophelia has committed suicide—not cool with Christians, and usually means that you don't get a proper burial. Luckily, money talks, and Ophelia's family pulled some strings to get her a religious burial. Hamlet thinks that death affects everyone the same, but maybe it doesn't: rich people even get to die differently.

Act V, Scene ii

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is 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 of aught he leaves 
knows, what is 't to leave betimes? Let be.

Okay, this is convoluted enough to be something about "known unknowns" and "known knowns," but it's actually a deeply philosophical acceptance of fate: whatever happens is going to happen when it happens—if not now, then later. Maybe this is why Hamlet has delayed so long.

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