Hamlet’s Obsession With DeathIn Hamlet, William Shakespeare presents the main character Hamlet as a man who is fixated on death.
Shakespeare uses this obsession to explore both Hamlet’s desire for revenge and his need for assurance. In the process, Shakespeare directs Hamlet to reflect on basic principles such as justice and truth by offering many examples of Hamlet’s compulsive behavior; as thoughts of death are never far from his mind. It is apparent that Hamlet is haunted by his father’s death. When Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, their conversation raises all kinds of unthinkable questions, for example murder by a brother, unfaithful mother, that triggers Hamlet’s obsession. He feels compelled to determine the reliability of the ghost’s statements so that he can determine how he must act. Ultimately, it is his obsession with death that leads to Hamlet avenging the death of his father by killing Claudius. In act 3, Hamlet questions the unbearable pain of life and views death through the metaphor of sleep.
“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. To die, to sleep / no more” (3.1.64-68), details which bring up new thoughts about what happens in the after life. Thus, Hamlet contemplates suicide, but his lacking knowledge about what awaits him in the afterworld causes him to question what death will bring.
For example he states, “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / no traveler returns, puzzles the will / and makes us rather bear those ills we have / than fly to others that we know not of” (3.1.87-90), again revealing his growing concern with “Truth” and his need for certainty. Once again, death appears in act 4 with the suicide of Ophelia, the demand for Hamlet’s execution and the gravedigger scene. All of these situations tie back with how death is all around Hamlet and feeds his obsession with it. Finally in act 5, Hamlet meets his own death, as his obsession to know leads to the death of himself.
Hamlet’s obsession with death also fuels his desire for revenge, for instance when he revisits the ghost and he explains how he died. Hamlet, saying, “O my prophetic soul! My uncle'” (1.5.48), realizes that Claudius, his uncle and the new King, is the one who killed his father. The ghost demands that Hamlet revenge his father’s death and the treacherous acts of the murderer.
The ghost already has an idea in his own mind about his revenge when he says, “But howsomever thou pursues this act, / taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / against thy mother aught” (1.5.91-93). Hamlet hides his desire for revenge by saying, “There’s never a villain Dwelling in all Denmark but he’s an arrant knave” (1.5.137-138). When Hamlet finds out that his friends had heard the whole conversation between the ghost and himself, he makes them swear not to say a thing, and intentionally pretends to be crazy.
Hamlet’s madness also allows him to avoid truth in his pursuit of revenge. Although Hamlet overtly wants to know the truth, his behavior is quite contradicting. By avoiding a confrontation with Claudius and accusing him directly of wrongdoing, Hamlet also avoids the possibility of truly knowing what happened.
In general, however, Hamlet is a man who needs to be in control of his actions and assured of the outcomes. Hamlet does not act rashly, but continuously delays his actions while he tries to obtain more accurate knowledge about what he should do. From Act 1 through Act 4, Hamlet carefully thinks through every detail. Finally he comes to the realization that revenge is not always the best solution. He then moves beyond his earlier need to settle the score and asks for forgiveness from Leartes. Hamlet’s need to know is highlighted in his interaction with the ghost, but treated in an unusual way. The ghost brings to attention the themes of truth and ethical behavior, but also serves as contrast to Hamlet’s need for belief.
The ghost represents death, but that is one thing Hamlet cannot be certain of, because he has not yet experienced it. Even more, he cannot tell whether the ghost is truly his father’s spirit or whether it is an evil being who wants to lead him toward destruction as when he says, “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else / And shall I couple hell’ O fie!” (1.5.
99-100). As Hamlet moves from revenge to forgiveness he realizes lessons about justice and truth. After seeing Yorick’s skull, a direct encounter with the “face” of death, it makes him realize that everyone will die, even the great Alexander. No matter what a person’s noble status, in the end everyone meets the same end, as mingled dust scattered upon the earth. There is no superiority or inferiority of status in death. Another lesson is found when the ghost commands Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius but not to harm his mother Gertrude, the queen.
“Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / to prick and sting her” (1.5.92-95), with this statement, the ghost implies that she will get her just punishment.
She will receive it both in heaven and through having to live with her heavy conscience. Hamlet also learns about justice through the lesson of forgiveness. Since he realizes that everyone will eventually die and get their just punishments, he is able to move from obsession to understanding and forgiveness. Hamlet also learns that outcomes may vary since other people may not share the same thoughts about whether or not to forgive. The ghost of Hamlet’s father forgives Gertrude, because he knows she will be judged elsewhere; Leartes cannot forgive Hamlet because he has not come to this realization. However each of these situations brings Hamlet to understand more about human nature. Hamlet realizes that people are ultimately held responsible for their actions, whether through punishment and a heavy conscience in this life or in the uncertain world of the afterlife.
Despite all of his desire for the truth, Hamlet slowly comes to realize that very notion of the truth is, in fact, questionable. Through confronting his anger and his personal need for revenge, Hamlet finally understands that the only thing that is certain is death itself.