The author Janne Teller once stated in her novel Nothing that; “The reason dying is so easy is because death has no meaning… And the reason death has no meaning is because life has no meaning.” This statement directly reflects the central criticism in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The death of a king and the necessity for revenge introduces many complex themes throughout the play as a whole. One of the most prevalent, the nature of death. Through the portrayal of a complicated protagonist with intense character shifts, and the use of rhetorical devices Shakespeare criticizes the attitude of sentimentality towards death and argues that morality is meaningless.”To be or not to be, that is the question”(3.1.64), perhaps the most famous line Shakespeare has ever authored.
The soliloquy that follows this famous phrase not only portrays themes of life and death but also introduces the audience to a perplexing protagonist. Shakespeare criticizes mortality and the sentimental attitude some hold towards life through the protagonist, Hamlet. The phrase “To be or not to be” is especially intriguing because of its vagueness. Some interpretations suggest that Hamlet is contemplating suicide, while others suggest he is questioning going through with his revenge plot. However, the ambiguous nature of “to be” proposes an explanation as dark and broody as the speaker himself. Hamlet is questioning his existence as a whole, “being” in the world or disappearing from it. Essentially portraying an attitude of hopelessness.
If he were questioning death or suicide, the diction would be much clearer. However, Shakespeare inserts vague diction to establish an attitude of apprehension and a motif of evasion of responsibility. Furthermore, Hamlet contemplates the nature of death and expresses a fear of what may come after, ” To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream.
Ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?”(3.1.73-74) Hamlet frequently compares death to an eternal sleep, however, fears the possibility of a “dream”. The comparison “to sleep” emphasizes the apprehension Hamlet feels toward an afterlife. Sleep can be connotated by peaceful rest, rather than eternal extinction, however, Hamlets fear of “what dreams may come” implies that this sleep is nothing but peaceful. Consequently, Hamlet’s overarching fear of facing the concept of death head-on is further emphasized.
Thus, as much as Hamlet frequently contemplates death, he cannot take action, towards himself or others, due to his fear of an afterlife. His frequent inner battle prevents him from committing the act that is required to avenge his father’s own death. As this inner battle develops, the plot of the play comes to a standstill. Hamlet’s sentimentality towards death portrays his fear of his own mortality and explains his hesitation in approaching death.Additionally, the faults in this attitude towards death are emphasized when Hamlet states, “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,”(3.
1.91-92). The complicated central conflict of the play is reiterated for the third time in the soliloquy. The emphasis that individuals who over contemplate their actions become “cowards” depicts an irony well known in Shakespeare’s plays. Fear prevents action, which is precisely the cause of Hamlet’s anguish in this scene. He is not only criticizing humanity, but this line is an inner reflection of his attitude toward himself. His fear of mortality prevents him from avenging his father’s death, creating a complicated inner battle that halts the central plot of the play as a whole.
Transitioning into Act V of Hamlet, Shakespeare employs the use of apostrophe and rhetorical question effectively shifting the tone from comic to tragic, reflecting Hamlet’s new perspective on the insignificance of death. When referring to the skull of Yorick, the former King Hamlet’s deceased jester, Hamlet proclaims, ” Now you get to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that” (5.1.
200). The last line of the scene that carries a comedic tone, Hamlet jokes about Yorick warning a lady that she can “paint an inch thick” with makeup, however, she will eventually be reduced to nothing more than a skull. These lines carry a light joking tone, foreshadowing an eventual shift in Hamlet’s character that will become more apparent later in the scene. Although he holds a facetious attitude, the fact that Hamlet is joking to a rotting skull demonstrates an irony that emphasizes the irrelevance of death. The sarcastic and witty attitude portrayed toward a rotting skull, a symbol of death, implies a mockery of death suggesting Hamlet is avoiding his impending realization that his romanticism of life is essentially worthless. Hamlet’s slow realization brings about a gradual shift in tone from comic to harrowing. As Hamlet begins pondering what’s left after death, he realizes its true nature; ” Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?” (5.
1.210-211). The use of rhetorical question portrays Hamlet’s confusion regarding death. He cannot expect Horatio to know the answer to such an existential question; however, this heavy question emphasizes the distressed tone that directly mirrors a shift in Hamlet’s character from nostalgic to existential. This shift foreshadows his impending crisis as his perspective on life drastically alters, and influences his actions immediately following. In previous acts, Hamlet contemplates the nature of death and expresses feelings of dismay towards a life after death.
He consistently debates killing himself and others, however, he hesitates due to his idealistic attitude towards life and his own personal fear of death. However, in Act V Hamlet experiences an epiphany in which he realizes that we all are reduced to nothing more than dust and a pile of rotting bones. The revelation prompts him to finally take action against Claudius, thus, furthering the central plot introduced in Act I.