Hamlet: Caught Between Life & Death

Hamlet is from the first a melancholic character. While all other characters are ‘mourning’, the grief they display is clearly more of a counterfeit of courtly manners than true sorrow over the loss of their king. This is what grounds Hamlet’s sorrow: not simply the death of his father, but the way it has been so easily forgotten by the masses and replaced with the closest thing to the old king, but all of this means much more for Hamlet than anyone else. First off, it is atypical for the brother of the king to assume the throne over his own son. Hamlet loved his father greater than anyone else, thought of him as a “hyperion”, and of course he would, because Hamlet sees his father as he sees himself; what good he ascribes to his father is what he would like to believe is within himself. So this great man, triumphant in battle and honorable in his rule of Denmark, suddenly dies and within two months, his brother replaces him and takes his wife to wed. This great king, this man of heavenly qualities and power and dignity, has been all but forgotten by the world; amounted to nothing. This is a serious blow to Hamlet’s whole conception of what his life was meant to be.

While Hamlet is not the only one to see the ghost, he is the only one to talk to it, and for the obvious reason that King Hamlet’s last real admirer, the last one who holds him in his memory is his son. After an encounter with a spirit, one can imagine the kind of psychological perspectives that one has to reconcile themselves to. Is death not the end? It seems that ghosts are the results of people who are “not ready to go”–they have unfinished business before they can become nothing. Hamlet is left utterly confused: His father’s ghost has commanded him to avenge him, and perhaps take his rightful place on the throne–right the wrongs visited upon his father. However, Hamlet has just been considering what is the point of this life–what is the point of being a great king, if cunning and villainous brothers reduce us to nothing to take what is ours? What is it all for, if not nothing? Hamlet has half of himself in life, among the court, feigning madness and performing a dance around this evil court, while the other half remains lost in contemplation, endless thought, melancholy, and meditations on death and the end.

This is perhaps the crux of Hamlet: What good is the the game of power, when all lose in the end? Why love Ophelia, if she will breed sinners like Hamlet? Why keep living? What’s fascinating about the play of Hamlet is how there’s no need to answer that question, it can simply show what is true: that such questions are what all human beings must reconcile themselves to in time, and Hamlet serves us by living in the tumultuous and delicate balance


2 thoughts on “Hamlet: Caught Between Life & Death

  1. caitoconnor13

    Your last points of question remind me of his famous “to be or not to be” speech, where he examines the real importance and worth of keeping on living. His relationship with his father, even after his death (which is the only real tangible relationship between them that we are exposed to) is really interesting to me–because not only is Hamlet the only one who talks to him, but King Hamlet is really manipulative and Prince Hamlet is really quick to fold to whatever he says and just follow his commands. With this being said, it’s so hard to tell whether he is doing it out of fear or love and honor, and raising this point leads me to believe that maybe he’s doing it for both reasons. If my dead dad was talking to me and telling me these things, I would probably listen just because I was scared if I’m being totally honest. It feels a little touch of schizophrenic to me, because the “Voice” is commanding him to do something, but he is also acting out of allegiance to his father, his country, and his rightful title and inheritance. I don’t think that greed and pride are driving it, but genuine grief and respect for his father–which is why, as in previous comments, I say he is the only truly sane one in the play perhaps.

    1. timothyjknapp

      I think your existential interpretation of Hamlet that was triggered by his father’s death. The biggest thing I notice as his motivation for this crisis, as you suggested, is his isolation in his grief. What makes him really sad and confused is that everyone around him seems to have moved on so quickly, and he is the only one in mourning. In response to Cait’s comment, I think it’s interesting to think about whether his motivation is grief or fear. I like to think of his ghost as an actual supernatural occurrence, and not just a manifestation of his grief. In this way, I like to think that his motivation is a little bit dominated by fear because, shit, it’s a ghost!


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