The theme of Hamlet: Death and Decay Essay
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Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is a well known and has been overly discussed about throughout the world. Finding out just one theme of Hamlet has been an argument for a long time and many agree with me in saying that there isn’t just one theme but many sub-themes that go on throughout the whole story. As I read the play, Hamlet, I was filled with many images that sparked my imagination and was mostly dark and dreadful. The imagery of disease, corruption, and decay contributes to the theme of death, and decay.
The aura of tragedy is present from the beginning to the end of the play; the only slight reprieve of the dark mood comes in the Gravediggers’ scene, but even the comedy of this scene is morbid. The play immediately starts out with this evil dark imagery and is clear throughout the play and not limited to the last act when majority of the cast is struck by death.
From the beginning of the play the reader/viewer can tell that this play is not going to be about bunny rabbits and fields of flowers. In the first scene, an atmosphere of darkness and uneasiness is immediately established. The gloom of the castle, the eerie midnight darkness, and the “bitter cold” all create a sense of dread as the change of guard takes place and the soldiers talk in fearful tones about the ghostly figure that they have seen. The soldier on duty, Francisco, feels “sick at heart” and eagerly welcomes Bernardo, even though he admits that his has been a “quiet guard.” Francisco’s sickness cannot be merely caused by the coldness of the winter night. It gives imaginative expression to the rottenness in the state of Denmark. Shakespeare marvelously establishes the place and mood within the first twenty lines of the play.
The ghost mysterious silence and quick departure further darkens the atmosphere of the opening scene of the play. Shakespeare immediately writes about death with the presence of ghost. In order for there to be a ghost in a story someone has to have died. The late king is dead and now walks the grounds in purgatory. The presence of a ghost scares the guards they are struck with fear and wonder.
More imagery is used by Shakespeare to enforce the theme of death and decay in Hamlet’s first soliloquy. ” O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew (I, II, 130)” and “seems to me all the uses of this world… tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank gross in nature posses it merely (I, II, 136). The imagery of the unweeded garden in his soliloquy symbolizes the fall from a state of perfection and order. Hamlet explains that his dark clothes and other external signs of mourning are nothing in comparison with what he feels in his heart. He is disgusted with life, and the world appears to him “weary, stale, flat, and, unprofitable,” a place fit for only those who are gross and ill of nature. Hamlet longs to die and wishes that suicide were not a sin. He is outraged by his mother’s hasty marriage to his Uncle.
When the play could go to a happier mood, about Hamlet and Ophelia falling in love is doesn’t and instead goes a different way. Scene two shows both Ophelia’s brother Laertes and her father Polonius talking to her staying away from Hamlet and his wishes aren’t good. “Perhaps he loves you now, and now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch….but you must fear (I, III, 15) “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister ….Be wary then; best safety lies in fear. (I, III, 43) Polonius is trying to tell Ophelia to be cautions around Hamlet and to avoid him. A time in a play that could have got light and lovely; Shakespeare makes it a warning of fear to Ophelia of Hamlet.
In the fourth scene the setting again returns to the eerie battlements of the castle at midnight. Hamlet has come to join the guards and Horatio in hopes to see the ghost. Hamlet is convinced that the appearance of his father’s apparition is an omen of foul play that will soon be revealed. Hamlet exclaims, “My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well. (I, II, 260)”
Before the ghost is seen we can hear the loud parties of the new king. This is a sign that the new King, Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather, is engaged in his customary drunken revelry. Drinking alcohol is a form of decaying of the body because alcohol is a poison and to expose the body to it exceededly is harmful to the body. Shakespeare could have wrote in that King Claudius was drinking tea with friends over dinner but instead Shakespeare stayed with the theme of death and decay and that Denmark is rotting, by putting drunken men in the court.
The ghost comes out again for the fourth night and motions to be followed. The guards fearing it would be dangerous and could even lead to Hamlet’s death, they are weary and try to stop Hamlet from following the ghost but Hamlet says he will kill them if he has to, in order to follow the apparition and find out some answers to his questions. “By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me! I say away! -Go on, I’ll follow thee. (I, IV, 85)”; But Hamlet ignores his friends’ warnings, breaks away from them when they try to physically restrain him, and follows the Ghost. The theme of death is lightly seen throughout the play in many different ways and isn’t hard to find and pick out if you look but here in the scene it is clearly visible. Hamlet is threatening to take some else’s life if they do not let him do as he wills.
The most popular imagery of death and decay is Horatio claiming “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (I, IV, 90).” The process of death involves decaying and the country has gone “rotten” then there is something to worry about because the country could be dieing too. This is one of the most famous lines in Hamlet and is shows that Horatio is worried. The wake of King Hamlet’s death makes Horatio think that the ghost must mean something bad for the entire state of Denmark. And he thinks the ghost as an omen of bad times ahead for Denmark; in the earlier scene Horatio reminds the others of the unnatural phenomena that preceded Julius Caesar’s assassination. “The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead did squeak an gibber in the roman streets. (I, I, 119)” Horatio and Marcellus are convinced that this is not good and decide to go after Hamlet who followed the ghost.
Later when the ghost speaks to Hamlet he furthers the idea of death and decay by stating at the moment of his death his skin became “Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust all my smooth body (I, V, 72)”. These attempts to elucidate on the felling of death almost like becoming a leaper before death finally takes it toll. This poison invaded his defenseless body and “swift as quicksilver … it course through the natural gates and alleys of the body. (I, V, 67)”” Both here and throughout the play rottenness and sickness are shown to invade and destroy everything good. The ghost tells Hamlet he will have to return to “sulphurous and tormenting flames of purgatorial fires of his prison and roam at nights until the “foul crimes” committed during his reign are avenged. The ghost then calls upon Hamlet to avenge his “most foul, strange and unnatural murder.” (I, V, 29)
Then Hamlet makes his fellows swear they wont speak of the ghost to anyone. “Never to speak of this that you has seen, swear by my sword. Swear. (I, V, 163)” Hamlet enforced several times by the warnings from the ghostly voice coming from below to swear, emphasizing the fact that the dead king has not gone to heaven, for he had no chance to confess his sins before he died. This is just another reminder to the audience of the abrupt death.
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with lots of imagery and they do not limit the mind to one theme opposed to another but instead the images evoke and expand the mind. Personally the images gave me the impression of an ongoing theme of death and decay throughout the whole play. As reported by Ball ” images evoke and expand, rather that define and limit. As reported by Ball images call up associations that are not the same for everyone so a different idea can be formed from everyone. That is why the discussion over “the” theme is so controversy because everyone interprets Shakespeare differently