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Alone in his childhood home, his father buried and his mother married to another man, Hamlet laments, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into dew” (1.2.129-30). Hamlet brings up suicide early in Act I and ponders it throughout the play. He not only considers the idea, but intentionally courts death as he executes his father’s revenge. The prince allows himself to be killed because he cannot bear to live any longer, but also cannot in good conscience take his own life. Hamlet’s suicidal intent is a simple explanation for his puzzling behavior and confusing speeches; his intelligence, sensitivity and religion however, cause him to seek a release from the sorrows of his world in an honorable manner. Hamlet’s death was a suicide; the whole action of the play leads up to his carefully orchestrated and impeccably played out massacre.
At his first appearance Gertrude describes Hamlet as a man “of knighted colour” with “veiled lids,” he claims himself to be even more grief stricken, as having “dejected haviour of the visage, fruitful river of the eye” (1.2.81-3). The melancholy and discontent in Hamlets own life determine the direction of all his thoughts and actions, even eventually toward suicide. His first soliloquy explores the idea and his frustrated tendencies in that direction, “that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”(1.2.131-32). Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to appear to the audience as a “truly grief-stricken melancholic” from the first curtain (McCullen). Horatio is well aware of Hamlets fragile condition, and when he confronts the ghost worries that the apparition might be too much for his over-sensitive prince and “draw him into madness” (1.4.74-5). Hamlet faces an imposing set of familial distresses all of which affect the hero’s life and reason. He comes home after the sudden death of his father to find his mother in another man’s bed, the murderer of his father; the throne is taken from him, and yet he is not allowed to return to school; his friends have betrayed him, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like Polonius, allow themselves to be manipulated by Claudius and sneak about the castle, and the beloved Ophelia becomes an obedient tool to be used by his enemies. This leaves Hamlet completely alone. Hamlet wants to end his life, but must be faithful to his father’s spirit, as well as to his Christian ideals. He is torn between wanting to end his own life and being faithful to his father’s spirit as well as to his Christian ideals.
To avenge the murder of his father Hamlet must kill his uncle, an idea that is in such opposition with his humanity and faith that in the fifth act he continues to question Horatio about the justice of killing Claudius even after seeing the King’s deadly intentions toward himself and proving the Kings guilt with a play. Hamlet just can’t bring himself to commit blood revenge, despite his assurances to the ghost and occasionally himself and Horatio. Hamlet is caught in a double bind; while revenge will bring peace of mind to his father’s ghost, it will also destroy any hope for salvation of Hamlet’s soul (Nardo). His father’s lack of absolution at his death deeply disturbed Hamlet. Shakespeare surely meant for Hamlet’s deep-seated religious values to prevent him from ending the life of either his uncle or himself. Hamlet is stuck in a situation from which he cannot escape damaging his deepest principles. Is it any wonder he’d rather die than choose one of the paths left for him on earth?
Hamlet debates this to himself in his famous question “To be or not to be?” a query that has three answers not just two, and according to Professor Hardin Craig is “the crucial passage in the interpretation of Hamlet’s character”(McCullen). The soliloquy revisits the argument from his first soliloquy. The basic theme is clearly Hamlet’s preoccupation with death, but is his emphasis on his own end, or that of Claudius? The argument is easy to apply to Hamlet. Taking his own life would damn his soul and lead him into unknown and possibly horrible places, while to live means enduring “outrageous fortune” and opposition to said “slings and arrows” can only mean killing Claudius which would damn Hamlet’s own soul as well as probably ending his life (McCullen). Or Hamlet could do nothing, the third option and an unacceptable choice for a hero and a prince. He regrets his very existence that requires him to set right what has been done to his father, but he cannot take his own life until his duty is done.
Hamlet will avenge his father, but he seems as much devoted to putting himself in danger and securing an honorable death for himself as he is to making sure Claudius finds his own end. From his first exchange with the King all we see from Hamlet is inappropriate mockery, insults and disdain. Hamlet’s very first direct address to Claudius is “I am too much in the sun” meaning that he does not want the “sun” of being in royal favor as well as being a pun on son as in he’s Hamlet’s son and as such should be on his father’s throne (Nardo). Hamlet barely speaks a civil word to the king throughout the play; he doesn’t pass up a single opportunity to let his uncle know of his ambitions for the throne and his dislike of the marriage. Hamlet’s presentation of The Murder of Gonzago was also a foolish ploy, he has already accepted that the ghost is not a fiction, he needs no further proof to kill Claudius, and there was no need to make the dramatic parallel of murder so close to the actual event Claudius would have shown guilt either way. Hamlet makes every effort to convince Claudius and the court of his homicidal mania, and scorn for their ungodly situation, an aim exactly counter to self-preservation (Nardo). Hamlet is trying to get himself killed.
Hamlet puts himself in great danger when he goes, not unwillingly, to England with his two school mates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whom he knows are spies for Claudius and claims “I will trust as I will adders fang’d” (3.4.203). He obviously expects them to do him harm and yet makes no plan against the danger as he goes out to be a friendless victim at sea. Nor does Hamlet later tell Horatio that he purposefully made an effort to investigate the “mandate” sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It was a whim, “rashness” that led Hamlet to discover the letter ordering his death and only luck in the arrival of the pirate ship that allowed him to return home safely. Why would Hamlet want to return home safely though? If his actions were all meant to cause his own death then he would have accomplished that with an execution. A “felon’s death” would not do for Hamlet though (Nardo). It would not be an honorable death, Hamlet wants to face Claudius on even ground.
The final and most convincing example of Hamlet courting death is his foolish acceptance of Laerte’s challenge when the prince is fully aware of the plot against his life by Claudius and probably by Laertes too after what Hamlet has done to his family. Laertes actually tried to choke him at Ophelia’s grave, he couldn’t ask for a clearer expression of his kinsman’s ill will. Nevertheless Hamlet accepts the challenge and knowingly plays into the hands of his two opponents. He confesses to Horatio ” Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it’s no matter”(5.2.200-01). Hamlet knows what is about to happen at the duel; its almost as if he had planned it himself.
Hamlet envisions one last duel, an honorable and straightforward way to meet an adversary. He carelessly takes the first sword and dagger Osric, the King’s untrustworthy instrument, offers him with no more than a casual question about the length of the blades. Hamlet chooses the instrument of his death, and Claudius, through his henchman affects the release from suffering which Hamlet’s moral and religious principles prevent him from taking himself. Hamlet found not only his own end, but one for Claudius too. The prince was overwhelmed by circumstances and set out on a self-destructive bend that left a trail of death and sorrow in his wake. The insane antics, the gibes, his play, his slaying of Polonius, his self-defeating judgment, all came from his desperate desire to escape the intolerable burden of what his life has become. Hamlet is noble and good which allows him to be the hero of the story, but the depth of his depression and tortured soul mark him as a victim of life and ultimately, a victim of himself.
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