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By the end of Hamlet, six people–not including Hamlet himself–are dead. It has been asserted that the sole reason for the bloodshed was Hamlet’s inability to take speedy revenge on the king. However, a close examination into the circumstances shows that each death can, in fact, be traced back to the corruption within Elsinore, as manifested in the form of King Claudius. Furthermore, in four of the six deaths, the character’s own corruption also contributes significantly to his downfall.
The first of the deaths is that of Polonius, Claudius’ right-hand man. He had volunteered to spy on the discourse between Hamlet and Gertrude to glean the cause behind Hamlet’s apparent madness. Polonius himself had contrived this idea (after his earlier, botched plan, where he and Claudius eavesdropped on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia) to prove to the king that Hamlet had grown mad pining over Ophelia. Polonius puts forth this plan even in the face of Claudius’s decree that Hamlet should be sent immediately to England (and thus arguably cementing his own fate):
It shall do well. But yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love….
-My lord, do as you please,
But, if you hold it fit, after the play
Let his queen-mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief. Let her be round with him;
And I’ll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference. If she find him not,
To England send him, or confine him where
Your wisdom best shall think. (III.ii.190-2, 194-201)
In urging the king to reprieve Hamlet’s exile, Polonius is clearly not sympathetic to Hamlet. Instead, he is either motivated by pride in his daughter’s ability to madden Hamlet or, more likely, he simply wants to be right and boost his favor in the eyes of the king.
Unfortunately for Polonius, this plan coincides with one of Hamlet’s more rash moods. Seeing Claudius in prayer, Hamlet has just forgone an ideal opportunity to kill the king, lest he send him, clean of sins, to heaven. Thus, Hamlet is in a state of anxiety. In a soliloquy, he acknowledges, “Now could I drink hot / blood” (III.ii.422-3). He then makes the fatal stab without even first contemplating who it could be, only nonchalantly stating afterward, “Nay, I know not. Is it the King?” (III.iv.32).
Ophelia is the next to die, drowned in her madness and overwhelming grief after her father’s death. Examination of her maddened interaction with Gertrude in Act IV, Scene V indicates that Ophelia’s madness most likely has its roots in grief for her murdered father:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone. (IV.v.34-7)
But in her madness there is also a sense of reproach for Hamlet’s abandonment of her, in addition to guilt for having caused his apparent madness as a consequence of obeying her father’s order to no longer see him:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more….
Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t;
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she “Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.” (IV.v.53-60, 63-68)
Ophelia wants to bear resentment against Hamlet and her father, but she finds that there is nobody left to blame for her plight but herself. She is left to descend into mourning and madness.
The next two to die are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Comparable to Polonius in their mindless sycophantism, they are perfectly glad to become Claudius’s hired guns, despite the fact that Hamlet had been their childhood friend:
But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded. (II.ii.31-4)
As “knavish,” ordinary, and manipulable men looking only to get the money that comprises the “thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance” (II.ii.25-6), these two do not realize that they are meddling in affairs far too great for them. Claudius does not even deign to hint the true nature of the message they are bringing to the king of England, rendering them the unknowing harbingers of their own destruction.
Arguably, the point when Hamlet reads his effective death warrant marks a watershed. He adopts the carpe diem mentality, realizing that each day might indeed be his last. As such, he becomes much more focused on his original goal of taking revenge against Claudius. He realizes that he must now eliminate the barriers Claudius has put between himself and Hamlet. Thus, the first step Hamlet takes is to cleverly turn the tables and effect the swift execution of those “childhood friends” who have turned traitor on their old friend.
As we come to the last scene of the play, Laertes also falls, poisoned by his own venom. In learning about his father’s death, Laertes is the foil of the rational, contemplative Hamlet, immediately mustering troops and arms to demand an explanation from Claudius and, if necessary, kill him. However, when Claudius explains to him that the real murderer was Hamlet, Laertes’s all-consuming rage and burning desire for revenge against Hamlet are easily harnessed, manipulated, and corrupted by Claudius to his own ends. Laertes willingly cedes his willpower to Claudius in blind lust for vengeance and reduces himself to the ultimate weapon against Hamlet:
My lord, I will be ruled,
The rather if you would devise it so
That I might be the organ. (IV.vii.77-9)
The last person to perish before Claudius is killed is Queen Gertrude, drinking from the poisoned chalice that had been meant for Hamlet. Ironically, by consuming the likely poisoned “union,” or pearl, she was ending the corrupt union between herself and Claudius. Her death illustrates Claudius’s duplicity and absolute lack of morality: Watching his wife bring the cup to her mouth, Claudius makes no effort to physically stop her from ingesting the poison, only giving her a brief, weak warning, “Gertrude, do not drink” (V.ii.317). This just goes to show how sincere Claudius had been when he referred to the queen to Laertes to explain why had not killed Hamlet yet,
She is so (conjunctive) to my life and soul
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her. (IV.vii.16)
Thus, by the time Hamlet finally accomplishes his original mission of killing Claudius, six other lives (and his own) have been consumed. These deaths can all be traced back to the corruption of Claudius and his quest to secure his kingship. However, a lot of this corruption is also based within the characters themselves, accelerating them to their fall.
It can be said that Hamlet’s “dallying” in killing Claudius proceeds to his stabbing Polonius, from which all the troubles spawn. Yet it is unreasonable to expect Hamlet to have killed Claudius sooner. Some argue that he was too cowardly to take a perfectly good opportunity to kill his archenemy, but we must remember that Hamlet was a rational, moral Christian who could not possibly have stabbed somebody in prayer. He was forced to await the next ideal occasion. Unfortunately, it simply did not come soon enough.
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