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Hannah Paquette

AP English
Hamlet Paper: Death and Decay
1/29/15
Mrs. Vitale
Death is found throughout Shakespeares Hamlet. The characters grapple with their grief;
ponder the possibility of an afterlife, and murder in order to meet their goals. However, the play
explores more than the acts of dying and grieving themselves. Much of the shows symbolism is
decomposition. There are countless references to rotting flesh, which only serves the plays
overpowering tone of despair. Its tone is a part of what makes Hamlet such a compelling piece of
work. The play is both a revenge tragedy and a reflection on human mortality. Death and decay
are two intertwined themes that set a melancholy stage for the plays action to unfold.
The play opens a few months after the death of King Hamlet. His son, Hamlet, is still in
mourning, while Claudius, Hamlets uncle, reigns as king. However, as the country finds itself on
the brink of war with Fortinbras, and the guards believe that they have been visited by the ghost
of the former king, all is not well. Shakespeare commonly uses the supernatural to create
suspense and dread in his audiences. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark (I, iv).
A minor character comments this as Hamlet chases after the apparition of his father. This
connects the ghost to the corruption of both the political and physical state of Denmark.
Politically, the country is still transitioning to new leadership after the former had been
murdered. A king is often referred to by the name of his country - he is the human embodiment
of his land. Claudius obtained the throne through illegitimate means; he is not the rightful ruler
of Denmark. The rightful ruler, the former King Hamlet who is still the physical embodiment of
his country, is slowly rotting away in his tomb as the political landscape of Denmark falls apart.

Much of Hamlet is devoted to discourse about death and its effect on those affected by it.
Most of Hamlets soliloquies center on his grief and suicidal tendencies, and serve the plot by
furthering Hamlets character development, yet the plays most famous soliloquy does little to
advance the plot. The soliloquy may be Shakespeares own treatises on the subject. Regardless of
what personal intent Shakespeare had behind the monologue, it has impacted audiences for
centuries. It neatly ties multiple themes together, namely death, the uncertainty of the afterlife,
and complexity of action. Ultimately Hamlets brooding resolves itself in that he will not kill
himself because he does not know if the afterlife would be better than his current existence. But
that the dread of something after death, The undiscoverd country, from whose bourn, No
traveller returns,puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to
others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all (III, i). Death is ever
present in Hamlets mind, and through his soliloquies, death is in the audiences.
In the last two acts of the play, the audience is once again entreated to a Hamlets usage
of decay metaphors. When Claudius confronts Hamlet about the location of Polonius body, he
answers by sarcastically commenting on how death is the great equalizer. Your worm is your
only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots...Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar
(IV, iii). Once again, the lines provide the audience with graphic descriptions of what will
eventually happen to their own bodies. This awareness of human impermanence returns in the
penultimate scene of the play: the graveyard. A gravedigger is digging Ophelias grave when
Hamlet and Horatio stumble upon him. Hamlet realizes that a nearby skull is that of his
childhood friend. Picking up the skull, he returns to his earlier thoughts on the bodys postmortem journey, however this time Hamlet is quite sincere and distraught. Alexander died,

Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam;
and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious
Caesar, dead and turns to clay (V, i). Hamlet gives voice to the questions that have plagued
humanity for all of its existence, yet he, like others before him cannot give an answer to them.
Death and decay imagery are woven throughout Hamlet. Decay is a part of the natural
progression of death. To only discuss one and not the other leaves out key imagery that would
leave the play with a different done. Shakespeare made a specific choice to describe both to
further create an air of dread and despair. Without it, Hamlet would lack its appeal as a unique
type of tragedy that constantly second guesses the reasoning that brought forth its conclusions

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Toronto: Bantam, 1988. Print.