Suicide and death

Death as leitmotif

Death runs through the drama “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare as an absolute leitmotif. It is present from the first act to the end of the drama and appears in a variety of different forms: As a fratricide, accidental murder, an accident of a suicidal nature, retribution, an unfortunate coincidence, the result of a duel, and finally as a revenge killing. All the main characters, with the exception of Horatio, die one after the other in the play. At the end of the tragedy, a bloodbath occurs, in the course of which the four main protagonists die in various ways.

It is not only the actual deaths that are relevant, but also the way death is thought about and dealt with. For Hamlet in particular, the question arises as to whose life he should put an end to: His own or that of his murderous uncle.

Death of Hamlet's father

Already in the exposition, Hamlet learns that Claudius has murdered his father in a devious way. He has poisoned him in his sleep and subsequently led all of Denmark to believe that the king died as a result of a snakebite.

Death in this case clearly serves the purpose of exposing the true loyalties of the court members. Queen Gertrude, on the other hand, attaches little importance to her husband's death. She marries her brother-in-law after less than two months and refers to her husband’s death as a necessity of fate: "all that lives must die" (1.2.74). The king's death seems hardly discussed at court. In fact, Hamlet is the only one who sincerely mourns his father even several weeks after his death.

Hamlet's continued loyalty to his father keeps his memory alive. Even before he appears as a ghost, Hamlet holds up the memory of his father and demonizes his mother's remarriage (1.2.142-160). Then, when the ghost of his deceased father appears to him in the very first act, it quickly becomes clear what a prominent role the murder of the former king will play: It prompts Hamlet to take revenge. The death of the old king functions throughout the play as a premise and fundamental plot drive.

Polonius’ death

Polonius' death is the result of his involvement in Claudius' intrigues and a fatal mix-up. When Polonius is caught overhearing a conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet at a dramatic climax, Hamlet mistakes him for his uncle and stabs him to death in the heat of the moment. 

Reactions to Polonius’ death vary widely, but one thing is certain: it again drives the plot forward and initiates peripeteia turning point. Claudius now realizes that Hamlet is prepared to kill him (Act 4; Scene I), Laertes leaves France and returns to Denmark to avenge his father's death, and Oph...

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