Going back to my Shakespeare high school class for this post. I believe we were assigned to find a common theme throughout the play and write an essay about it. This is typed up as it was originally written, and includes commentary from my teacher:
Hamlet’s Suicidal Tendencies
Through his actions and words, Hamlet gives the reader adequate proof that he is definitely suicidal. Many circumstances seem to trap Hamlet in the play, and he always responds in his own special way. But by the play’s final verse, we know that Hamlet wanted to inflict death upon himself.
Hamlet’s problems are deep-rooted early in the play. He cannot deal with the loss of his father and already looks for a way out. He states his feelings as follows:
O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt,
thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst (self)-slaughter
Later, after Hamlet discovers that the murderer of his father is King Claudius, he sees his whole world beginning to crumble. He now has some important decisions to make, and it looks like he can’t face up to the future. He then gives his famous soliloquy with the King and Polonius in hiding.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.
Soon after the “play within a play,” Hamlet again questions the worth of life. This time, however, he is not really speaking of suicide (although he is thinking of it). Instead, he is giving his views on a mere man’s worth.
What is a man,
if his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d
Hamlet is a complex character and seems to find comfort in philosophy. He does appear to take out his inner frustrations in his soliloquies. Shakespeare has developed Hamlet into a man of action who knows what he feels deep down. Hamlet usually comes right out and speaks his mind. This gives the play an added boost in the right direction. And yes, Hamlet need be believable for this play to work. He does succeed in that sense, from beginning to end.
There is some question as to whether Hamlet has really gone mad (while he is pretending to actually be mad). For Shakespeare’s time period, possibly a suicidal person was considered to be insane. But, as stated earlier, Hamlet does show suicidal tendencies toward the opening of the play. He has one direction in life early on – a death wish.
Circumstances mount on Hamlet throughout the play which builds on his want to die. The death of his father is something Hamlet can’t get a grip on. His father’s death is naturally the basis for the whole play. Everything Hamlet does stems from his father’s murder by Claudius. It is plain to see that Hamlet’s emotions are frayed by observing his actions and his words.
It also appears that Hamlet does not find comfort in the words of others, but simply in torturing himself emotionally. King Claudius gives Hamlet some words of wisdom early on, but they are pushed aside. The King says, in part:
‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet
To give these mourning duties to your father.
But you must know that your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow.
One final question remains: Why doesn’t Hamlet commit suicide? First, Hamlet by nature is a procrastinator. He never is able to carry out his wishes. It takes him a very long time to set up and complete his “revenge.” This leads into an interesting point about the revenge factor. Possibly Hamlet feels it is better to get revenge than to kill himself. He feels that revenge is necessary, and it must occur. If he gets revenge, he must believe that he will be happy.
Hamlet sums up his true feelings during his slow death:
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!
Teacher’s remarks: Chris, you’ve made some perceptive observations about Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies. They do indeed shadow him throughout the play. But you missed a chance to really put the capper on. By Act V, Hamlet has become fatalistic; he seems to know he will die and willingly faces it. Even as he dies, he refers to life as “felicity” (happiness). This information would have really brought home your point. Score 69/75