Fear of Death in Hamlet
“To be, or not to be, that is the question” (III.i, l. 56). This line is quite possibly one of the most famous in the history of English literature. Thus, with any knowledge of the English language and its literature, it is difficult to say in good conscience that the line is overlooked. Nor is it possible to say that its presence in the play is overlooked: it is the line that almost every casual reader awaits as he reads. It is possible, however, to argue as C. S. Lewis does, that its significance, and more importantly its role as the crucial theme in the play is underestimated. Not only an eloquent and memorable phrase, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” presents the deepest insight into the mind of Hamlet.
In his essay on Hamlet, C. S. Lewis argues that “The subject of Hamlet is death” (p. 197). Lewis compares the role of death in Hamlet to its role in Shakespeare’s other plays and concludes that in the others, “They think of dying: no one thinks, in these plays, of being dead” (p. 197). Awareness of the ambiguity of what transpires during death pervades Hamlet’s thought throughout the play.
The soliloquy in the first scene of the third act continues with Hamlet cogitating his potential suicide: “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” (III.i, ll. 57-60). Hamlet longs for an end to his troubles and to his quest for revenge, but it is not an unqualified longing. He would not take his own life because of his uncertainty of the consequences. In a soliloquy where Shakespeare writes so that Hamlet’s mind seemingly wanders in pondering the subject, Hamlet articulates a common metaphor: that of sleep and death. Hamlet cites the dreams he would suffer in this eternal sleep as another reason for his fears and uncertainty.
Earlier in the play, even before the appearance of the Ghost, Hamlet wishes for an escape from his body and this world. Rather than a wish for suicide, though, it is a wish “that this too too sallied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” (II.ii, ll. 129-130). Since the Church dictates that suicide is a mortal sin, Hamlet hopes that, through no action of his own, his death will spontaneously occur. This hope stems from a fear Biblical damnation, while his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy presents fears that are not nearly as concrete.
In this passage, death is “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (III.ii, ll. 79-80). C. S. Lewis argues that it is the reader’s ability to relate to the content of these lines concerning death, that make them poignant. He offers that, while beautiful, the poetry of the play is part of the medium; a part overshadowed in this case by the content of the lines and their ability to draw the reader into the mind of Hamlet. The insight offered by the lines concerning death clarify, or at least allow for better understanding of Hamlet’s thoughts and actions.
Hamlet admits that “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III.ii, l. 83), but this, at first glance, does not appear to be true. These thoughts and fears of death do not seem to apply to Laertes, once he hears of his father’s murder. “To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! / I dare damnation” (IV.v, ll. 129-131). Later, in scene seven of the same act, Laertes states that he would kill Hamlet in a church, in order to avenge his father.
Even these lines uttered by Laertes, however, give a deeper insight into his character than simply what is present in their contents. What is not present is also important. It is quite possible that Laertes is not as astute as Hamlet and has not even considered the gravity of his utterances. It could be that, while Hamlet has insight into the many possible facets of death, Laertes is ignorant of them, and is willing to suffer hell, as he understands it, in order to achieve his vengeance. Hamlet is no such fool. He understands the mystery of death well enough that he fears its uncertainty. Thus, death leads to his uncertainty and fear in living.