In the passage of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a deeply distressed Hamlet reflects profoundly on the question of whether it is better to live or to die. The soliloquy brings the extent of Hamlet’s anguish into sharp focus and gives a penetrating insight into his thoughts on life, death and the afterlife. Railing against the unrelenting suffering and injustice that he believes to be inherent in life, Hamlet is driven by the burden of despair to contemplate taking his own life. Whilst he is attracted to the idea that suicide may bring deliverance from the interminable pain of life, the allure of the idea is more than countered by what Hamlet describes as the dread of something after death (Line 85). The “something” which he refers to is clearly not benign, and justifies enduring the pain of life rather than journeying into the unknown.
Themes of revenge and death are intertwined throughout the play. Hamlet’s quest for revenge began with the death of his father, and will end only with the death of Claudius. Shakespeare portrays Hamlet’s fear of death and thoughts of suicide through the use of repetition and alliteration. Shakespeare used repetition of the short phrase To Die; to Sleep (lines 67 and 71) to stress Hamlet’s hope that death would obliterate the pain of life.
This phrase was used on two occasions to compare Hamlet’s thoughts on death and the afterlife, and also the reasons for his contemplating suicide. When first introduced, the phrase is used to demonstrate Hamlet’s view of death as being a means of escaping to an afterlife in which the pain of life is put to rest. The very fact that Hamlet is contemplating suicide suggests that he has been overcome by his quest for revenge. This anguish is the result ‘the whips and scorns of time’ (line 77); which for Hamlet is his mother’s hasty marriage to the murderer in addition to his unrequited love for Ophelia. Hamlet hopes that death is nothingness, a gift that ends thinking, knowing and remembering.
The second use of the phrase ‘to die, to sleep;’ in Line 71 reveals Hamlet’s contradicting theory that following death, his conscience will be haunted by aspects of the unbearable life he lead. This showcases Hamlet’s fears that he may be condemned to walk the earth similar to his father. In the soliloquy, Hamlet states that it is the fear of the unknown that forces humankind to prolong their suffering by accepting and resigning themselves to the baseness of those around them.
Shakespeare uses alliteration throughout the soliloquy to reinforce themes of death and the fears associated with the ambiguity of the afterlife. In line 86, ‘the dread of something after death’, the letter ‘d’ is repeated. Shakespeare uses harsh letters in his alliterations to reflect the importance of the impending decision Hamlet is to make. In the sentence Hamlet verbalises the extent to which he fears the afterlife. The sentence suggests that, though his life was full of heartache, his apprehension of the afterlife would most likely prevent him from ever committing suicide.
Alliteration was also used for the phrase bare bodkin in line 83, in which Shakespeare is referring to a dagger. The dagger represents death as an escape route, in which something as simple as a knife can remove all the desolation from life. In addition to death being a common theme to both alliterations, they also relate back to Hamlet’s two theories of the afterlife. The first alliteration illustrated his dismay that perhaps the pain of life may never be left behind, not even after death. Through the second alliteration of bare bodkin Shakespeare draws attention to the temptation of suicide. When Hamlet’s life began to unravel death appeared to be the only means of attaining relief from his acute emotional distress. Despite death being an easy option Hamlet’s conscience would not allow him to look past the possibility that he may be condemned to walk the earth, similar to his father.
Understanding Hamlet’s fears of death and the afterlife enables the reader to more accurately interpret his urge to exact revenge. Hamlet’s desire to seek revenge was fuelled by the striking memory he has of his father walking the earth in a state of purgatory. However, the above theories suggest that Hamlet is unsure if he has the potential to murder, especially if ones misdeeds from life haunt the soul after death. This results in constant hesitation throughout his pursuit of revenge.
These fears are reinforced by Hamlet’s hesitation to murder Claudius whilst he is praying for reasons related to fears of what lies in the afterlife. The soliloquy strongly reflects themes of death and the ambiguity of the afterlife. Through repetition and alliteration the reader understands Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts and his desire to be liberated from the pain in his life. This gives the reader further understanding of the torment that he encounters whilst avenging his father’s murder.