Grief in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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According to Webster’s Desk Dictionary, grief is defined as “keen mental suffering over affection or loss” (397). Various characters in Hamlet choose to deal with grief in different ways, with many of their methods harmful in the end. Ophelia is dealt two setbacks during the course of the play, one being her father’s death and the other being Hamlet’s disrespectful treatment. Her brother Laertes must also deal with Polonius’s death, as well as Ophelia’s. From the beginning of the play, Hamlet grieves over his father’s murder. His grief is what sparks his quest for revengeand his battle to kill Claudius.


 Throughout the play, grief takes center stage in many of thecharacter’s lives, but they all choose to react in a different fashion. Grief takes many distinct shapes and forms and until people learn how to overcome it, it will remain an integral part of life.  One way to escape grief is to commit suicide, as Ophelia apparently does. Thegravedigger proclaims, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation” (Act V Scene I Lines 1-2). The gravedigger is wondering why a woman who has taken her own life deserves such a fancy funeral. When the Queen informs Laertes and Claudius  of Ophelia’s death, she says, “...she[Ophelia] chanted snatches of old tunes” (Act IV Scene VII Line 195). Ophelia did not know how to express her grief, other than in song. In Act IV, she sings of Polonius, “He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone” (Scene V Lines 31-32).

Suicide AwarenessVoices of Education (SAVE) proclaims, “When a person faces his grief, allows his feelings to come, speaks of his is then that the focus is to move from death and dying and to promote life and living” (“When the Worst Has Happened” 2). Ophelia is not able tocome right out and speak of her difficulty dealing with death. She resorts to her singing. The Gentleman in Act IV says of Ophelia, “She speaks much of her father...speaks things in doubt, that carry half sense...” (Act IV Scene V Lines 5-8). She cannot come to an understanding of what is happening in her life. SAVE declares, “Not understanding the individuality of grief could complicate and delay whatever grief we might experience from our own loss” (“When the Worst Has Happened” 2). Ophelia does not deal with grief in a successful manner, nor does her brother. Laertes does not show his grief with tears, as does his sister, but he is a man of action. In Act V he exclaims, “...and therefore I forbid my tears” (Scene I Line 205). No two people will experience the same grief for the same amount of time or for the same intensity (“When the WorstHas Happened” 2). Laertes does not express much grief over the death of his father, but thereader knows he is in mourning by the way he wants to take action against Hamlet. He, with the help of Claudius, concocts an intricate plan to murder Hamlet in a fencing duel. “Anger is a form of energy,” according to the Northern County Psychiatric Association (“Grief, Loss and Mourning” 8). Laertes’s grief transforms into this energy. When he, Gertrude and Claudius are at the gravesite, the grief of Laertes appears vividly. He leaps into the grave after saying, “Hold off the earth awhile, till I have caught her once more in mine arms” (Act V Scene I Lines146-147). Laertes has held back his grief until then, but SAVE believes that “suppressing grief keeps one in a continual state of stress and shock, unable to move from it” (“When the Worst Has Happened” 3). Perhaps this is why Laertes reacts so strongly at the gravesite. It is his first time coming out of shock. Laertes’s grief over his father’s death, much like Hamlet’s, makes him want to kill. However, unlike Hamlet, Laertes has taken action. Murder may not be the best way to solve things, but at least when it comes to Polonius’s death, Laertes is grieving in some way. All of his grief comes out through violence.

Hamlet has grief weighing heavily on his body throughout the entire play. Claudius comments on Hamlet’s mourning when he says, “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father, but you must know, your father lost a father...” (Act 1 Scene 2 Lines 93-95). Claudius does not understand why Hamlet is in continual mourning, just as Hamlet does not understand why Gertrude has not mourned for a longer period of time. “Within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married,” Hamlet explains (Act 1 Scene 2 Lines 159-162). According to SAVE,“The circumstances surrounding the death are extremely important in determining how we are going to come to an acceptance of the loss” (“When the Worst Has Happened” 4). This may play a part in why Hamlet has such troubles. His father was murdered by his uncle, which is a hard task to overcome. If one cannot accept what has happened, it is difficult to grieve for it. “A sudden or violent death may be particularly difficult for the family to process because of the intense anger often involved,” says NCPA (“Grief, Loss and Mourning” 5). Hamlet’s grief, like Laertes’s, comes out in the graveyard scene. He first learns of Ophelia’s death and jumps into the grave to fight with Laertes. Hamlet’s sorrow causes him to admit, “I loved Ophelia. Fortythousand brothers could not make up my sum” (Act V Scene I Lines 270-272). SAVE says,“Our relationship with the deceased has a great deal to do with the intensity and duration of our grief” (“When the Worst Has Happened” 2). Hamlet has been treating Ophelia very poorly, and her death must be hitting him even harder knowing that she died without his love.

Many sources on grief declare it to be something that must be faced or it will never go away. Ophelia never faces her grief, but it does go away when she drowns herself. She resorts to singing to solve her problems, while Laertes takes to violence. He believes he will feel relief once Hamlet is dead. Hamlet, on the otherhand, grieves for his father and does not take action for some time. He also has strong feelings on how his mother should take a longer time to grieve for her former husband. These three characters endure the same sort of grief at times, but choose toreact differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but as many of the characters in Hamlet discover, grief can overtake one’s life and lead to downfall.


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MLA Citation:
"Grief in Shakespeare's Hamlet." 26 Nov 2015

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