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Q: “They all deserve to die.” Discuss.

For the majority, out of all the characters, Claudius is perhaps the most deserving of
death. He has ultimately committed treason by murdering King Hamlet, and it
demonstrates his shocking betrayal to his kin. He goes to the extent of marrying his
brother’s wife (Gertrude) and we later see his plans to kill Hamlet, indicating once
again that he has no loyalty towards his family. Furthermore, if it were not for
Claudius’s terrible actions, Hamlet would not have chosen the path of an avenger, he
would not have killed Polonius by accident, thus this perhaps would have prevented
Ophelia going mad and Laertes desiring revenge. Effectively, Claudius has been the
cause of many of the chaos, emotional pain, and subsequent events in ‘Hamlet’.

Ophelia’s death was tragic; some consider her fate was the worst in comparison to the
other characters’ reactions. She was a victim from the very beginning of the play, and
the unfortunate events starting from Hamlet’s ‘madness’, his treatment of her to
finally the death of her father resulted in her madness. This no doubt elicits our
deepest sympathies towards her. Ophelia can be seen as a submissive female, her
nature is sweet, and caring, which makes us pity her even more when we realise she
goes mad and later dies. Therefore, many of us will feel that Ophelia did not deserve
death.

Hamlet is partly responsible for Ophelia’s madness and is fully responsible for
Polonius’s death, therefore we might feel he deserves death. A Jacobean audience
might feel Hamlet deserves death for pursing the path of an avenger, which was
considered a sin. However, they might also have taken into account of Hamlet’s
motivation for revenge. In fact, they might favour Hamlet’s goal since they also feel
that Claudius deserves death if he indeed did commit treason and kill King Hamlet.
Hamlet’s grief may also be genuine, as well as his claim for loving her, ‘I loved
Ophelia’, and it may not merely be a pretence. It shows that he did not intend any
harm on Ophelia and this may reserve our judgement on him deserving death.
However, we do notice his lack of remorse when he kills Polonius, once again
portraying a negative perspective of him. He is undoubtedly resolute when it comes to
the murder of his father, yet he has no qualms committing murder himself. Making
valued judgements is a key aspect of a good King, and it makes us question what kind
of leader Hamlet would have made, since he proves to be biased or rather unfair in his
thinking.

Another female character of ‘Hamlet’ that perhaps should not have deserved to die is
Gertrude. Her substantial change in her character is obvious as we see her genuine
realisation of her mistakes. She proves on several occasions that her loyalty now
belongs with Hamlet, and her doubts in Claudius are subtly shown. Some critics say
that Gertrude knew the drink held poison and deliberately took it in her last chance to
save Hamlet and possibly warn him that he is being plotted against. In this respect,
there is no doubt that such a sacrifice should be left unrecognised. It seems she
genuinely did not realise that her being with Claudius was hurting Hamlet and was
wrong, thus her actions were not deliberate. Her sacrifice is proof of her love and
loyalty to Hamlet. Therefore, Gertrude truly did not deserve death.

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Polonius has a mixed response as to whether he deserved to die or not, as is the same
situation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Both were mainly merely following
orders, perhaps showing that they had no choice. However, Polonius deliberately
forbids Ophelia from meeting Hamlet, at times even degrading her by referring to her
as a ‘green girl’. On the other hand, during Jacobean times, women were only
considered as property, they had very little power, and were thought to be inferior in
comparison to men. It is difficult to decide whether he is a loving or harsh father, yet
it may not even matter since Polonius’s actions towards Ophelia cannot be a sole
reason in deserving death. He acts as a concerned father and chief minister of state,
yet he gives Reynaldo instructions to spy on his son, Laertes and he eavesdrops on
Hamlet. His concern with surveillance is resulted in his death. Symbolically, this
could be suggesting that perhaps Polonius was deserving of death.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put on act of friendship when they are with Hamlet. It
is clear that their loyalties are with the King, not necessarily with Claudius. It was a
heavy crime to commit treason. Therefore, we can understand why Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern would follow Claudius’s actions without question, especially when the
punishment for treason was ultimately death. Therefore, they were merely following
orders, which in a sense does not exactly warrant death, however their deaths does
raise worrying questions once again in regard to the morality of Hamlet’s apparent
indifference to the fate of these two relatively innocent ‘actors’.

Some people feel strongly that Laertes did not deserve to die because his actions his
actions are driven out of revenge, (like Hamlet) which is motivated by anger and
grief. We can understand his feelings, and thus we do not feel inclined to wish him
dead. He does not deserve death simply because he is feeling instinctual human
emotions. If someone you loved died, then it is comprehensible that one would feel
anger, lost, sorrow, and the need to punish. This is the same reason for why we might
find it suitable that Hamlet sought out revenge.

On a general note, how do we know whether someone deserves death or not? What is
the limit to which our compassion allows us to forgive? Since we all have different
responses and opinions that will affect our judgement, our views on whether all the
characters deserved death or not, will no doubt vary.