Hamlet’s Fate Explained by Religious Arguments

From the Lecture Series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Connor Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The fifth act of Hamlet is a true manifestation of a religious theme. It is where the religious beliefs are at their highest levels of expression. Read on to know more about how Hamlet accepts his fate.

Statue of William Shakespeare's character Hamlet.
Hamlet finally accepts his fate after the graveyard scene. (Image: David Hughes/Shutterstock)

The Significance of the Graveyard and the Gravedigger

Death and the afterlife haunt the young prince Hamlet from the beginning of the play: from “to be or not to be” until the end. In the graveyard, he encounters the material manifestation of death: the decaying bodies of the dead. Through the playful exchange with the gravedigger, they cover most of the key elements of the play.

Here the many dark themes of the play are brought to light by “comic-relief”. In this funny scene, the gravedigger presents himself as the only character who can be as witty as Hamlet. While the scene is insightful and grim, the tragedy is brought to perfection by the comic-relief scenes.

Painting showing Hamlet mistakenly stabbing Polonius.
Hamlet mistakenly stabs Polonius. (Image: Coke Smyth/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The gravedigger demonstrates his razor-sharp wit through the answers he gives to Hamlet’s questions. For example, when Hamlet asks, “Whose grave is it?”, he answers, “It’s mine” as he is the one who is digging it. The grave is neither for a man nor for a woman, but for a person who was a woman, but now she is dead. The scene is simultaneously funny and sad as it shows how death strips everyone of the labels of identity, even the most straightforward ones, like man and woman. The great question of identity at the beginning of the play is brought back: Who’s there?

Then, Hamlet asks a question that regards the material fate of a man in the afterlife. He asks,”How long will a body take to decay?” In response, the gravedigger exhumes a skull that belongs to Yorick, the old jester for King Hamlet. Knowing him when he was a child, Hamlet looks at the skull in the eye sockets and shouts his famous “Alas, poor Yorick” speech.

This speech quickly changes from remembering a happy childhood to the final encounter with the grim reality of death.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Religious Arguments in the Graveyard Scene

This scene is also approachable with the tool of theological arguments. The theme of appearance versus reality runs through the whole speech. It is a fact that one can cover up the flesh with all kinds of appearance, but it is death that ultimately changes everyone’s appearance.

The painting shows the gravedigger scene, with the gravedigger showing Yorick's skull to Hamlet.
The skull of Yorick highlights the theme of appearance versus reality. (Image: Eugène Delacroix/Public domain)

And then, Hamlet realizes that the grave that is being dug belongs to his beloved, Ophelia. He thus sees another loved one buried in the ground. But after he faces and expresses the sorrow and shock, he finally seems to be at peace with Ophelia’s loss and all other losses.

This moment marks the beginning of Hamlet’s acceptance of his fate. This tranquility is demonstrated in his final duel with Laertes.

Horatio asks him to reconsider the fight, but Hamlet doesn’t accept:
“Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Learn more about the women of Hamlet.

A Pivotal Point in Hamlet’s Fate

This speech is particularly interesting as it shows a change of character in Hamlet. While once he was very anxious to know about the afterlife, now he defies augury, that is looking into the future. In the past, he seemed to be indecisive and not ready to take action, but now he says that readiness is all. And “to be or not to be” has now turned into “let it be”.

This final peace has puzzled critics for centuries. But it can be explained through the religious tool. He gives in to fate and the belief that the universe is ultimately good. It might sound absurdly general and sentimental to someone like Hamlet, but it is the most suitable worldview in the whole play.

Horatio’s prayer, while he is holding Hamlet’s body, is one of the most touching benedictions in the whole literature: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Like Horatio, no one knows where Hamlet goes after his death – heaven, hell, or purgatory. But most readers, like Horatio, hope he goes to heaven. At the end of the play, Hamlet is free of all doctrines and embraces his fate after death.

However, Hamlet did want his story to be told by Horatio: “In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” This way, he is immortalized in eternity as the most remarkable character in western literature.

Learn more about the interpretive tools for understanding the plays by Shakespeare.

Common Questions about Hamlet’s Fate Explained by Religious Arguments

Q: Why is the gravedigger scene in Hamlet important?

The gravedigger scene is important in Hamlet because it both represents comic-relief and tragedy. It is in this scene that Hamlet accepts his mortality and fate.

Q: What is the significance of Ophelia’s death?

Ophelia’s death is important because it is the final loss of a loved one that Hamlet sees. He finally comes to peace with these losses and accepts the reality of life.

Q: What happens at the end of Hamlet?

At the end, Hamlet undergoes a change of character, highlighted with acceptance and resignation. He wanted to see what would happen in the afterlife, but he ultimately rejects looking into the future.

Q: What is the point of Yorick’s skull?

Yorick’s skull in Hamlet is the manifestation of the inevitability of death. It also shows the religious theme of appearance versus reality in the play. Death finally reveals the truth, no matter how much one conceals it with appearance.

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