In Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, the death of a character becomes a
frequent event. Although many people lose their lives as a result of their
own self-centered wrong-doing, there are others whose deaths are a result
of manipulation from the royalty. This is the case of Polonius’ family.
The real tragedy of Hamlet is not that of Hamlet or his family but of
Polonius’ family because their deaths were not the consequence of sinful
actions of their own but rather by their innocent involvement in the
schemes of Claudius and Hamlet.
The first character to die in Hamlet is Polonius. Although Polonius
often acts in a deceitful manner when dealing with Hamlet, it is only
because he is carrying out plans devised by the king or queen to discover
the nature of Hamlet’s madness. Being the king’s Lord Chamberlain, it is
his duty to obey the king and queen’s wishes and it is this loyalty that
eventually proves to be fatal for him. An example of how Polonius’
innocent involvement with the royalty results in his death can be found at
the beginning of Act III, scene iv, when Hamlet stabs him while he is
hiding behind the arras in Gertrude’s room. This shows how Polonius, a man
unaware of the true nature of the situation he is in, is killed by a member
of the royalty during the execution of one of their schemes. This makes
Polonius’ death a tragedy.
The next member of Polonius’ family to die is his daughter Ophelia.
Ophelia’s death is tragic because of her complete innocence in the
situation. Some may argue that Polonius deserves his fate because of his
deceitfulness in dealing with Hamlet while he is mad, but Ophelia is
entirely manipulated and used by Hamlet and the king for their own selfish
reasons. An example of how Ophelia is used by Hamlet takes place in Act
II, scene i, when Hamlet uses her to convince his family he is mad. Ophelia
explains to Polonius how Hamlet has scared her, causing Polonius to draw
the conclusion that Hamlet has an “antic disposition”. Although this is
subject to interpretation and many believe that this is simply Hamlet
taking one last look at Ophelia before he becomes engaged in his plan to
kill Claudius, the fact that he scares her and does not try to alleviate
these fears points to the conclusion that he is simply using her to help
word of his madness spread throughout the kingdom via Polonius. In Act
III, scene iv, Hamlet kills Polonius while he is hiding behind the arras in
the Queen’s room. This event causes Ophelia to become insane and leads to
her eventual death in a river near the castle in Act IV, scene vii. It can
be seen how the combined scheming of Hamlet and Claudius concludes in her
death. Claudius’ scheme brings about Hamlet’s scheme which brings about
the death of Polonius which leads to Ophelia’s death. The passing of
Ophelia is a tragedy because she does nothing deserving of death, she is
merely used for other people’s personal gain.
The last member of Polonius’ family to die is Laertes, Ophelia’s
brother and Polonius’ son. Laertes’ death is tragic because, although he
kills Hamlet, he is avenging his father’s death, an act, with reference to
the moral climate of the 1600s, that would have been condoned by the people
who saw the play. The difference between Hamlet and Laertes is that Laertes
does not use others to attain his goals and his revenge is in part due to
the pressure put on him by Claudius. This makes Laertes’ murder of Hamlet
excusable and his death a tragedy. An example of how Claudius uses Laertes
to try and murder Hamlet is seen in Act IV, scene vii, lines 108 to 110.
Claudius and Laertes are discussing Hamlet when Claudius says:
Laertes, was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of
a sorrow, A face without a heart?
He is asking Laertes whether he is really sorry about his father’s death or
if he is just acting mournful without feeling mournful. Claudius uses
these lines to lead Laertes into a plan to kill Hamlet, asking him what he
will do to prove his love for his father in Act IV, scene vii, lines 124 to
Hamlet comes back; what would you undertake To show yourself in deed
your father’s son More than in words?
It can be easily seen how Laertes, influenced