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 126.
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 by Claudius in the heat of his anger, could conspire to murder Hamlet and it is in this attempt that Laertes loses his own life to the very poison he kills Hamlet with. Once again, a member of Polonius’ family loses their life as a result of a conflict that they are oblivious to, making Laertes’ death a tragedy as well.
Contrary to popular belief, the tragedy associated with Hamlet is not about Hamlet or his family. It is, however, about the tragic fate of Polonius’ family, whose deaths are not the result of any sins they commit but by their being manipulated by Hamlet and Claudius for reasons they are unaware of. Although the death of Polonius’ family stands out as being the most tragic, many other characters in the story are killed as well. In fact, the death of a character in Hamlet almost becomes commonplace near the end of the play.