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Dylan Rivera

Mrs. Balka

IB HL English 1

20 February 2019

Shakespeare’s Call for Us to Make a Decision

Although human minds have progressed tremendously since the dawn of humanity in

terms of their ability to process information and adapt to new circumstances, some struggles that

arise from this complex being remain. Among them are indecisiveness and the little voices inside

our heads that tell us to one thing or another, then subsequently tugging our hearts in another

direction. It is a sort of tug-of-war that speaks to every generation -- precisely as seen in

Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Shakespeare recognized this

feeling of indecision all too much and made it the central basis behind this world renowned play,

a realization enhanced by the use of various motifs. Shakespeare repeatedly uses the motif of

decay in order to make a case against frozen indecision, which is clearly demonstrated by the

decay as seen in nature, certain important character’s deaths, and the ultimate decay of everyone

around Hamlet.

The persistent motif of decay is first seen in Shakespeare’s repeated references to nature

and its mortal forms. For example, in Hamlet’s sullied flesh soliloquy, Hamlet cries out that life

is merely “an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature,” (1.2.135-

136), a symbolic instance of decay. Shakespeare’s choice to use a garden as a metaphor for life

itself - the “unweeded garden” - emphasizes Hamlet’s disgust with the nature of life, how

dismayed he is with its reality, and how fleeting life appears to be. Gardens are made up of
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organic beings, ones that have a finite life span and eventually end up rotting in the soil after

living the entirety of their lives -- just like human beings. Hamlet’s startling epiphany here not

only lets the audience know that Hamlet has recognized the finite span of his time and thus life,

but also how every second spent is a second towards the decay of life itself into an unkempt

garden of weeds. This recognition is what propels Hamlet to assess his feelings and leave no

more time for mourning; otherwise he would descend into a silent, miserable decay as well for

not doing so. Additionally, Shakespeare brings up once again an instance of nature symbolizing

the motif of decay during Ophelia’s broken state after her father’s death when she gives flowers

to Gertrude, symbolizing several virtues and vices -- a violet for faithfulness, a columbine for

adultery, and so on. Flowers, like the plants of a garden, are mortal beings and eventually decay

in the slow process of death. Despite Ophelia’s attempts at giving an everlasting symbol of these

qualities by symbolizing them through flowers, her attempts are ironic as these flowers - and so

their values as well - will eventually die. Once the flower passes and its meaning dies with it,

there is nothing left. Death is ultimately the great equalizer of all beings, and by giving life to

contrasting characteristics such as fidelity and and adultery, their moral alignments whether good

or evil will decay with them and be equal in the depths of death. In the end, there is no difference

between what is perceived as good and evil, for everyone will die with these values.

Shakespeare’s connection of them to decaying flowers takes away the focus of the virtue or vice

itself and simply puts the spotlight on whether something was done about it in the first place,

exactly as it had done with the garden.

Shakespeare’s decision to kill off critical characters also highlights the motif of decay

and the reason to make a decision in life. The death of Polonius is particularly revealing for the

audience; a tragic death of a man who was the unintended target of Hamlet’s rage. It is a perfect
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example of situational irony, for Hamlet had killed a father, the precise crime that inspired him to

avenge his own father. It was clearly an unnecessary and preventable death -- if Hamlet had only

controlled his rage and made a decision earlier, Polonius’s life may have been spared. But by

acting on his impulses and giving the reigns of decision-making to passionate fury, nothing had

been accomplished. Hamlet’s guilt in becoming a murderer himself defines his character now

and shows how his own personality had decayed from a once innocent boy to a man with blood

on his hands, which is what he was going against in the first place. Another notable instance of

this is through Ophelia, who Gertrude claims died by a suicidal drowning: “Till her garments,

heavy with their drink, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay, To muddy death,”

(4.7.182-184). The quick decline of Ophelia from a once innocent, joyful young girl into a

distraught and suicidal girl is strikingly horrific for the audience, demonstrating how quickly

one’s life can devolve into a mess and succumb to an early death. Shakespeare makes it clear that

life, the poor life of Ophelia, is precious. This sentiment is demonstrated by the diction of these

particular lines, which make out Ophelia to be a poor victim by calling her a wretch from her

once “melodious lay” into a “muddy death”, igniting feelings of sadness and pity for the

depressing death of a once loveable character. Life is dictated by time and influences how we

approach certain obstacles in our life. In this case, Ophelia was unable to make a decision to

cope with the loss of her father and lover which made her spiral into insanity, hastening her

decay into death.

Finally, the last scenes of decay in its final form for most people in the play - death - that

brings the consequences of indecision to life. When Hamlet goes into the graveyard and speaks

with the gravediggers, he carries the skull of Yorick in his hand, a jester he once knew but was

confronted with the sight of his dead remains - “Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your
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songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not quite one now, to

mock your own grinning? Quite chapfall’n?” (5.1.200-203). To Hamlet, his once lively friend is

now dead, in his final form of decay in the grave. The syntax of these lines, designed by the

repeated use of rhetorical questions, makes Hamlet questions existence and life itself. All that

remains of him is his skull. This brings death to life for Hamlet, who now sees the common

destination of all of mankind whether good or evil -- in the ground as worm food. This somber

realization prompts Hamlet to strengthen his mind’s convictions about killing Claudius, now

knowing that death awaits him and he must quickly make a decision. Finally, the scene of

everyone dying in the palace at the end confirms Shakespeare’s warning of everyone’s decay and

the importance of making a decision. It is yet another instance of situational irony, as Fortinbras

walks in the palace and sees the dead bodies of the royal family splattered across the floor.

Hamlet’s goal to kill Claudius, and Laertes’s goal to kill Hamlet, only ended in the death of

themselves and everyone around them. Their time was up: decay had reached even the characters

with the noblest of intentions as well. It was too late to make any decision and the lack of

Hamlet’s decision to kill Claudius in the first place ended up in everyone in the castle dying.

This is Shakespeare’s reminder of death for everyone, by making death so real and vivid for

everyone watching the play.

The issue of indecision has confronted humanity since its inception. Shakespeare’s

message has been able to transcend time and remain relevant to people of today. In the play The

Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare calls on everyone to make a decision in life

and not succumb to the devastating consequences of not acting at all. Through the motif of decay

throughout the play, this becomes apparent and immediate for the audience. In the end,
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Shakespeare emphasizes that the only truly “bad” decision is not making a decision in the first

place.