By the end of any Shakespearean tragedy, almost all the characters will have died. Hamlet is certainly no exception. Thus far, we’ve already seen Polonius stabbed through a curtain (yelling out “I am slain!” as he dies) and Ophelia drowned in the river. Let’s take a look at who else joins them in the final act of the play:
Yorrick: To be fair, Yorrick was dead long before the play began. It’s his skull that Hamlet finds in the graveyard and examines in the play’s most iconic image. However, I think the death of the court jester is a significant one. While many of Shakespeare’s plays – both comedies and tragedies – have a jester or “fool” who is in fact the wisest of the characters, Hamlet does not. There is no one there to lighten the mood, to give profound advice in the form of jokes, or to see what’s really going on when the other characters can’t. He’s been dead and buried the whole time.
Rozencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet’s former friends are supposed to be escorting him to England with an important letter for the king. Unfortunately for Hamlet, that letter says to chop off his head … and unfortunately for his friends, he switches it with a new letter saying they’re to be killed instead. This action shows, even more than his murder of Polonius, just how warped Hamlet has become. Where once he hesitated to kill even Claudius, he’s now willing to orchestrate his old friends’ deaths.
Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother drinks poison meant for him. Does she know? Does she suspect? My instinct is yes. Why else would she feel the need to drink from her son’s cup? When she collapses, she screams out that it was poison, which could come across as just as ridiculous as Polonius’ “I am slain!” unless she’s desperately warning Hamlet away from the cup.
Laertes: Desperate to avenge his father’s death, Laertes pretends to forgive Hamlet and challenges him to a friendly fencing competition. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that Laertes’ blade is poisoned. As their competition goes on, both men are cut by the poisoned blade, leaving them both with under half an hour to live. It’s fitting that Hamlet and Laertes, foil characters, are killed by the same blade.
Claudius: After Hamlet is fatally stabbed, he wounds Claudius with the same poisoned blade. Then, just to be sure, he also forces his uncle to drink from the same poisoned cup that killed his mother. In a way, it seems ridiculous to kill a man twice, but symbolically, it makes a poetic sort of sense that Claudius should be killed by not one but two of the poisons he meant for Hamlet.
Hamlet: Having spent the entire length of the play contemplating life and death, killed multiple people, and come face-to-face with the skull of the long-dead Yorrick in the graveyard, Hamlet finally meets his end.
Horatio: No, not Horatio. He tries to drink the last of the poison, but Hamlet stops him, insisting that Horatio continue living and tell the story of what happened. Clearly, he did a pretty good job, since we’re still telling the story today.