Role of Symbols in William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Topics: Writer

This sample essay on Hamlet Symbols provides important aspects of the issue and arguments for and against as well as the needed facts. Read on this essay’s introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

Hamlet is one of the greatest tragedies written by the famous English author William Shakespeare, presumably in the early 1600’s. Hamlet, who is the protagonist of the play, is nephew to the present King of Denmark and son to the former and now deceased King. He experiences different complications throughout the play that tie to the ideas of love, death and betrayal.

Throughout the play, we can notice important symbols such as Yorick’s skull, Hamlet’s costume change or poison. The symbols in Hamlet are significant to the play as they have a powerful effect on the protagonist, they add more depth to the plot, and represent a certain state of mind of the characters.

One of the ways that symbolism is significant to the play Hamlet, is the powerful effect that it has on the protagonist.

The symbolism behind Yorick’s skull and the graveyard brought Hamlet to certain realisations that he would not have come to before. When Hamlet dug up the skull of Yorick, a court jester that meant a lot to him in his childhood, he began to reflect upon death, and everything began to have a greater meaning to him. The skull symbolises afterlife, the finality of death and the fact that no matter what social class we are in, what lives we live or what we leave behind, all of our lives come to the same end, where we “returneth into dust” (5.

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1.30). Hamlet realises how ordinary and pretentious death is once he sees that both his dear court jester Yorick and Alexander the Great are the same, lying beneath the earth. Only once Hamlet ‘looks face in the death’ does he attain a more mature look on the concept of ‘death’, and accepts that there is nothing one can do to prevent it. The graveyard itself creates a great contrast from the royal court symbolically as it is a place where people come to acknowledge the dead and their past, whereas at the royal court, his father’s death was quickly forgotten and put into the past. The role of the graveyard setting and Yorick’s skull as symbols were that they had a meaningful effect on the protagonist, bringing him to defined realisations.

Yorick’s Skull Meaning

Another role of symbolism in this play, is that it adds layers and greater depth to the plot. The way the garden in the play is depicted by Hamlet, leads the reader to believing that there is greater meaning behind it. He describes the garden as “tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely” which is a contrast to what people usually imagine when they think of gardens. It appears to be a gloomy place with chaotic overgrowth of vegetation and generally a negative ambience. When the Ghost informs Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius while sleeping in his orchard, the symbolism behind the garden gains deeper meaning as well. It is clear that Hamlet thinks of the place as caliginous and a rotten piece of land as it reminds him of his father’s death. Poison is another symbol that adds depth to the plot. It symbolises betrayal, corruption, revenge and death which are one of the main themes of this play. When Hamlet learns from the Ghost that “…

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole with juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, and in the porches of my ears did pour…” (I.v.61-63), we understand the powerful representation and symbolism of poison. Claudius’s need for power completely corrupted him, and prompted him to murder his own brother by pouring poison into his ear. Later on in the play, Laertes and Claudius plan on using poison once again to kill young Hamlet, but in the end the poison leads to the death of Queen Gertrude, Laertes, King Claudius and Hamlet as well. The poison is a strong representation of betrayal and coarseness that firstly symbolises the decadence of the court as nearly the whole royal family is killed by it. The word ‘poison’ may also be understood on another level as we can say that Polonius ‘poisons’ the way that Ophelia feels about Hamlet and Gertrude ‘poisons’ the remembrance of Old Hamlet by marrying Claudius, his murderer. The fact that Hamlet’s father was killed in the garden that Hamlet so gravely describes, and the word ‘poison’ may have various meanings and functions in the play, adds layers to the plot that allow the reader to make their own connections, and go deeper into the meaning behind these symbols.

An interesting role that symbolism has in some instances in the play, is the representation of a certain state of mind of the characters. We can see this firstly with Hamlet’s costume changes at different points in the play. At the beginning of the play, his wardrobe consists of black clothing that represent his mourning for his dead father. His clothes set him apart from everyone else at the royal court, as the death of the Old Hamlet was quickly forgotten when Claudius took the throne, and it makes him seem like an outsider. Hamlet is in grave mourning of his father and doesn’t feel that his attire alone can express the grief and anguish that he is feeling: “Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black,(…) together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, that can denote me truly (1.2.4). Later on in the play when Hamlet’s behaviour changes to one of a madman, his costume changes as well. Ophelia says that Lord Hamlet had “his doublet all unbraced; no hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d, Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ancle; pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other (2.1.1).

At this point Hamlet changed his wardrobe to get into the character that he was portraying and to convince the people around him that he truly lost his mind. He is assuming that the way that he looks physically, will be a reflection of his state of mind. Another example of symbolism reflecting a character’s state of mind is when Ophelia goes mad after the death of her father and starts bestowing flowers as gifts to people around her. Each of the different flowers have a symbolic meaning, and there is a reason behind why she gives certain flowers to certain people. She tries to give rosemary to an invisible Hamlet, which is a symbol for remembrance. She gives them to Laertes instead and gives him pansies as well that represent thought of love. Ophelia gives Gertrude rue which is a symbol of regret, most probably to resemble the regret she should be feeling after remarrying so quickly after Old Hamlet’s death. Queen Gertrude and Claudius also receive daisies from Ophelia, which represent deceit and lies, as both of them betrayed Old Hamlet and lied to the public. Hamlet’s costume changes and the flowers given out by Ophelia as symbols, had the role in the play of reflecting the state of mind of the characters.

The symbolism presented in Hamlet has different purposes such as having a powerful effect on the protagonist, adding layers and depth to the plot, and representing a certain state of mind of the characters. Without symbolism, the play would be very shallow and wouldn’t provoke the readers to think deeper and make connections, which is usually what engages a reader to a novel or a play. Hamlet, one of the greatest tragedies of William Shakespeare, wouldn’t be as absorbing and transcendent if not for the various forms of symbolism presented.

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Role of Symbols in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from

Role of Symbols in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
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