13

Hamlet's very last words are

The rest is silence.

What do they actually mean? This being Shakespeare, I reckon the significance of these words cannot be only the banal comparison between death and silence.

I wonder if these words have a theological connotation, too, which would not be surprising at all when we learn, early on in the play, that Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg, where Luther himself also studied.

  • 1
    Great question, although I wouldn't categorize the death/silence connection as banal, particularly in that period--Shakespeare is a contemporary of Donne. The play is filled with existential themes. In the words of Marx: "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough." Hamlet has said everything he is ever going to say. (Some of the implications of this are covered in Matt Throwers excellent answer.) The connection may be obvious, but the implications are profound, as centuries of analysis of the line demonstrate. – DukeZhou Jul 21 '17 at 17:36
13

There appear to be multiple ways of reading this sentence, depending on how you interpret the context of "rest" and "silence".

Hamlet has been experiencing a great deal of upset and distress during the course of the play. Enough to drive him to madness. So one possible reading of this sentence is that the "silence" of death will finally allow him to "rest". "Going to your rest" is, of course, a common euphemism for death.

It is also the end of the play, as well as the end of Hamlet. "The rest is silence" can be read literally in the context of the performance: there is little left to watch, after which the characters will be silent. And in the context of the play itself, Hamlet himself will be silenced by death.

However, it can also be read as a continuation of the speech and little to do with death itself. Before expiring, Hamlet is talking about the possible outcome of Fortinbras's election. "The rest is silence" could be interpreted as a statement saying Hamlet would vote for him, but the outcome is otherwise uncertain. "The rest" of the possible outcome is "silent": one can imagine a personification of fate or prophecy refusing to speak more on the matter.

If you like puns, and Shakespeare seems to have done, there's one here. Shortly before his dying speech, Hamlet personifies Death and refers to the act of dying as an "arrest". So here he is saying "th'[e/a]rest [i.e. dying] is silence".

Finally, a major theme of the play is mortality and the question of what comes after. We see this in Hamlet's statements about the ghost of his father, about Yorick, about men going to die in battle. We see it, most famously in "to be or not to be" and in an "undiscover'd country". "The rest is silence" could be a statement of uncertainty: Hamlet is about to find out the answer to this question but he cannot tell anyone what it is. In fact, the answer may be "silence", i.e. oblivion. This is your theological connotation.

So the literary value in this short line appears to be one of substantial ambiguity. Which is fitting, given the questions of uncertainty and faith at the heart of the play.

  • 4
    Ambiguity is a powerful "hermeneutical" literary device. Outstanding answer! – DukeZhou Jul 19 '17 at 15:21
6

With Shakespeare's characters, you usually know what they're thinking. With Hamlet, you're never sure. In the second scene he goes over recent events but says, "I must hold my tongue!" He agonizes over his situation, considers every alternative, and finds reasons to avoid action, but he never tells us what drives him.

He behaves as if there are voices in his head, not one but several, each pulling him in a different direction. He can't commit to one course of action because he knows he'll change course sooner or later. He is the first to admit he might be insane. Is he "crazy like a fox," only pretending to fool his enemies, or is he truly schizophrenic? You're never sure.

One might suppose that the fatal poison (or his impending death) is enough to silence the voices for a moment. In that moment he is the rightful king of Denmark, and he gives Horatio instructions. Before he dies, he gives us the only indication of his mental state. The voices will be gone forever. "The rest is silence."

That's one interpretation. Another is that Hamlet, like several other characters in Shakespeare, is aware of being a fictional construct. He forgoes action because, as the ringmaster, he has others to manipulate. He even puts on a play within the play. It's only in the denouement that he takes on his rightful role. His final words are a stage direction to himself.

  • 1
    "like several other characters in Shakespeare, is aware of being a fictional construct" - such as who? I'm intrigued; I don't remember noticing any breaking of the fourth wall in the plays I've studied. – Rand al'Thor Jul 19 '17 at 23:16
  • I'm with @Randal'Thor — I'm not aware of any characters in Shakespeare being aware that they are characters. You're not thinking of Tom Stoppard's Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are you? (Characters from Hamlet, but written recently, not by the Bard. And deliberately absurdist.) – Lauren Ipsum Jul 20 '17 at 9:40
  • 1
    @LaurenIpsum I've now hunted around a bit and found a few instances of fourth-wall-breaking in Shakespeare's plays. Puck at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream; apparently Prospero and Richard III (haven't checked these); and of course the "chorus"/narrator who appears in several plays such as Romeo and Juliet and The Winter's Tale. – Rand al'Thor Jul 20 '17 at 9:54
  • I went ahead and posted it as a new question (cc @LaurenIpsum). – Rand al'Thor Jul 20 '17 at 11:50
  • @Randal'Thor Of course; you're absolutely right on both counts. Richard does clearly address the audience ("Was ever woman in this humour wooed?"), and Puck's final monologue describing himself and the others as "shadows." I wouldn't put Hamlet's last line in that category, but that's part of this question's discussion. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 20 '17 at 12:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.