Though not a heavily symbolic play, in terms of physical representation, there are several which appear as vital to the play.
Found in the graveyard, Yorick's (the former Jester of the Court) skull serves as the main symbol of the play and is an image that people often immediately associate with the production of Hamlet. The skull is a reminder of death, a symbol of the physical breakdown after death and a sign that death is inevitable to all. Hamlet comes across the skull, fuelling his fascination with the consequences of death – final and physical. He speaks to the skull to reveal an insight into this enthralment:
"Get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor
she must come" (V.i.178–179) – this tells of how no-one can avoid death.
"Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft," (V.i.174–175) – this
sheds light on his obvious interest in the bodily decomposition subsequent to death.
The flowers given by Ophelia to others serve to symbolize elements of her lost love. In her disillusionment she believes that the weeds she holds are vibrant flowers of rosemary, pansies, daisies, fennel, columbines and rue. In reality, the flowers are dead weeds which symbolically display Ophelia and Hamlet's extinguished love. She maintains that the rosemary and pansies represent remembrance and thoughts of love.
The Murder of Gonzago
The play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, is significant in that it represents the murder of the King. Also, it is the play that confirms Hamlet's suspicion towards King Claudius and sees his eventual downfall.
"The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (II.ii.606-07).
Symbols are important to drama as they add meaning. Make a list of objects that are recognised as having strong symbolic value. Incorporate them into a dramatic representation of a scene from Hamlet. How do they enhance/detract from the overall meaning of the scene.*Note – This has been adapted from an activity in Haseman and O'Toole's Dramawise.
Change the symbolic meaning of Yorick's skull in Hamlet. If it no longer symbolises Death, is the dramatic meaning still present? Is it reduced? This activity serves to show students just how powerful symbols can be in the creation of a dramatic piece. You could take this further and get them to replace the skull with another object – such as an oversized banana, soft toy, phone etc.