He doesn’t. He’s what you sometimes hear referred to as the “exception that proves the rule.” Like how at the end of Hamlet, everybody dies. Except Horatio.
The official body count in the final scene (Act 5 Scene 2) of Hamlet is four: Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, Hamlet. Enter Fortinbras, who says “What happened here?” and Horatio is left to tell the tale.
Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version may have also killed off Osric (the referee, for lack of a more description term), it’s difficult to tell. In Branagh’s version, Fortinbras is actively invading the castle while the final duel takes place between Hamlet and Laertes. Osric is seen being taken by surprise and stabbed. However, he then returns to the scene to deliver his line about Fortinbras’ “warlike volley.”
In some interpretations, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1986 production, Horatio is killed at the end of the play. When Fortinbras orders, “Bid the soldiers shoot,” some directors have taken that as license to execute Horatio, presumably as the last remaining witness to all that had taken place. It’s important to note that there is nothing in the text to indicate this (just like Osric’s death above). However, there’s two ways to die in a play. Either the script says you die, or else you eventually just run out of lines. Once you’re no longer part of the action (such as Osric), you might fall victim to artistic license and find yourself dead at the end of Act 5 whether Shakespeare wanted it that way or not.
There’s a short and easy answer to the question of why Hamlet killed Polonius. It was an accident. A case of mistaken identify, if you will. What he did next, however, certainly was no accident.
The story so far: Hamlet has sprung his mouse trap, playing out Claudius’ crime in front of him with the help of the actors. Claudius reaction has, as Hamlet anticipated, “caught the conscience of the king.” Gertrude, upset with her son for angering her husband, has requested Hamlet come to her bedchamber so she might speak with him. Polonius offers to spy on Hamlet by reaching the queen first and hiding in the arras (curtains).
Hamlet, in exultation at having proven Claudius’ guilt, comes to his mother’s bedchamber and intends to tell her off:
Hamlet. Now, mother, what’s the matter?
Gertrude. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended.
Gertrude. Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
Hamlet. Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
Gertrude. Why, how now, Hamlet?
Hamlet. What’s the matter now?
Gertrude. Have you forgot me?
Hamlet. No, by the rood, not so!
You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And (would it were not so!) you are my mother.
Hamlet’s mood at this point is pretty obvious. He’s been unhappy with his mother and is letting it all out. You have my father much offended. You question with a wicked tongue. You are your husband’s brother’s wife.
If Hamlet had stormed off at this moment, having made his point, the play would have gone differently. Instead, Gertrude stands up and says, “I don’t have to take this!” and Hamlet shoves his mother back down, because he’s not done with her yet:
Gertrude. Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.
Hamlet. Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Gertrude is not prepared for Hamlet to put his hands on her. Remember that the whole castle believes Hamlet to have lost his mind. So it’s hardly unexpected when she yells to Polonius for help:
Gertrude. What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me?
Help, help, ho!
Polonius. [behind] What, ho! help, help, help!
Hamlet didn’t know someone else was in the room. He stabs blindly through the arras:
Hamlet. [draws] How now? a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!
[Makes a pass through the arras and] kills Polonius.
Polonius. [behind] O, I am slain!
Gertrude. O me, what hast thou done?
Right now the audience is thinking the same thing that Gertrude is. What just happened? Hamlet’s a thinker and a talker, not a doer. Up to this point in the play he hasn’t really done anything. Until now. Heard a noise? Kill it!
Hamlet. Nay, I know not. Is it the King?
Gertrude. O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
Hamlet. A bloody deed- almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Gertrude. As kill a king?
Hamlet thought Claudius was hiding behind the arras! During this exchange, in fact, he still believes he has killed Claudius, which perhaps explains why he so blatantly accuses his mother of the crime, thinking that he has now avenged his father.
The timing here is subject to some debate. In the previous scene, on his way to his mother’s bedchamber, Hamlet had already passed Claudius at prayer. He has an opportunity there to kill him, but chooses not to take it. So, then, does Hamlet think that Claudius somehow beat him to the same destination? It’s possible that Hamlet took his time getting to his mother’s room eventually. Or that castles do tend to have secret passages and if there was a shortcut to Gertrude’s room, Claudius knew it. It’s also likely that in the heat of the moment Hamlet simply never thought of this.
So, Polonius’ death was an accident. What happens next is not. Hamlet hides Polonius body, refusing to let him have a proper burial. Act 4 scenes 2 and 3 are actually devoted entirely to the search for Polonius’ body:
Rosencrantz. What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
Hamlet. Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.
Rosencrantz. Tell us where ’tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.
And then, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can get no answers out on him, Hamlet is taken before Claudius:
Claudius. Where is Polonius?
Hamlet. In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not
there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But indeed, if you
find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up
the stair, into the lobby.
So Hamlet uses the dead body of his girlfriend’s father as a prop so he can tell Claudius to go to hell. Is this part of his crazy act? Or at this point does he truly care so little about such things that he doesn’t think twice about defiling a corpse?
Jephthah is not a word you hear every day. How often does phth show up in the middle of a word? Sounds onomatopoetic, like blowing someone a raspberry every time you say it. With words like that scattered around the play, of course it’s got a reputation for being difficult to read and understand.
Before we look at who Jephthah was, let’s first look at the scene where Hamlet uses the term (in Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet has already visited with the ghost of his father, learned of his father’s murder, and has enacted his plan to “put an antic disposition on,” in the hopes of gathering evidence against his uncle Claudius. So basically he can say whatever he wants to whoever (whomever?) he wants. Part of the fun for Hamlet is in saying seemingly random things that actually have a deeper meaning.
Polonius, meanwhile, is convinced that Hamlet’s madness is love sickness, because he can no longer see Ophelia. Polonius even offers to prove his theory by putting out Ophelia as bait while they hide and watch how Hamlet reacts to seeing her, but Hamlet figures out their plan.
Hamlet. O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius. What treasure had he, my lord?
‘One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’
Polonius. [aside] Still on my daughter.
The story of Jephthah is recounted in Judges 11:31, where Jepthah is about to go into battle with the Ammonites and makes a vow to God, offering as a sacrifice, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Well, his daughter is the first to come out and meet him. So he inadvertently sacrifices his own daughter.
Polonius is so caught up in his own “love sick” theory that as soon as he sees a daughter reference he sees it as proof of his own theory (“He’s still obsessed with my daughter!”) He doesn’t appear to get the “sacrificed his own daughter” connection.
Irony : The expression “There’s a method to his madness” comes earlier in this scene, spoken by Polonius. So he does recognize that there’s a deeper, relevant meaning in the seeming gibberish that Hamlet is spouting. He just doesn’t realize it’s anything more than coincidence.