I looked up the etymology of sergeant because I was trying to work out if Hamlet was thinking of a military sergeant or a police sergeant. The answer is likely of the military sort due to the fact that it would be another couple hundred years before sergeant was used for the police force. However – what I learned was that sergeant was the same as servant for quite a while before it came to mean military sergeant. Even the military sergeant was a servant to the military. That makes sense, in that everyone in the military thinks of themselves as in service. But the direct line from servant to being in service feels like a revelation to me. It also feels like it should have been obvious. Now that I see it, it feels obvious that sergeant comes from servant. They sound alike in the right context.
Anyway – thinking of death or maybe Death as a serious servant who comes to arrest the dead shifts the quality of that arrest for me. Instead of some Dogberry officer of the law who comes to bring in the dead – no exceptions – it becomes this servant sergeant who, in service to the universe, has to bring in the dead.
It is an interesting image for Hamlet to call forth at this moment in the play. In a way it foreshadows the arrival of Fortinbras who will be bringing a military presence into this hall of death.