Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Existentialism
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
What is mankind? Who am I? What is the meaning of life? These are multifaceted existential questions that ancient and modern philosophies have yet to adequately answer. Countless philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of answers to these questions but died before finding a suitable answer. Certainly, the philosophy of existentialism is an interesting phenomenon. The dictionary defines existentialism as a "philosophical movement . . . centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will" ("Existentialism"). The character Hamlet from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet explores these existential questions, seeking truth and understanding as he tries to come to grips with his father's death. In the end, Hamlet proves to be an exceedingly existential character.
Prince Hamlet is a university student who enjoys contemplating difficult philosophical questions. When his father, king of Denmark, dies, he returns home to find evidence of foul play in his father’s death. The Ghost of Hamlet (the dead king) tells Prince Hamlet that his uncle Claudius is the murderer. Throughout the rest of the play, Hamlet seeks to prove Claudius’ guilt before he takes action against Claudius. However, Hamlet is pensive ad extremum, at times even brooding; he constantly overuses his intellect while ignoring his emotions and ignoring what "feels right." His extreme logic causes him to delay his revenge against Claudius until the final scene of the play where he kills Claudius and proves that he has progressed into a truly existential character.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet acts out of pure intellect and processed logic. He suppresses his natural instincts, his emotions, and trusts only in the power of his intelligence. For instance, when Hamlet encounters his father's ghost, he does not believe it is his father—even though he has an emotional reaction upon seeing it. Hamlet says “Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell / Why thy canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death, / Have burst their cerements . . . Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?” (I.iv.46-48,57). Hamlet is so confused by the sight of his father’s ghost that he is unsure of how to act. His intellect tells him that the sight is not possible, however his emotions tell him otherwise. However, he stifles his emotion and retains his doubts about the ghost. Later, Hamlet plans a play where actors re-enact the king's murder in an effort to prove the validity of what the ghost has told him.
Although Hamlet appears to be the epitome of an anti-existentialist from the outset of the story, Hamlet's logic slowly begins to unravel scene by scene, like a blood-soaked bandage, with layer after layer revealing snippets of Hamlet's emotion and feeling. When Hamlet utters the famous lines " To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles " he is contemplating the thought of suicide and wishing that God had not made suicide a sin (III.i.58-61). Hamlet's anxiety, uncertainty, and tensions cause him to doubt the power of reason alone to solve his problems. Hamlet begins to realize that reason is impotent to deal with the depths of human life—one of the central assertions of existentialism (Bigelow, paragraph 6). Perhaps this is why Hamlet feigns madness; he realizes that he lacks the emotions to avenge his father's death. Indeed, Hamlet does go temporarily insane in Act I, scene ii, and it is during this time when he is able to act out of pure sensation, with no thoughts about the consequences of what he says or does (e.g. when he undeservingly criticizes Ophelia). However, in uniting his emotions and reason, Hamlet is careful to avoid the temptation to commit suicide because if one commits suicide to escape life's pain, then one is damned to eternal suffering in hell. To Hamlet (and most other people of the 1600s), suicide is morally wrong. By making the decision to stay alive and fight Claudius' corruption, Hamlet demonstrates existential qualities. However, this is not the only scene where Hamlet acts existentially.
In Act IV, Hamlet encounters alienation and nothingness when he meets a Norwegian captain under the command of Fortinbras. When Hamlet asks the captain about the cause and purpose of the conflict, he is shocked to learn that the countries' armies will go to war over "a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name" (IV.iv.98-99). After Hamlet recovers from the shock of the captain's honesty, he is dumbstruck by the thought that Fortinbras would sacrifice the lives of thousands of men for an admittedly inferior "patch of land." At this point in the play, Hamlet is still struggling with his own inaction, unable to kill Claudius even though he knows of his guilt. Hamlet has a good reason to kill Claudius, yet he fails to do it. How can Fortinbras sacrifice so much for such a futile purpose? In this scene, Hamlet realizes the brutality of humanity and first ponders the idea that no one is safe—another central pillar of existentialism.
From this point on, Hamlet declares that he will have bloody thoughts. "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (IV.iv.9.56). Hamlet is impressed by the forcefulness of characters like Fortinbras and Laertes, who turn thought into action quickly (Phillips). Laertes, who, like Hamlet, has a father to avenge, does not hesitate for a moment when seeking vengeance on his father's murderer. As Hamlet decides to strive for this personal quality, he begins to act increasingly existential and decreasingly reflective.
When Hamlet finally does achieve his father’s vengeance, he was not spurred to it on his own, but by watching his mother and Ophelia die in front of his own eyes. Furthermore, as Hamlet realized that he had only two minutes to survive, he really had nothing to lose; this is when he made his move to stab and poison Claudius.
Prince Hamlet is introduced as a reflective, slow-to-act character. While he stays true to this characterization for almost the entire play, he does undergo a transformation by the end of the play. By the end, Hamlet decides that he is no longer going to deprive himself of the revenge he so badly desires against Claudius, so he kills him. At this point, Hamlet is existential. He is the only character who fights back against Claudius’s usurpation of the throne, and he accepts the consequences of his actions (i.e. death) without a flinch. This final existential act is what qualifies Hamlet as an existential character in an existential drama at a time when existentialism did not exist in literature.
Bigelow, Gordon E. “A Primer of Existentialism.” The Practical Stylist with Readings. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
“Existentialism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated . 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/existentialism>.
Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on Hamlet. 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet/>.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Character Analysis Essay - "Hamlet"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/character-analysis-hamlet/>.
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It is often noticed that people have more than one side to their personality at the same time. The character of Hamlet is a perfect example of the duality of human nature as Hamlets character is both noble and wicked at the same time. At the beginning of the book the reader sees normal Hamlet as he grieves for the death of his father, Hamlet is still in shock over his fathers death and the quick remarriage of his mother, he is not sure of what is really going on, thus the duality is not yet present in his character. Not long after the ghost of old Hamlet appears to young Hamlet, when he meats the ghost of his father and finds out a different version of his fathers death his attitude and perspective changes.
Hamlet attitude changes in a heartbeat and gives himself the challenge to find out the truth and prove it. This is when the duality starts to appear in Hamlets character. One part of Hamlets character is noble as he grieves for his father and despises the situation that his mother, Gertrude has left him in. During some parts of the play the reader might be under the impression that Hamlet dislikes his mother but on the contrary he still loves her even though she seems to have left him cornered.
Hamlet is aggressive towards his mother hoping to make her understand the actions and consequences that she has invoked. The second part of Hamlets character is seen as wicked as he seeks and plans ways to avenge his fathers death. The first plan that Hamlet devises is the Mouse Trap play that helps Hamlet find out the truth and turns out proving Claudius guilty, witch is what Hamlet was hoping for. This leads Hamlet to his next step, to plot revenge against the guilty king and bring him down.
With this a new duality is born in Hamlets character as he fakes insanity or madness. So this leaves Hamlet with about three personalities, normal Hamlet that the reader sees at the beginning, noble Hamlet and wicked Hamlet, mad Hamlet is part of the wicked Hamlet. In his duality Hamlets character portrays the perfect portrait of noble and wicked. While noble Hamlet loves Ophelia and tries to protect her from the evil plans of the king Claudius. When Hamlet is seen as wicked it is quite obvious that he has only one goal, revenge. Hamlet stabs Polonious without knowing who he was and feels no remorse as he believes it was for the better because he was helping the King.
The duality, and collision, between revenge and religion is a powerful one in Hamlet, and indicative of a larger cultural collision dealt with by the play. The revenge imperative is largely aristocratic and might even be seen as pagan in origin, a need to regain honor through the killing of the one who took that honor. But the religious imperative to act morally and according to Christian dictates is also powerful and prevalent. What is interesting is that both of these seemingly incompatible modes of life, the pagan / wicked and noble, are prevalent in the world inhabited by Hamlet. So, then, this leaves a play that illustrates both of these ways of life as coinciding and overlapping, and none of the characters except Hamlet seems to see that such an overlap creates contrasts that are impossible to bridge. Here one might note Hamlet's response to Gertrude "Hamlet, " she asks, "why seems it so particular with thee?"Seems, madam?
I know not seems. I know what is?" (Hamlet I, ). Indeed, Hamlet does seem to see what is, which is precisely that the world in which he lives has terrible inconsistencies that his fellows somehow can pass over simply because they do not look hard enough to see them. It is arguable that this problem for Hamlet is never resolved. It's a very interesting discontinuity; and it's a vital one to the play as a whole, branching into all sorts of secondary questions about religion and motive, and perhaps even offering a deeper understanding of Hamlet's slow movement to act beyond simply that he was a procrastinator. Perhaps in seeing so deeply to the core of things and finding only inconsistency he lost footing from the solid ground from which he might act.
One of the first images that are created to further Shakespeare's investigation of humanity is created by Hamlet in his first soliloquy. This simple comparison brings to life the feeling that the treachery and corruption surrounding him is enveloping all that he is familiar with. No longer is he able to see the metaphorical flowers of joy and prosperity that were once so familiar and comforting to him as they are becoming increasingly obscured by the rampant weeds of vile corruption. Hamlet furthers his emotional outpouring when he wishes that his flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew. He clearly wishes not to deal with the corruption that has grown thick around him.
He goes as far as to offer his life for such an escape. This is exactly where Hamlets character is portrayed as fighting between good and evil and it shows just how much Hamlet wanted to vanish from the earth, but this attitude is shown in a manner that enables the reader to visualize this state of mind and understand Hamlets suicidal thoughts as rational contemplations. Hamlet is not a suicidal maniac, but rather a deeply troubled man who is too honorable to do anything less then what is right even when the world around him is full of many evil and corrupt individuals that dont share his ethical maturity. The duality of Hamlets character is constant throughout the whole book, from the time when he sees the ghost till the end at his death. Hamlet, who is killed by poison, presents an entirely different message. He dies with the knowledge and respect Heaven make thee free of it (Hamlet V II).
This respectable death not only promises him a prosperous memory on Earth, but it leads one to believe that he will also be well treated in the afterlife. Hamlet was a murderer, but this seems unimportant in the light of his motivations. He sought to do what he thought was honorable to society, and this is what Shakespeare rewards him for. He avoided the desires for power that controlled Claudius and remained true to an honorable path. Shakespeare clearly presented the idea of unselfish ethics to be one of the highest esteem. Hamlet was a hero not because of his ability to achieve revenge, but because his intentions throughout his journey were rooted above self-satisfaction.
The various mentalities seen through out the play were brought to an end that was purchased with the value of their respective characters as determined by Shakespeare. Hamlets story lives on with honor while those who possessed an insincere character died with disgrace. The moral journey that Hamlet embarks upon proves that the ambitions of a petty person are to be looked down upon in light of the ambitions of an ethical person. Claudius follows his lustful desires all of the way to the throne. He wins in his ambitions but fails in a more important sense. Hamlet, who is viewed as a lunatic and murderer, follows the truly important threads of life to ultimately defeat the treachery that surrounds him, this is Hamlets duality joined back together as the reader can see the wicked side and noble side joined for the one goal of overturning the evil.
In the same way that the flowers in the garden have little control over the weeds that constantly attempt to overthrow them, Hamlet saw little chance of righting what was wrong. He was trouble with the idea that justice would require him to stoop to the level of a vengeful murderer, but in the end fate rewarded Hamlets strength of character with his revenge without compromising his morals. Works Cited Shakespeare William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Pocket Books, Washington Square Press: New York, New York, 1992
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