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Existentialism in Hamlet


Despite Existentialism officially emerged in the middle of the 20th century many authors expressed familiar ideas much earlier. Shakespeare’s Hamlet posts some existentialist questions and expresses existentialist ideas. The main universal questions are “Who am I?” and “To be or not to Be” which we try to answer throughout all our life and often are not able to do it. Hamlet’s soliloquy which begins with the words “To be or not to be” is probably the most famous question in the English literature (Shakespeare III.i.56-88). Shakespeare presents the question of life and death in an idiomatic form which brings this eternal question on a new level of interpretation. Hamlet’s "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt" and other remarks like that express existential views on life (Shakespeare I.ii.129-158).
This speech is closely connected with the themes of the whole play – themes of revenge, weakness and confusion. Themes of weakness and lack of sense are common for existentialists. Senseless of life and thoughts about suicide are common for existentialist writings and Hamlet also constantly turns to these themes during the tragedy.
Hamlet is an extraordinary personality with a rich controversial inner world. He feels grief, love and a wish to revenge at the same time. He is confused and can not resolve the situation himself. He gets through a number of significant life stages in the play which teach him something all the time. The hatred that lives in Hamlet’s heart, all in all, leads him to his demise and he is left with nothing. “Throughout the play Hamlet goes through several different stages of life, constantly being in a tortured mental state, caught between love, grief, and vengeance. His different states of mind are the result of his controversial personality and his ability to objectively analyze any situation” (Hurstfield 112).
Shakespeare does not use words such as “death” or “suicide” but chooses a form of narration which can be interpreted by readers in different ways so every person can have his or her own interpretation. Hamlet is disappointed in life but at the same time he is afraid of death. His life experience made him gloomy and pessimistic. “Hamlet is the model of the existential man who lives in a symbolic exile, alienated from others. Like Camus' stranger, Hamlet can passionately desire Ophelia, but now that nausea has pervaded his world, he can never truly love her” (Tekiney 25)Ophelia’s character is also very important in the play. It helps the author to develop the personality of the main character. It seems that Hamlet and Ophelia have a lot in common. They both can not find the meaning of life and they are both obsesses with the thoughts about death. In contrast to Hamlet Ophelia ends up her life. Hamlet does not turn to this mean to end up suffering and pain because he does not believe that death can give him freedom and liberation. Hamlet is torn between two extreme points: life and death. He hesitates, over thinks everything and cannot make a clear decision:
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them"
Two things keep Hamlet from committing a suicide: fear of death and uncertainty that waits for him after it and the wish to revenge for his father’s death. Vainness and confusion are two words which can characterize all his life. Even when he decides to revenge for his father’s death and kill Claudius he does not use his chance. He got lost in his eternal thoughts about useless life, sufferings and pain. He is not able to see the world in a new perspective and cannot get out from the web of fear, darkness and pain which he himself created (Grossmann, 1984). This life will never satisfy him because he does not want to change his position. If he chooses death, all his sufferings and complains will disappear. He won’t have to think about revenge – Claudius and his mother – it won’t be necessary to take difficult decision. Nevertheless, he cannot take a decision and end his life. That is, probably, the most difficult one and Hamlet is not ready for it. The main problem of Hamlet’s life becomes expressed in simple sentence which starts with words “to be or not to be”
“The tragedy is not that of a man who cannot kill; the tragedy is that of a sensitive man who has an existential outlook onto life” (Tekiney 35). that sufferings are an inevitable part of life. He can describe his past life experience only with pain: “the slings and arrows, the thousand natural shocks, the sea of troubles, the heart-ache”. However, his thoughts about death are also gloomy. He is afraid of the uncertainty because death is always a mystery for people. He does not choose an active position. He prefers passive observing life around him. Hamlets refusal to act expresses existentialist positions of people who refuse to take part in life aiming to gain control over situation this way. Hamlet chooses non-action as a mean to express his life position and his non-desire to take part in anything connected with lie affairs.
Despite all disappointments in life Hamlet cannot accept death. It can be either sleep without any thoughts and problems: “To die, to sleep; No more;” On the other hand, death can be even worse than life. Hamlet feels that it can bring even more sufferings than life. What is more frightening is that there is no way back and if he decides to end his life and meet death he will never be able to change anything. This assumption confuses him:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will.
These reflections over death and life and sufferings which follow Hamlet everywhere presents his as a confused character. He is an example of dramatic character who cannot understand life and find his place on the Earth. Same view were expressed by existentialists many centuries later. “Hamlet exemplifies the existential concept that only when man thinks and imposes meaning onto life does life become worth something” . As he states:, "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it [Denmark] is a prison"(Shakespeare, 1983, Act II, Scene 2 : 250). Non-partial attitude to life does not signify cowardice like describe many critics. Hamlet’s non-actions is active. He chooses it as an active existential life position which manifest his attitude to the world around him.
Hamlet’s soliloquy deals with important theme of the work - the theme of revenge. The moral of this work is that the evil, what in fact revenge is, will never bring good and calm your soul. It will only make the situation more difficult and horrible showing no way out. Hamlet being devoted to the theme of revenge shows how this strong feeling destroys everything around, ruins main characters’ lives and hopes and make suffer innocent people.
Shakespeare creates a perfect example of dramatic character. Hamlet lives in his own world of dreams. He is disappointed in life and circumstances just make him believe that life is really senseless and there is not way out. His speech is the culmination of the character’s development. It is the last stage of despair. Hamlet is between death and life and his soul is so confused and tired that he does not have forces to decide anything. The drama of the play is the fact that he will remain in the dark, not knowing anything for sure, forever.


Works Cited
Boklund, Gunnar. “Judgment in Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald W. Chapman. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1965. 116-137.
Grossmann, Reinhardt, Phenomenology and Existentialism, Routledge, 1984. Available at http://books.google.com.ua/books?id=4HE9AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA175&lpg=PA175&dq=Hamlet+Existentialism&source=bl&ots=62ONOi-GyW&sig=Bpc_cifWSYD3nK6oV1tslSg9WBM&hl=ru&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=6&ct=result#PPR9,M1

Hurstfield, Joel, Sutherland, James. Shakespeare's World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Editor, William Farnham; Penguin Books, 1970.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Tekiney, Ash, From Shakespeare to Kierkegaard: An Existential Reading of Hamlet, Dogufl University Dergisi, 2001 / 4, http://files.meetup.com/351497/An%20Existential%20Reading%20of%20Hamlet_%20Ash%20Tekinay.pdf


 
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