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
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
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
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
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
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