Existentialism as a Part of Hamlet
“This above all, to thine own self be true” (1.3.88). As Polonius offers this advice to his departing son Laertes, he also states one of the defining principles of the philosophical branch known collectively as existentialism. A paradigm firmly rooted in the individual experience, existentialism champions responsibility and states that man is nothing but the sum of his decisions (Sartre, 9-37). Falling neatly in line with Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideology is Shakespeare’s Hamlet: a character plagued by existential anguish after the premature death of his beloved father and the hasty, avuncular marriage of his mother. However, Hamlet – being a God-fearing man of the sixteenth century – finds himself at odds with Sartre’s stout atheism. A diversion from the zealous Christianity proposed by the father of existentialism, Sren Kierkegaard, reveals Hamlet as a pious man possessing the devoutly existentialist characteristics of individuality and personal responsibility.
A cardinal principle of Sartre’s philosophy is that of anguish, described as follows:
The existentialists say at once that man is anguish. What that means is this: the man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a lawmaker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself, can not help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility. (18).
This sentiment is closely mirrored by Hamlet. Laertes describes Hamlet’s bothersome situation to his love-struck sister, Ophelia: “He may not, as unvalued persons do/ Carve for himself; for on his choice depends/ The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.19-21). As the Prince of Denmark, his choice is affected by his responsibility for the well-being of his subjects, which depends upon his choice. To avenge his father and embarrass his mother may not be the ideal outcome for Denmark as a whole. However, God and personal conviction compel Hamlet to free his father from the confines of hell and unleash his vengeance on an incestuous royal family. What further complicates this dilemma is Sartre’s idea of the nonexistence of a priori ethics (24-27). Hamlet has no book to consult for guidance, and no one to tell him the “correct” path to tread upon. He must find the answer within himself and possess the faith to act on that response. Hamlet expressly mentions this idea in a conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “for there is nothing/ either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (2.2.253-254). This aptly demonstrates the axiom that all questions of ethics are of a subjective nature, immune to a standardized rational approach. Circumscribed within conscience are a country’s future and the realization that no one may assist another individual in his or her own, personal journey: Hamlet is a hopeless existentialist.
Two other facets of Sartre’s philosophy are the absurdity of life, and the lack of an a priori meaning to life. No goal can be seen as the obvious end to the struggle of life, nor is any discernable meaning immediately visible. Instead, each person must create an individually intimate meaning within this short and brutish existence (49). Hamlet’s thoughts on this topic are revealed in his speech about Alexander:
Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth We make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was
Converted might they not stop a beer barrel? (5.1.211-214).
These demoralizing thoughts about Alexander the Great, whose exploits are world-renowned, indicate the futility of Hamlet’s existence: we may end up nothing but a cork stopping up the flow of beer. Furthermore, the epochal soliloquy in the first scene of Act Three is an examination of life’s meaninglessness; barbaric occurrences, as well as the role of conscience in defining our actions. “To be, or not to be: that is the question” inquires whether life is truly worth living, considering “the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to!”, and that man’s role is “To grunt and sweat under a weary life” (3.1.56-77). These suicidal and punitive tendencies are repelled by Hamlet’s Christian conscience and faith; he states, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o`er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.83-85). He instantly doubts whether it is profitable to wake up on the morrow, and examines his options for revenge with his anemic resolution. This lugubrious theme of utter despair is prevalent in a great deal of existential literature, from Camus’ detached wanderings of “Meursault in The Stranger” to Gregor Samsa’s inescapable, insectile existence in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. Thus, Hamlet is tantamount to Atlas: with the weight of the world bearing down on him, he must continually strive for meaning, and constantly examine his faith and conscience.
The only portion of Hamlet’s character not consistent with Sartre’s philosophy is his steadfast faith in God; it is here that he strays towards the zealous Christian, Kierkegaard. Concerned with the lack of faith in his contemporary religious community, Kierkegaard despised “Sunday Christians”, believing that truth was in the minority and that profound faith – and not logic – was the basis for salvation (Gaarder, 372-384). Hamlet is angered at Claudius and Gertrude not only because of the harm they did him, but because of the damnation that is to follow. To his mother, Gertrude, Hamlet declares:
Heaven’s face does glow
O’er this solidity and compound mass
With heated visage, as against the doom
Is thoughstick at the act. (3.4.49-52)
Ninety-eight lines later, Hamlet orders Gertrude, “Confess yourself to heaven,/ Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” (3.4.150-151). This incensed advice speaks to Hamlet’s concern for the eternal. It also explains his reflection on “what dreams may come” in his infamous soliloquy, because suicide cannot be an option for a devout Christian (3.1.66). Hamlet is further explained as a Kierkegaardian character in that he is given a murderous task by his father’s ghost – not uncommon in the archetypal Senecan tragedy – yet must ultimately trust himself to carry out what he believes to be just. The truth of the situation lies in the minority: Claudius, and Hamlet’s deceased father. Neither of these men are utterly reliable; therefore, it boils down to an individual decision once again.
Faith is needed for Hamlet to enact his revenge: both faith in himself, and faith that the ghost was not a demonic apparition, but a tortured soul seeking salvation. The appearance of one’s cadaverous relative is anything but an appeal to logos; subsequently, faith is required to appease one’s conscience. Hamlet’s faith and devotion to God explain the most ironic scene in the play, in which Hamlet attempts to kill Claudius but finds himself unable to because he believes that Claudius is praying, when in actuality he is not (3.3.73-96). Hamlet may easily be considered an existentialist concerned only with his eternal salvation and troubled by the seeming absurdity of his world, supported only by his faith in God and in himself.
In summary, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” may be quite aptly named an existentialist character as a consequence of his sense of responsibility and his inability to make decisions. These may, furthermore, explain his reluctance to take action in the play. Also, Hamlet’s realization that all answers are found within himself and that no one may tell him what to do further exemplifies the existential nature of the character. Even his belief in a Christian God can be reconciled with the inclusion of the father of existentialism, Sren Kierkegaard. This explains the continual regard for salvation, and Hamlet’s faith in God and in himself. Hamlet is, above all, an enigmatic individual continually demonstrates an existential ideology.
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