“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.186–88). After speaking to his deceased father’s apparition, Hamlet becomes forced into the role of the avenging son. But, before he leaves for his quest, he imparts on Horatio these words, suggesting that there are no such limitations to human thought. Both students at Wittenberg, learning about changes in belief and ritual of the contemporary scene in Europe as well as engaging in heated philosophical debates, now have to wrestle with their own experiences that defy empirical verification and comprehension, such as that of seeing the ghost of the late king.
Hamlet, particularly, as he embarks on the journey of revenge and vengeance, is on a pursuit to try and answer the fundamental question of philosophy: Is life worth living? Shakespeare creates a rather complex character as readers watch Hamlet struggle to make decisions throughout the play. However, only by devising his protagonist is Shakespeare able to explore the perplexities, challenges, and mysteries of human existence, creating the configuration of the modern individual. Arguably, Hamlet, himself, is the modern individual. Hamlet’s fascination for open possibilities of humanity and their varying conflicts in regard to the motives of behavior in himself and others shapes Shakespeare’s examination on the modern philosophy of life and the culture that mirrors the social conflicts and dilemma of its time.
One of the immediate and most obvious characteristics of Hamlet is his vivid imagination, which seems to be driven by his eager curiosity. For example, his passionate delivery of the speech from the play describing Aeneas’ tale to Dido, which he does so with impressive memory and enthusiasm, the vivid description of King Claudius and Gertrude in the bedroom, and his speculative imagination of those who have died as he views the skull tossed to him by the gravedigger. Hamlet’s passionate and extensive imagination allows him to explore all possibilities, giving a rise to a character who is willing to inquire and adopt all viewpoints concerning human nature and behavior. Hamlet discusses this with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, scene ii as he expresses the gloom and sorrow that has afflicted him after his father’s death:
What (a) piece of work is a man, how noble in
reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and mov-
ing how express and admirable; in action how like
an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals–and
yet, to me, what is the quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2.318–32).
Hamlet, still shocked over the ignoble and vile act committed by his Uncle, questions what the purpose of human life is if they are so-called a “perfect invention” – one with the capability to reason, think, etc. Nonetheless, Hamlet views humankind as merely just dust. Hinting at Hamlet’s impression that humankind is more of an apprehension rather than an action, this becomes partially why he delays so long before seeking his revenge on Claudius. Hamlet is questioning whether or not revenge is the moral thing to do. Additionally, he opens up to the possibility of simultaneous thinking of both views of the cosmos (religion included) and humanity as an option for the two to exist and be experienced together. Occurring during the time of rapidly changing religion in Europe (Catholicism and Protestant) as well as the new, often controversial, scientific discoveries, Hamlet is at the forefront of questioning how the two are able to exist together.
Because of his fiery imagination, Hamlet becomes obsessed with the question of existence and nothingness – a question of life and death. Surrounded by death, Hamlet is the only character who proceeds to confront it from a philosophical standpoint (Claudius is filled with guilt for his brother’s death, but still manages to reap in its benefits; Ophelia avoids dealing with her father’s death by turning to insanity; Laertes acts with impulse to requite his father’s death). Hamlet questions if his life is worth living if it is done so in a corrupt world. He professes, “To be or not to be – that is the question” (Hamlet 3.1.64). Hamlet ponders a state of being versus a status of not being – being alive and being dead. These few words that Hamlet speaks creates balance, a direct opposition between two contradicting viewpoints.
Hamlet views life as a lack of power and death as all empowering. Hence, if death is so powerful, it can easily defeat life, but in order to die, action in life is needed, making the question of life or death seem circular and all in all hopeless to find a concrete answer. Thinking about this in a corrupt world, more or less Hamlet’s own world, the only “easy” action one can take against to oppose these wrongdoings is to end life itself, making dying an active state. Contradictorily, in order to reach the condition of death, action needs to be taken in life. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s greatest fear of death is the concept of going into the unknown.
Hamlet confronts the possibility of suicide, imagining that death can allow an escape for his problems. However, Hamlet’s largest concern is that death is so unknown as he describes, “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (Hamlet 3.1.86–90). Although Hamlet speaks more generally here in regard to death as being the biggest change of all that can occur in human life, he ties this very personally to his own experience of returning home from Wittenberg. Hamlet’s world is turned upside down so much so that he is no longer able distinguish what is true and what is false nor who he can trust (the betrayal of his mother and Ophelia).
In fact, the only truth he is given is from death itself (King Hamlet’s ghost). Hamlet portrays a world where nothing is what it seems to be, having no direct relationship between appearance and reality. Hence, in terms of the humanistic ideals that have so long been established, Hamlet begins to question whether humankind’s torment involved in recognizing the inevitability of their demise is the purpose of human life. In this, he breaks through the larger proposition, is human life just meant for predestined death or is there a greater purpose for the life that God has given? All in all, this spawns Hamlet’s obsession with death, permitting him to question his newly obtained thoughts even further.
All thing considered, Hamlet decides not to commit suicide, following his father’s wishes to seek revenge on Claudius. Shakespeare opens his final act with one of the most memorable scenes that graced English literature. He opens in a churchyard with two gravediggers shoveling out a grave for Ophelia (after her drowning), and they debate about whether her burial should be held in the churchyard, claiming her death looks more like a suicide. According to doctrine, suicidal deaths were not permitted to receive a Christian burial, and it is only her status that grants her interment.
Not only does their conversation provide a moment of comic relief in this great tragedy, but it discusses the corruption within society and within their own worth. They talk of the inequality and unfairness built in their system. This provides Hamlet to once again confront his own mortality. Recall, Hamlet has had to grapple with the idea of death throughout the entire play, but in this scene, he finally comes face-to-face with death itself. Holding and staring into Yorick’s (King Hamlet’s former jester) skull, he recalls his memories with the passed jester:
Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your
songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to
set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your
own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get your to my
lady’s (chamber,) and tell her, let her paint an inch
thick, to this favor she must come (Hamlet 5.1.194–201).
Hamlet shows interest in the bodily decomposition of death as he stares at where Yorick’s lips would have been; he struggles to understand how even the most lively of people still end up dead. Hamlet is further fascinated by the equalizing and absolute effect of death as he reflects, ““Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alex- / ander returneth to dust; the dust is earth (Hamlet 5.1.216–17). The Alexander that Hamlet speaks of is Alexander the Great – a leader and warrior who had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world.
Hamlet is shocked and captivated that death affects not only the poorest of people, but also the greatest. Despite the power that these men have had in life, specifically Alexander, the inevitability of death and the unescapable deterioration of the body makes no exception, and their bodies too rotten and become recycled into Earth as dust. In some ways or another, Hamlet was right in his presumption that humans are nothing but merely “quintessence of dust”. Hamlet no longer truly fears death but sees it as a natural inevitability, coming to the conclusion that death acts as the great leveler for all people.
However, now that Hamlet has accepted this viewpoint on death, he further prods the philosophical question of life – what is the purpose of life if humans are just meant for an inevitable death? As with any great Shakespearean tragedy, the play must close with an immense amount of death – four deaths, specifically (Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude); however, out of these deaths, only one, Hamlet’s, was planned. The gory and vivid details delineated by Shakespeare seems to play out to Hamlet’s understanding of mortality. Death strikes randomly and, often, with spontaneity and chaos. Because of its inevitability and unpredictability, death is not something to be feared. As Hamlet lays dying in front of his companion Horatio, he requests one last wish from his friend:
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in they heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story (Hamlet 5.2.377-84).
By imparting his dying wish for Horatio to tell the story of this great tragedy and of Hamlet’s battle with death itself, Hamlet informs humankind that death is inevitable, but life is precious and only by participating in thought and retrospect can one truly triumph over the uncertainty and confusion of death. In this way, Hamlet comes to terms that he is unable to accept the infinite and the self-limiting, but, rather, it is that the meaning of life and of fate are bound.
Deemed one of the most complex, confusing characters of literature, Hamlet struggles to find his footing in not only a corrupt world, but one that has turned upside down. He embarks on a physical and mental journey as he tries to answer the philosophical question of life and mortality. With the initial request to seek vengeance for his father’s death and claim an eye-for an eye, he begins to question the greater purpose of human life if humans were destined to be a “perfect invention” and arrives to the thought that maybe humankind is merely nothing at all. Hamlet spirals into an obsession with death as he ponders suicide as an easy way out of his amoral world, but he recognizes the silliness in doing so as he still fears death itself.
However, it may be that death is predestined, and it is not until Hamlet comes face-to-face with death (Yorick’s skull) that he understands the inevitability of death as an end. His recognition that the poor and the great are all to end up dead detracts his fear of the death as the unknown. Although his journey came with great sorrow and, eventually, his own death, Hamlet offers a philosophical insight that is well ahead of its time. Speaking from the perspective as a modern individual, Hamlet recognizes that life is valuable, not to be wasted or treat carelessly. To tend to life, one must use apprehension rather than action and only in this way is the purpose of living fulfilled.