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. 14 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/character-analysis-hamlet/>.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Hamlet by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Hamlet in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Hamlet’s Preoccupation with Philosophy
One of the most famous Shakepearean lines—“To be or not to be, that is the question" is found in Hamlet, spoken by the title character himself. While this is the most obvious reference that Hamlet makes to his own philosophy, Hamlet makes frequent proclamations about his philosophy of life. Hamlet’s philosophy touches not only on the subject of love, but also about loyalty, family, and the virtue of suffering, among other themes. His philosophy, summed up in the “To be or not to be" (click here for a full analysis of the “to be or not to be” speech) soliloquy and reflected in his actions, might not be comfortable for all characters or all readers. Hamlet’s philosophy is particular to his own strange obsessions, and help explain the fates of the characters in the play.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Hamlet’s View of Love
Because Hamlet has been disillusioned about love by his mother’s actions, he rejects the possibility that romantic love is an important part of human relationships. He is consumed by the outrageousness of his mother’s love for his uncle, and he rejects Ophelia’s love for him, though he admitted once to loving her. Although Hamlet is justified to feel disgust towards his mother and her actions, his pessimistic view of love has dreadful implications, not just for him, but for other characters as well. For this essay on Hamlet, you might want to take a character analysis approach to Hamlet with this theme as your guide or thesis statement.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Taboos in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve transgressions that violate social taboos. Hamlet is no exception. In this play, numerous social norms are violated; however, the most powerful taboo is that of incest. Hamlet is outraged when his mother marries his uncle shortly after the death of his father, and his mother’s action causes him to lose faith in love. Although the incest taboo may seem grotesque, Shakespeare puts his characters in such dynamic tension and outrageous situations in order to make profound observations about the nature of both familial and romantic love.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Unmanly Grief in Hamlet
Claudius could hardly be considered to be a model of upright behavior and insight, given that he seduces Gertrude while the grief over her husband’s death is still fresh. While he is obviously advancing his own motives, his speech to Hamlet about “unmanly grief" is oddly compelling. Claudius takes the view that all men die, all men lose their fathers. They enter a period of appropriate grief and then move on. Because Hamlet is not conforming to this norm, Claudius suggests that Hamlet’s grief is not only unhealthy, but unmanly. A close reading of the play supports Claudius’s observation. Although Claudius is certainly not free from reproach, Hamlet’s obsessional grief is not praiseworthy either.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Women in Hamlet
The female characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are a complicated lot. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is much maligned for her sexual and romantic alliance with Hamlet’s own uncle. Ophelia is portrayed as a woman who is so consumed with love for Hamlet that she is willing to sacrifice her life for him. Through these two very different characters, Shakespeare portrays women negatively in limited roles. Women have no chance for redemption, and are subject to the decisions that men make for them.
A few articles that might offer some guidance with these thesis statements for Hamlet include :
This list of important quotations from Hamlet by William Shakespeare will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Hamlet listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet they are referring to.
“Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father. But you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, tis unmanly grief…." (I.ii. ll. 87-94).
“O God, God, How stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!." (I.ii.132-134).
“Within a month, Ere, yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, Shemarried–O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets, It is not, nor it cannot come to good…” (I.ii.153-57).
“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear…." (I.ii.43)
“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast… who won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming virtuous queen." (I.v.42-46)
“There are more things in heaven and earth,…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…." (II.i.166-167)
“This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hid, than hate to utter love." (II.i.113-115)
“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, and by opposing, end them." (III.i.55-59)
“Be not too tame neither, but your own discretion be your tutor." (III.ii.16)
Reference: Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 1189-1234.