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Can you explain how Hamlet explores the idea of existence and what it is to be human?

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scarlettheart | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:52 AM via web

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Can you explain how Hamlet explores the idea of existence and what it is to be human?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:35 PM (Answer #1)

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After Hamlet talks with the ghost of his father, he becomes painfully aware of his humanity and its limitations, an awareness of what it is to be human that causes him great melancholy.  His first soliloquy is rife with the futility and contemptibility of life:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the all the uses of this world! (1.2.133-134)

Hamlet speaks further of "rot" and "corruption," and "Things rank and gross in nature." Then, in his conversation with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet defines a human as a "quintessence of dust," a creature who delights him not.  In fact, he contemplates the futility of his own life, and whether he should end it, in his fourth soliloquy.  Moreover, Hamlet ponders the existential meaning of existence in general.  His use of "we" in his fourth soliloquy indicates that he extends the question of the meaningless of existence to all humanity:

... To die, to sleep--
'To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. (3.1.64-68)

Hamlet questions the essence of human existence. That is, should one suffer, or should one end this suffering, then be punished eternally?  There is "the rub": Is the sinfulness of suicide, of nothingness, perhaps too much for one to pay to escape the meaningless and futility of existence?  Perhaps, if such is the case, one should create one's own existential meaning, or human essence, by acting nobly and following a code of behavior. With Fortinbras as inspiration in Act V, Hamlet does so by declaring himself--"This is I, Hamlet, the Dane"--and decides to form his own existence by taking human responsibility of avenging his father's death, whatever the cost to Hamlet, himself, and as a Protestant, educated at Wittenberg, Germany, home of Martin Luther's university, Hamlet fears there will be great eternal spiritual cost for committing a revenge killing. 

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