How is the existentialist thought expessed in Hamlet?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that there is much in way of existentialism in that there are no answers.  Hamlet struggles with what to do.  He might seek an answer from above, or some type of condition that will alleviate him from having to choose and embrace a path of action.  However, the reality is that there is "no exit" from his need to have to choose.  In this, further existentialist tendencies are revealed in Shakespeare's depiction of freedom and choice as elements that do not liberate human beings from pain but actually enhance them.  Hamlet's reticence towards action and his continual rumination that makes action almost impossible reflects the agony that existentialists saw plaguing humanity.  Freedom is the source of pain, and to act upon it without any sense of guidance is a condition that haunts individuals like a bad shadow.  This pain is part of the human predicament and part of Hamlet's condition in the world.  Finally, Hamlet has to bear responsibility for the pain he caused to individuals in the drama.  Most notably of these would be Ophelia.  In this light, the play embodies an existentialist idea that individual human action has consequences and these have to be borne by individuals.  The culpability for the results of human freedom is inescapable.  Hamlet might wish to transcend them, but an existentialist would see this as impossible.  Ophelia's pain and suffering are realities that Hamlet must embrace as a result of his freedom and actions towards her.

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