Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) is an essayist who writes on themes consistent with his pessimistic view of life. In his vision, the will of a human being is an underlying force that can overcome one’s intellect. Concepts like free will, fatalism, government corruption, character, ethics, and moral instinct are studied by Schopenhauer to explain the motivations behind the actions of people. In his essay “On Human Nature,” he opines on several of these abstract ideas.
Consider, for example, how Schopenhauer states, “every man’s individual character is to be regarded as a free act.” He agrees in part with Immanuel Kant’s rational theories and writes, “every man achieves only that which is irrevocably established in his nature, or is born with him.” However, he reasons that despite innate characteristics instilled in human beings at birth, a person’s free will can overcome what he or she knows to be moral. By studying a person’s character, we are able to foretell that individual’s actions in a given situation, which might lead to an eventual downfall.
Using Schopenhauer’s reasoning, we can see how free will conquers intellect, as presented by William Shakespeare through the character of Claudius in act I of Hamlet. By nature, Claudius achieves his goals indirectly and cleverly. However, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father makes it clear that he is also capable of treacherous and ruthless direct action as he demonstrates by murdering the king, usurping his throne, and marrying the queen due to greed and jealousy. Claudius acts by his free will, which will bring about his downfall.
Another example of the connection between the character of Claudius and the conclusions reached by Schopenhauer in “On Human Nature” is seen in the struggle for political power. Every sinful action by Claudius in Hamlet stems from his innate flaws, but the effects of his willful actions upon others are devastating. Schopenhauer says,
Human misery may affect us in two ways, and we may be in one of two opposite moods in regard to it.
In one of them, this misery is immediately present to us. We feel it in our own person, in our own will which, imbued with violent desires, is everywhere broken, and this is the process which constitutes suffering. The result is that the will increases in violence, as is shown in all cases of passion and emotion; and this increasing violence comes to a stop only when the will turns and gives way to complete resignation, in other words, is redeemed. The man who is entirely dominated by this mood will regard any prosperity which he may see in others with envy, and any suffering with no sympathy.
In the opposite mood human misery is present to us only as a fact of knowledge, that is to say, indirectly. We are mainly engaged in looking at the sufferings of others, and our attention is withdrawn from our own. It is in their person that we become aware of human misery; we are filled with sympathy; and the result of this mood is general benevolence, philanthropy. All envy vanishes, and instead of feeling it, we are rejoiced when we see one of our tormented fellow-creatures experience any pleasure or relief.
Claudius intentionally corrupts the Danish court and many of its members. He also destroys the families of Hamlet and Polonius and is unsympathetic. In the end, as foreseen in act I, scene 5 of Hamlet, he causes the moral destruction of the prince and dashes the hopes of the Danish people who counted on a bright future under a new King Hamlet. Schopenhauer postulates,
As a man is, so must he act; and praise or blame attaches, not to his separate acts, but to his nature and being.
Claudius personifies that conclusion and, as foretold, must meet his tragic demise.