What are some examples of existentialism in the play Hamlet?

What are some examples of existentialism in the play Hamlet?

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Existentialism is a twentieth-century philosophy, but its proponents have made a practice of discovering existentialist attitudes and structures in earlier works, particularly drama. Thus, although Shakespeare would not have recognized the term, there is nothing unreasonably anachronistic in searching for existentialist thought in his work or, for that matter, in...

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Existentialism is a twentieth-century philosophy, but its proponents have made a practice of discovering existentialist attitudes and structures in earlier works, particularly drama. Thus, although Shakespeare would not have recognized the term, there is nothing unreasonably anachronistic in searching for existentialist thought in his work or, for that matter, in Seneca or Sophocles. An existentialist philosopher would contend that, though only recently diagnosed, what we now call existentialism has always been there.

There are several schools of existentialism and various philosophers and writers who refined the concept (some of whom, like Albert Camus, did not call themselves existentialists). As applied to drama, however, the central ideas of existentialism can be put like this. The protagonist lacks an essence. This makes his/her life inauthentic and causes angst. A crisis forces the protagonist to make a choice and determine what his/her essence will be and therefore what his/her life will mean.

Taking this structure as characteristic of existentialist drama (it appears several times, for instance, in the plays of Ibsen), we can see that it fits the structure of Hamlet very well. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is certainly aimless and directionless. One could argue that he is already in the midst of the crisis (the death of his father) or that the crisis is more specifically caused by seeing the ghost. When he has seen the ghost, however, he very specifically vows to erase everything he knew and cared about before, devoting himself solely to the purpose of revenge:

Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!

Hamlet also frequently remarks on the absurdity of life. It is a tenet of existentialist philosophy that one must choose one’s own essence, since life offers none. Even when dying, Hamlet asks Horatio to carry on living as though this is a special favor and he would be far better off dead:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain...

This nihilism is the background of existentialism: without the particular purpose one chooses (and which, at the end of the play, with Claudius dead, Hamlet has now fulfilled), life is only meaningless and absurd.

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Hamlet is a proto-existentialist in that he has to construct his own world of meaning. Everything that Hamlet had previously believed in—his entire worldview—has been destroyed by the murder of his father and Claudius's subsequent ascension to the Danish throne. With all the old certainties gone, Hamlet has to create a completely different, subjective world for himself, one in which he, and he alone, gets to determine what is meaningful and what isn't.

In existentialist terms, Denmark under Claudius is like an absurd, godless universe in miniature, where each and every individual must take up an attitude of resolute affirmation. But this is easier said than done. The old ways of thinking, steeped as they are in Christian teaching, are difficult to eradicate entirely. This goes some way toward explaining Hamlet's irresolution, despite his repeated vow to take revenge on Claudius. It also accounts for Hamlet's contemplation, but subsequent rejection, of suicide.

Try as he might, Hamlet cannot escape from the grip of his society's values. He's still too attached to the Christian worldview to be able to embrace an absurd, godless world and live out the kind of self-created existence that would recommend itself to any self-respecting existentialist.

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Existentialism is a philosophy promulgated in the 20th century that holds that every person exists first and his nature, or essence, comes about later through the manner by which he chooses to live his life. This starting point is often called "the existential attitude," a sense of distress and confusion as one is faced with an apparently absurd, or meaningless world. In this absurdity, then, man must create his own essence, and in so doing he must be responsible for this essence; he cannot blame his actions on his nature. While this responsibility for one's actions brings about anguish in each person,  the freedom to become what one chooses is also liberating.

Essence

Certainly, Hamlet displays "the existential attitude" throughout the play, especially in his soliloquies. 

In his first soliloquy of Act I, he contemplates the absurdity of the world,

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.136-137)

  In Act II, Hamlet speaks with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, alluding to the existential creation of self, Hamlet tells them,

  for there is nothing either
good or bad but thinking makes it so. (2.2.257)

Also with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet reflects upon the essence of man, albeit sarcastically,

What a piece of work is a man! how
noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving
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 this quintessence
of dust? Man delights not me—(2.2.308-313)

 In this same scene, in a soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates his alienation and his disappointment in his attempts to find his essence:

 Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.542-543)

His famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy is quintessentially existential as he contemplates the very meaning of existence,

 To be, or not to be, that is the question (3.1.63)

In Act IV, he yet seeks the essence of man,

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused (4.4.35-41)

 Responsibility

Throughout the play, Hamlet essays to define man and his essence and to act with deliberation and responsibility as a man.  Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading Existentialist declared, "Etre homme, etre responsable" [to be man is to be responsible], and Hamlet truly becomes responsible after he observes Fortinbras in Act IV,

...a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (4.4.50-55)

For, he is inspired to find his essence as man.  Declaring, "This is I, Hamlet the Dane," Hamlet has found himself and is free.  He accepts his existential responsibility and duels Laertes, but is reconciled with him as King Claudius and his mother die.  Hamlet gives his kingdom to Fortinbras, knowing this noble man will rule well.  Hamlet the Dane creates his own essence and is liberated in death.

 

 

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