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Hamlet's exploration of existence and the human condition


In Hamlet, Shakespeare delves into existence and the human condition through Hamlet's soliloquies, particularly "To be, or not to be." Hamlet reflects on life, death, and the meaning of existence, grappling with themes of mortality, the afterlife, and the moral implications of action and inaction. His introspective nature highlights the complexity and ambiguity of the human experience.

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How does Hamlet explore the concept of existence and humanity?

Hamlet explores the idea of existence by contemplating his humanity at various times throughout the play and musing on his mortality and life after death. Hamlet is a remarkably realistic, complex character who experiences extreme melancholy after the sudden death of his father and Gertrude's quick marriage to his immoral uncle Claudius. Hamlet continually contemplates suicide and questions if a life full of suffering is worth living at all. In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates his existence by saying,

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? To die, to sleep—No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks...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. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life (31.57–70).

Hamlet understands that suicide will end his suffering, but he fears the great unknown. Hamlet concludes that death makes "cowards of us all" and continues living with the burden of avenging his father.

As the play progresses, Hamlet is faced with the moral dilemma to carry out the murder and fears that he will doom his soul if he commits regicide. Hamlet's moral dilemma influences him to reflect on the nature of life as he continues to hesitate taking action. In addition to Hamlet's moral dilemma concerning avenging his father, Hamlet also suffers from Ophelia's unrequited love, cannot accept his mother's marriage, and is disturbed that his two friends are spying on him. Towards the end of the play, Hamlet once again contemplates existence by musing on the nature of life and death while he holds Yorick's skull. Hamlet says,

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw (5.1.190–198).

Hamlet is contemplating the fact that famous men like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar eventually turn to dust, which makes clay that is used for something insignificant. This existential reflection highlights Hamlet's thoughts regarding his humanity and his struggle to accept the great unknown. Overall, Hamlet explores his humanity through his soliloquies and contemplates suicide at various moments in the play in an attempt to avoid suffering life's afflictions.

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How does Hamlet explore the concept of existence and humanity?

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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How does Hamlet explore the human condition?

First, you have to define the human condition. And this is no easy task. Generally speaking, a condition is the state of being, appearance, quality or working order. A condition, in medical contexts, can mean a state of health or disease. The human condition deals with the state of being human. You tend to see the human condition expressed in terms of the search for meaning, facing mortality, dealing with loneliness, relationships and the limitations of freedom. 

It's a very broad topic. The human condition is something we all face, so it is different for each person, even though it is supposedly a universal quality, something that pertains to all humans. Another way of putting it is, for the individual, the human condition concerns what it means to be alive and, socially, what it means to be with others. And this manifests in different ways: how we see the world, how politics and economics affects our lives, etc.

Hamlet deals with a lot of these broad philosophical themes. In fact, in the “to be or not to be” speech in Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet directly addresses a fundamental and profound question on the human condition: is it better to live and face life's struggles or is it wiser to distance yourself or even commit suicide. Clearly, Hamlet is at his most desperate here, contemplating suicide. He is so obsessed with grief, anger, and his plan for revenge that he has lost all enjoyment in life. The state is in at this point, his condition and the condition of Denmark (“rotten”) is deplorable to be sure. But Hamlet has allowed himself to become mired in it to the point that he is quite desperate. In the end, he chooses to live at least to carry out his revenge. And despite the fact that his only reason for living is to avenge his father, he does at least face his condition rather than run (suicide) from it. That is, he decides to take the “noble” route and deal with his, and Denmark's, condition:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing, end them. (III.iii.57-59).

Begrudgingly, Hamlet does choose life. At least for the sake of exposing Claudius, Hamlet decides that it is nobler to deal with unfortunate events than it is to "end them," meaning to ignore them or avoid them altogether by ending his life.

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How does Hamlet explore the human condition?

The character of Hamlet exhibits a great deal of interiority, meaning he reflects deeply on the meaning of life. For this reason, he has often been called the first modern hero.

Through him, the play explores the meaning of life. As the play opens, Hamlet's entire world has been upended. His beloved father is dead, his mother has rapidly remarried his uncle (a man Hamlet despises), and the two seem determined to thwart his desire to grieve. To make everything worse, Hamlet meets his father's ghost and learns that Claudius murdered his father. The ghost directs Hamlet to avenge his death.

From this point on, Hamlet is besieged with questions of meaning. What is his purpose? He doesn't want to be alive in a world in which a brother is capable of murdering a brother to get his throne; he also doesn't want to be an agent of revenge. He doesn't even know whether the ghost is really his father or an agent of Satan tempting him to kill an innocent man. Why has his world become so dark? Is it better to be alive or be dead? Hamlet dreams of suicide as a way out of his pain and seemingly overwhelming problems. But is that really better than life? What if he goes to hell?

The human condition refers to the questions we all ask about our lives—and Hamlet, as noted above, asks many of these. He also asks: Why is the world so evil? Why does Denmark seem so rotten and cancerous? Why are we born if we are just going to die? he wonders as he looks at Yorick's skull. How do we know what is true? If caught between two ethical systems, how do we decide what to do? Should Hamlet adhere to the bloodthirsty revenge ethic that requires a son to avenge his father or to the Christian ethic of forgiveness? Is Fortinbras right to march an army into Denmark and risk so many lives to recapture a few feet of soil?

Hamlet struggles with all of these until the end of the play. At that point, believing he was providentially saved from death in England, he comes to trust that God has the universe firmly under control, and that he, Hamlet will die when it is his time. This allows him to face his end—as well as his task of killing Claudius—with equanimity.

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