1 May 2019
Existentialism is a Twentieth-Century philosophical belief which focuses on the idea that existence precedes essence, and the freedom of choice one has. This idea argues that in the process of human existence, people define themselves and the world within their own thoughts, and wander between choice, freedom, and existential angst. In reading William Shakespeares, Hamlet, one can observe that although this play predates the coining of Existentialism, it features key characteristics of this philosophical movement.
Hamlet experiences heavy spells of existential thought, and these bouts of human reflection catalyze Hamlets eccentric actions throughout the story.
Human consciousness is the entirety of human meaning if one has the competency to think, therefore, one exists. Existentialism focuses on the belief that individuals find their true selves throughout the progression of their life based on personal experiences, beliefs, and outlooks that are cultivated during ones existence. Shakespeare ahead of his time, predates this philosophical movement whilst displaying the fundamental characteristics of Existentialism.
Hamlet is notably overwhelmed and consumed by his own thoughts combined with his inability to effectively make concrete decisions, provides the audience/readers an indication of his existential tendencies. Hamlets first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, features him contemplating the absurdity of the world. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world (Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 2. 136-137). Here, Hamlet contemplates for the first time the ramifications of suicide as it seems to be an alluring alternative in comparison to enduring anymore suffering from this world.
Hamlets free-flowing consideration of suicide highlights his internal conflict and his freedom of choice. Christine Gomez notes that Hamlet can be seen as an anticipation of the existential hero because he is an individual who reflects on human existence and his own predicament in the universe and becomes aware of his alienation from the human condition (Gomez 27). Hamlets confrontation with complex and profound issues accentuates his curiosity with the meaning and limits of human life.
Assessing how Hamlet implements characteristics of Existentialism reveals the impactful philosophical insights acquired when he is confronted with complex existential issues and dilemmas. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Hamlet gains an insight into the horrific truth as he further delves into existential ways of thinking (Nietzsche 46). In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet speaks with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz and alludes to the existential creation of self. For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (Hamlet. Act 2, Scene 2. 257). Here, the audience/readers are presented with a glimpse into Hamlets way of thinking, detailing his existential thoughts. In this excerpt, Hamlet tells Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that nothing is intrinsically good or bad it is how one chooses to perceive the situation at hand that gives it a negative or positive connotation. This idea that humans can decide what defines a concept or question values is a distinguishable characteristic of Existentialism. Within this same scene, Hamlet reflects upon the essence of humanity 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,
inapprehension 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
In the eyes of Hamlet, people are deemed as frivolous which desperately leaves him dissatisfied with his perception of the meaning of human existence. This is a fundamental attribute of Existentialism, as audience/readers can observe that Hamlet is consumed by thoughts concerning an abstract evaluation of human life and self-reflection.
Hamlet is an individual whose ego is molded by his immediate perception of the world his corrosive lucidity aides in his examination of the self. Hamlet is deeply concerned with how his consciousness effects the inner meaning of the world as he questions his decisions and belief systems a key characteristic of Existentialist ideology. Notably throughout the play, Hamlet does refer to his belief in a monotheistic deity. Hamlets, to be or not to be soliloquy is quintessentially existential as he contemplates the very meaning of existence and the deaths uncertainty (Hamlet. Act 3, Scene 1. 63). The dread of something after death prevents Hamlet from taking his own life (Hamlet. Act 3, Scene 1. 63). This existential dread that is felt when one is face to face with radical freedom is the epitome of Existentialism as it forces self-reflection and the assessment of the value a human life has. His hesitancy to make any concrete decisions can be interpreted as Hamlets fear of complete autonomy. Alireza Mahdipour notes that the major concern of the play is… the existential anguish arising from absolute freedom of choice. Hamlet… has no fixed nature. This freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility, and therefore, it causes anguish (Mahdipour 4). Hamlets fear of free will is a direct result of existential angst. Hamlets qualm over the role thinking has on the boundaries of ones existence offers a more painful insight into the human condition. Amir Hosain states that Hamlets inward guest works as a kind of grinning skull that mocks human achievement and ability. Far from being a hymn to self-consciousness, Hamlets soliloquy expresses profound misgivings about the process of thought and imagination (Hosain 207). This observation further validates the existential characteristics that Shakespeare expresses within this piece of literature.
During the graveyard scene, Hamlet comes face-to-face with death and experiences unfortunate bouts of anxiety. Hamlets vivid apprehension of death manifests itself physically in the form of solicitude.
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. (Hamlet. Act 3, Scene 1. 63)
Hamlet realizes that his existence is crudely basic in the sense that he is merely a material being and that he has a fundamental and irreducible corporeality. Yet, he understands that he exists in an alternative way: his consciousness allows him to go beyond the given boundaries of his existence and explore the possibilities that the universe holds. The possibility of radical freedom is what Existentialists call the space between facticity and transcendence or between essence and existence.
Hamlet self-aware ness is partally due to his constant questioning of the decisions he makes and motives of others. His indecisiveness acts as an ivisable shield to free radical freedom. Andy Mousley writes,
Rather than acting as sources of identification, human nature and human existence
becomes the site for Hamlet of uncertainties and questions. He is exposed to a variety
of beliefs and behaviors, each with its own assumptions about what it is to be a
human, but as a disengaged, disenchanted skeptic he remains at a critical distance
Although, Hamlet also distances himself from his own being in order to truly understand his consciousness on its nethermost level. Hamlet is captivated by experiences of self-forgetting and self-estrangement. After confronting Laertes in the graveyard, Hamlet speaks of his so-called mad self as if it were another person. Wast Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet. If Hamlet from himself be taen away Andhen hes not himself does wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness (Hamlet. Act 5, Scene 2. 211). Here, the audience/readers can note that Hamlets madness is orchestrated as a conscious act of self-estrangement. Hamlets bizarre and eccentric behavior is not entirely a quack as it hovers between factitiousness and authenticity. Hamlet furthes the distance between his socially molded identity and his own perception of the self as a means to unearth the nothingness that exists at the heart of his being. As this becomes apparent to Hamlet, he realizes the duality of human consciousness consciousness can comprehend it boundaries by distancing itself from ones ego.
To exist is an act of righteousness. As human beings, individuals are given a choice and lust for radical freedom and the opportunity to question what is beyond ones consciousness. Existentialism is a Twentieth-Century philosophical belief which focuses on the idea that in the process of human existence, people define themselves and the world within their own thoughts, and wander between choice, freedom, and existential angst. In reading William Shakespeares, Hamlet, one can observe that although this play foreshadows the coining of Existentialism, it features key characteristics of this philosophical movement. Hamlet serves as the face of Existentialism as his powerful encounters with questions concerning the purpose and meaning of what it means to exist.