(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Dharmendra Kumar Singh
Diamond is diamond. No matter when and where it is found, no matter how old it gets, no matter how many people possess it in turns with the historic transit of time. It never mislays its radiate as well as its ethics. It is also true not only with William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, but also with his all plays. All of them are eminent, but Hamlet is par excellence. Various in-depth studies have been done from various angles, still there remains something missing and still there remains unexplored space. The more the critics dive into the dramatic ocean of his plays, the more gems they find still lying beyond their reach. Here, a modest attempt is made to glance over the existential study not of the play as a whole, but of the protagonist—Hamlet. With the help of the concepts of existentialism, it attempts to explore existential constituents which make Hamlet’s persona a paragon of an existential protagonist and also demonstrates how their existence exists in his existence and essence. Besides, it makes a modest submission to make a tour of all the attributes that make him the prince of the existentialists’ world.
Keywords: Nausea, Procrastination, Chimera, Nada, Raffia, Erratic, Eponymous, Intellectual-inertia
For some scholars, the study of Shakespeare may be old, but the saying that ‘old is gold’ can never be forgotten. The works of Shakespeare always remain fresh and relevant like the freshness and beauty of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The epigrammatic quote “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale /her infinite variety (Act II, Sc. ii. Lns. 243-244)” which applies to Cleopatra also applies to Shakespeare. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, who while in an out-bursting praise of the heroes, showers praise on Shakespeare in his familiar quaint style saying: “The Indian Empire may go, at any rate some day, but this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever with us, we cannot give up our Shakespeare” (p.113). Gone are the days of British Rule (East India Company), but Shakespeare is never to go. He is omnipresent. He is immortal. No time, no religion, no land, and no ism can ever check him. He is universal. His classical works, which enchantingly deal with the varieties of the spices of virtues and vices annexed to humanity, have made him so. His immortal characters would never let him die. From time to time, they would make others feel his incorporeality. He is a Brahma, the creator of the world of his dramas along with its denizens. His characters would remind the world their essence as well as their existence, their merits and demerits, their tears and smiles.
Someone’s statement about Shakespeare that he wrote no philosophy has some grains of truth. As he is not a professional philosopher, he has no affixed philosophy, but only few glimpses of philosophical approaches or perspectives. He is a dramatist and poet. Constructing artifice, he earns his living and performs the duty of a true dramatist and poet. Whatever it is, but it is certain that most of his plays are brimming with ontological, metaphysical, epistemological and ethical questions not only of the bygone days but also of now-a-days. They are without a riveted philosophy, but with theoretical outlook to which William Hazlitt calls ‘dramatic life force’ and Harold Bloom ‘cognitive acuity’ (p.02). Some critics call Shakespeare a poet-cum-philosopher. One of them is William Hazlitt who writes: “The spirit of a poet and the acuteness of a philosopher” (p.84). Whether Shakespeare is a philosopher or not, whether he has any philosophy or not, must be dispositive. For one point is clear that his all works are philosophical. He approaches the question of artifice, reality, illusion, self-experience, and imagination through his all creations. He represents and dramatizes the fundamental paradoxes of life capturing all the ranges of human experiences and personalities in his works. His plays will last long. They will never leave their effect till the days of the doom.
In the opening chapter of the book Shakespeare’s Philosophy Colin McGinn mentions only three philosophical themes in Shakespeare’s plays—the first being of knowledge and Skepticism, the second of the self, while the last of causality— as a whole. His deep study of Shakespearean themes that glimpses on the ‘Blurb’ of the mentioned book is also worthy of praise in the present context. It says:
Shakespeare has always been celebrated for the depth of his themes, the vividness of his characters, and the beauty of his poetry. However, the philosophical nature of his oeuvre has often been overlooked….He (Colin McGinn) provides a brilliant analysis of the major philosophical themes embedded in the Bard’s work, including the nature and persistence of the self, the existence and nature of evil, and the power of language to influence and shape the human mind. Fresh, innovative, and thought provoking, Shakespeare’s philosophy is an exhilarating reading experience, especially at a time when a new audience has merged for the greatest writer the English language has ever been (Blurb).
Shakespeare is the mine of the gems and the critics are its explorer. Going through each and every block of his mine (plays), they are discovering new gems day by day. Whatever they get, they get far better from one another. They (gems) have their different sparkles, values and philosophies. When it comes to the philosophy of Shakespeare, it is clear that his plays are the plays of symbolic-philosophy consisting new interpretations, inventions and exploration for all forever. With varieties, newness of philosophical interpretation, intervention, and exploration is common in his most plays. Chiefly, his major tragedies often deal with complex philosophical ideas symbolically. They have symbolic philosophy. Whether it is King Lear which deals with the symbolic philosophy of storms indicting the inner turmoil and mounting madness of the old king, or it is Othello which deals with Iago’s cynical philosophy of life as well as Othello’s symbolic philosophy of handkerchief indicating marital fidelity, or Macbeth which deals with the philosophy of ideas, or Hamlet which deals with the symbolic philosophy of madness as well as of flowers, i.e. All—all the Shakespearean plays have more or little symbolic philosophy.
The telescopic study of Shakespeare reveals that he was ‘myriad-minded’—Coleridge, Biography. Chap. XV—consequently, his plays deal with infinite varieties and spices of the studies including Colonialism, Feminism, Oedipus complex, Electra complex, Laius Complex, Medusa Complex, Xenophobic Phenomenon, Deconstruction, Psycho-analytical and Psychological Studies, Gender Studies, Patriarchal Studies, Cultural Studies. Chiefly, Tempest deals with Colonialism, Twelfth Night with Electra Complex, Pericles with Laius Complex or Apollonius, Hamlet with Oedipal Complex, As You Like It with Gender Studies, Midsummer Night’s Dream with Cultural Studies, Romeo and Juliet with Patriarchal Studies, Macbeth with Medusa Complex, King Lear with Psychoanalytic and Psychosocial Studies and Interpretations, Merchant of Venice, Othello, Tempest, Titus Andronicus, and Antony and Cleopatra deal Xenophobic Phenomenon. His major tragedies—Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear—deal with Feminist Studies. But table turns in the case of Hamlet. He is one of the most philosophical characters of the Bard. As a character, he is a relativist, skeptic, and existentialist.
But before exploring the essence of existentialism in the persona of Hamlet, there is need to generalize the term existentialism and existentialist. The former stands for a philosophical perspective that accentuates the existence of an individual as a free and responsible negotiator determining his/her rise and fall through his/her will, choice and action, while the latter are its supporters, followers and thinkers. It (existentialism) has become a badge as well as a brand for such philosophers, writers, artists and directors that focus chiefly on human existence as well as individual’s emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts along with the meaning or purpose of life. As a school of thought, it came into its prime in the middle of the 20th century but its roots are found in the pious soil of the immemorial history. In the words of Dr. Radhakrishan: ‘It (Existentialism) is a new name for an ancient method (p.443).’ No doubt, on the one hand, it is a ‘timeless sensibility (p.12)’ for its philosophers, thinkers, and writers belonging to distant countries of distant ages, while on the other hand, it is ‘a critic of theoria’ for it shuns chimera of abstraction—rejection of the absoluteness of reason. Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Husserl, Kafka, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus etc. are its hall markers belonging to 19th and 20th century. All the literature of this school of thought presents the problems of human existence centered on the experience of envisaging, inkling, and performing. To them, existential crisis—dread or anxiety—, the core of this philosophy, is the result of the purposeless birth and absurd world. Meaning of life, Purpose of birth, and value of human existence are the burning questions whose answers have been searched with the help of certain concepts—existence precedes essence, the absurd, facticity, authenticity, the Other and the Look, angst and dread, despair— by the thinkers of this school for ages and ages.
When the hot button of Existentialism is explored in the play Hamlet, it becomes crystal clear that it has lots to do with it. Hamlet’s existence, his essence, his thinking as well as his feeling along with his acting present him as an existential-fellow. It is another thing that Shakespeare was unknown to this philosophy (Existentialism), but he may be an accidental existentialist or its prolific precursor—especially of ‘aesthetic existentialism’. It is a mere coincidence that its glimpses are symbolically found in his all plays, chiefly in his major tragic plays—but highly in the Hamlet. Whether it is epistemological subjective permissivism or metaphysical nausea, whether it is ontological dolour or ethical challenges of death, solitude and dependence, whether it is logical posivitism or aesthetical visualization and virtualization of the world, or the political tension of the individual as well as of the mass—all, all are the tenets of existentialism which this play consists in. Major Characters, like Ophelia and Laertes, are the fine example of the minor characters with existential penchant, but in this context Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is above all.
In the recent past, the historical and cultural conditioning of human subjectivity has been highly investigating, but the recent decades were the decades of the investigating of the existential concerns in the Bard’s play Hamlet. This play is equally fascinating as the philosophy of existentialism. For both deal with existence and essence, meaning of life and purpose of birth, inherent value and self-identity, awful freedom and unconditional choice, angst and dread, authenticity and alienation or estrangement, absurdity and nothingness or death—i.e., in the context of Hamlet, the prince of existential world, it can be said that certain emerging existential ideas or concepts can be seen undoubtedly.
Hamlet, the protagonist of the play, is not only an existential protagonist, not only the prince of Denmark, but also the prince of the existential world. Being a philosophical spectator of various degrees, he is near and dear to all the existentialist scholars. What though he comes to prime of his life in such a world in which preponderate angst, anxiety, absurdity and alienation! What though the time is out of his joint! What though his choice and procrastination bring doom upon him! What though his dear ones leave him in the time of need and care! What though he dies! His tense, his sense, his choice, his culture, his appearance, his intellect, his disposition, his nobility, his heredity, his sovereignty, his irresolution, his feigning, his lovelorn, his cathartic death and his deliberate manner and method of self-making with the aim of painting meaning of his own at the canvas of blank world—all—all make him the prince of the existential world with the thorny coronet on his head, wringing melancholy in his heart and the boarding anxiety on his face. Prince is prince whether he does something or not, whether he weeps or laughs, whether he leads a luxurious life or a life of recluse, whether a thorny coronet or throne is thrown for him. In the context of Hamlet, it is clear that he is a true prince. Notwithstanding, his some opposite actions, he is truthful, merciful, scrupulous, and religious by nature. All have soft corner for him. This is the very reason that makes him the crown prince of the history of the existentialists.
From the very beginning to the very end, Hamlet, both as a play and as a character, explores the effect of the human beings whether it is related to inner experiences of the soul or their effects on the wider political arches or on the ethical issuances. His soliloquies reveal the horrific truth not only of this absurd world but also of the human predicament. His encounter with the ghost of his father lays the rock for his existence and essence. His action and his procrastination represent the existential terms ‘choice, existence and essence’. His madness is his conscious choice (Bad Faith) that not only mars his life, not only brings death for his adored Ophelia, but also brings existential tragedy for him as well as others. The graveyard (scene) is nothing but the horoscope of such a life where the conundrum of existential philosophy is solved for all forever. The tournament (scene) reflects nothing but limited or conditioned choice in the terminology of the existentialists.
The proposition ‘Existence precedes essence (p.52)’ is not only the purple patch or popular dictum of existentialism but also the core of this philosophy. It is Jean Paul Sartre, who explicitly formulates it in a lecture on ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ in 1946, but its glimpses are visible in the works of Soren Kierkegaard. Nothing matters who formulates it. But it matters great what for it stands. Generally, People are born as a tabula rasa, later on they create their essence through a unique chain of various experiences or perceptions. Their choices—whether of present or of past (sedimentations)—their responsibilities, and the absurdities of this world also help in shaping their essence. When the acid test of Hamlet is done, it is found that he is really the prince of existential world. The first act of the play indirectly indicates that Hamlet is a prince by namesake. He is like a tabula rasa without proper worldly knowledge. He has his existence but without any solid essence. But his encounter with the ghost of late king (Hamlet), his sense as well as his responsibility of a son to a father, and his bad faith of choosing feigning force him to know the reality. But sedimentations and the absurdities of the world indispensably bring doom not only upon him but also upon his dear ones. He makes his essence, but chiefly of irresolute and harbinger of the dooms.
Individuality plays a significant role both in Renaissance and Existentialism. Both give importance to individual. Renaissance individual with a little difference is viewed as the harbinger of existential individual. The thinkers of the both group employ the metaphor of water to describe the rippling, progressive, and baffling nature of human subjectivity. Owing to this, Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus writes:
Of whom and of what indeed I can say? I know that this heart within me I can feel, and I can judge that it exists…there ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my finger (p.17).
Something like Albert Camus, Karl Marx also pens: “Man does not want to wish to remain what he has become, but lives in a constant process of becoming (p.488)”. It is to say that Existentialism, which chiefly deals with the individuality of an individual, worships the progressive nature of the individual along with his/her self-realization. When Hamlet is glanced over through this lens, it is found that he is still busy like an ant in the process of self discovery—true potential, character, motives—that is demonstrated through his soliloquies as well as his attitude towards other characters. He is dynamic by nature. He has a unique sense of self realization. He tries to make his life meaningful, his birth purposeful. His self-discovery finally comes to climax when he accepts inevitable death saying ‘readiness is all (Act 5, Sc. ii. L.236).’ In this context, none should miss Kierkegaard, a major existentialist, who says “Each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life, and living it passionately and sincerely or “authentically (p.4)”. As an individual, Hamlet lacks authenticity. He tries to make his life authentic in-authentically. His facticity forces him to lead an inauthentic life. The result is that he bases his action upon external, psychological, and social pressures to appear to be a certain kind of person (revenger); to adopt a chosen way of life (madness); and to prostitute personal integrity (a true son, a good prince, and a great lover). Throughout the play, many times (whether it is when he encounters the ghost or when he return from the sail to England), he suddenly have the existential self-realization that adds a sense of purpose to his life. According to existentialists, man is nothing but the substitute of his choice. Choices make or mar him. What he becomes is the result of his choice. This is why in the existential style Hamlet says:
Why, then, `tis none to you, for
There is nothing either good or bad
But thinking makes it so.
To me, it is a prison (Hamlet, Act II, Sc. ii. Lns. 259-261).
In the context of the heroes of Shakespearean tragedy, A.C. Bradley pens that ‘Character is destiny (p.333)’. This statement seems to have the glimpses of existential choices. For, destiny or fate is not predetermined outside force, but dynamic inner-side force. It is determined by one’s own typical or inner character that relays on one’s certain distinctive mental and moral qualities or traits and help in formulating one’s character. One’s both mental and moral qualities depend on one’s self, and the self on the conflicts. What one sees, what one feels, and what one faces gives birth to conflicts that may be internal or external or both, that may be one in number or outnumbered. Nothing but these conflicts form one’s mental and moral traits that contain varieties of feelings, passions, and emotions which are the die maker of character, i.e., ‘self’ of the individual manipulates one’s character. In existentialism, individual’s choice is all in all. To achieve the goal, s/he is free to make choices, even in overwhelming circumstances His/her choice may be good (authentic) or bad (inauthentic). Good choice makes good character while bad, bad one. Such is the formula for the formulation of the destiny too. Good character causes good destiny and bad one bad.
Existential crisis is the next fact that proves Hamlet to be an existential persona. Referring to the feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life, it stands for the inner conflicts which are caused by the meaninglessness of life and confusion about one’s personal identity. It is accompanied by anxiety, dread, and angst. Crises whether emotional or cognitive or behavioral, give birth to emotional pain, despair, helplessness, anxiety, loneliness, meaninglessness to life, and the loss of personal values. In this play, it is found that whenever Hamlet is victim of this existential crisis, he utters a soliloquy. Duality of his choice, pangs of his soul, indecisiveness of his nature, meaninglessness of life, and confusion about his personal identity—all, all are well expressed from the bottom of his heart through the widely known soliloquy:
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 heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—`tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die,—to sleep
… … …
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought:
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry
And loose the name of action (Hamlet. Act III, Sc. i. Lns. 55-88).
Absurdity or the idea of the absurd is a common theme in existentialism. It chiefly arises by the contradictory nature of the two things existing simultaneously— individual’s search for meaning or purpose of life and the meaninglessness of the world or universe. Man is constantly sweating for authenticity (identification with meaning and significance), while this world or universe is indifference to him/her. The result is individual’s existential angst (dread or anxiety), the feeling of the Other (Otherness), the sense of alienation or estrangement, and the perception of despair (loss of hope). When Hamlet is glanced through the lenses of absurdity, it is found that from the very beginning to the end the play, the thought of morality and the preconceived ideas of death are encumbering in it. Throughout the play, the soul of Hamlet ponders upon the meaning of life and the mystery of death. To him, like the thought of existentialists, life’s absurdity brings inevitable conclusion of death for each and every individual, along with disappointment towards its end— even suicide or escaping existence. His psychological conditions which force him to behave absurdly, which force him to disguise as a feigned, which check him to reach the conclusion, which hinder him to take the further action, which make him procrastinator, are nothing but the effect of absurdity. The rotting things of Denmark—i.e., world— not only force him to refute and refuse all the worldly knowledge but also the science of the great classics:
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe 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 (Hamlet. Act I, Sc. v. Lns. 98-104).
All the schools of the philosophical stance of existentialism fortify ‘the existential attitude’—one’s mental and emotional entity that breeds a sense of confusion and disorientation in defiance of evidently absurd world—as the individual’s starting point of belonging to the race of existential denizens. Hamlet is its Midas. He displays it best and well in his soliloquies that begin at the very moment when he disorientedly faces an unacceptable confused world. His very first soliloquy, that displays the absurdity of the world, the pains and pangs of his soul caused by his father’s murder and mother’s haste marriage, expresses his disquietness and melancholy well:
O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! Ah, fie `tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely…. ( Hamlet. Act I, Sc ii. Lns.131-136)
Hamlet’s sarcastic talking about the essence and action of man in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also a fine example of the absurdity of man’s life. It is nothing but the result of his existential attitude that is caused by his father’s murder and mother’s betrayal. It is expressed well in the presented lines:
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?
(Hamlet. Act II, Sc. ii. Lns. 324-331).
Hamlet’s fear of freedom along with fear of taking decision is also an existential attitude that is found in the play of same name. The moment, he hears the fact of his father’s murder through the specter’s tongue, he is trapped in the riddle of fact and fiction. He pines for knowing reality. Again and again with the various manners and methods, he tries to examine the authenticity of the phantom’s utterances with a great burden in his soul. He is to take decision based on his own will, choice and responsibility in an existential way. His choice is based on his ‘outlook’ and his ‘outlook’ on ‘bad faith’ and this—this ‘bad faith’ not only makes him indecisive and procrastinator, not only the victim of existential dilemma, but also fertilizes alienation, anguish, anxiety, nothingness, and Otherness in him. ‘Choice’ that makes or mars an individual, is all in existential philosophy. In this context, Sartre writes: “Each person is an absolute choice of self from the standpoint of a world of knowledge and techniques which this choice both assumes and illuminates (p.575)”. Hamlet is not aloof from it. His existential dilemma does not let his conscience make choice/s or take decision/s. This is why he says:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sickeled o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn away
And lose the name of action. (Hamlet. Act III, Sc. i. Lns. 83-88)
Cosmic absurdity, which is one of the major themes of existentialism, is illustrated well in the play Hamlet. It is well known that the contradictory nature of the two things existing simultaneously brings absurdity. Undoubtedly meaninglessness of human condition and inadequacy of rational approach along with the confrontation of intention and reality are the harbinger of man’s dilemma that causes tragedy. This is why John Cruickshank aptly writes: “Tragedy for writers like Meraux, Sartre, and Camus lies in a disturbing separation, a cleavage between man and the world (p.24)”. Man and Universe are the two simultaneously existing things but they have different nature—mysterious work of the universe and inadequacy of man’s all rational approaches—the result, in Darwin’s terminology, is “survival of the fittest”, and catharsis for the weaker. Indirectly rather than directly, Shakespeare is concerned with the predicament of human existence in the universe. The fundamental dissonance—purposeless of the universe and meaninglessness of man’s life as well as human need and silence of the world—between man and the universe induces a deep feeling of NADA (in Hemingway terminology standing for gloom, frustration, horror, and nothingness) in Hamlet’s mind. Whenever and whatever he purposes, this cosmic absurdity disposes. He still longs for order and justice but the different drift of the forces of the irrational universe bring chaos for him. Although everything is out of harmony, he tries his best for it. No doubt, he too pines for such a sort of harmony even at the cost of his eternal jewels. He utters: “The time is out of joint— O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right ( Hamlet. Act I, Sc. v. Lns.138-139)!” The odd and puzzling ‘Gravedigger Scene,’ in which Hamlet is deeply philosophical and darkly comical, in which he plays comically on death, also presents the cosmic absurdity…
That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once:
How knave jowls it to the ground,…! (Hamlet. Act V, Sc. i. Lns. 81-82)
…. … …
There is another. Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?
Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?
Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty
Shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery? (Hamlet. Act V, Sc. i. Lns. 104-110)
Death, the absolute truth of the world, is disdained by all. But for the most existentialists like Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir, it (Being-towards-Death) is such a superior form that can neither be embraced positively nor be neglected disdainfully. It is inevitable. It has no individual significance, but cosmic. It is a cosmic property so nothing but cosmos alone is responsible for it. Whatever it is but one point is clear that it makes the individual self-aware for action. It is death that plays a starring role in the play Hamlet. Hamlet is not an overman. He seems helpless. What, in the play King Lear, Gloucester says about the predicament of man in this world— “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport (Act IV, Sc. i. Lns. 36-37)”— can’t be denied in the context of Hamlet.
From the very beginning to the very end of the play, death is the harbinger of action. Although it differs from person to person, it (death) is strict to all in its arrest. For Hamlet, it brings existential attitudes and crises; for Claudius, it brings queen and throne; for Ophelia, a poetic death in desperate terms; and for Laertes, anger, revenge and death. Like as an existential prince, Hamlet wishes to face the death boldly for two reasons— At first, to him, it is as a refuge from all those emotional torments that he gets from the murder of the late king and betrayal of his mother, but later on, he willingly wishes to die only for honor’s sake to avoid the label of being a mortified son, a prince, a monarch, and a person. Nothing matters how he dies, but it matters great that he takes death philosophically whether it is in the ‘Graveyard Scene’ in which the puzzle of existential philosophy is solved forever, or in the ‘Play within Play’ in which all the masks are unmasked, or in the ‘Tournament Scene’ in which the odds of life (death) are wished to be won with the shadow of his pre-thought of the streaming consciousness with ‘there’s divinity that shapes our end (Act V. Sc ii. L.10)’. Philosophy of death is scattered all around. For instance:
O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon `gainst [self] slaughter! (Hamlet. Act I, Sc. ii. Lns. 129-132)
Finally Hamlet, the Dane, surrenders before the absolute inevitable death with heart touching utterance:
Not a whit; we defy augry: / there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow
If it be now, `tis not to come; / if it be not to come, it will be now;
Yet it will come: the readiness is all: / since no man has aught of what he leaves,
What is `t to leave betimes? / Let be. (Hamlet. Act V, Sc. ii. Lns. 232-238)
Existentialists, the philosopher of living, present existentialism as the philosophy of individual’s existence and his/her life. The riddle of this existence as well as life with its meaning can never be solved without mentioning the taboo of love and sex. Mentionable thing is that the Existentialists, chief of whom Sartre, creates the philosophy not just of cocktails; but of the manoeuvre of the waiters; of cafeterias and boarding houses; of combats; of strains, and especially of sexual intercourses. Some of the existentialists-chiefly Sartre and De Beauvoir-have interesting sex lives. Tackling the painful realities and tussle of their life, they share it beyond the conventional limitations. They live their lives to the bottom by their own philosophy of honesty and free choice. To them, sexuality is nothing but a matter of existential choice. When a glance is put over the persona of Hamlet, it is found that for him there is an existential choice in the matter of love and sex. Where there are various types of love such as romantic love between Hamlet and Ophelia, paternal love between Hamlet and the late King, between Laertes and Polonius, maternal love between Hamlet and Gertrude, and love of true friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, and love of false friendship between Hamlet and Rosencrantz as well as Guildenstern, In the play Hamlet, chiefly based on the ground of morality, there are found two types sex lives—moral and immoral. Moral sex is between Hamlet and Ophelia, while immoral between Gertrude and Claudius. The first one is of Gertrude, the suffocating mother (of Hamlet); Gertrude, the repenting widow (of the Late King); Gertrude, the trapped spouse (of Claudius), is passions’ slave. It is her inauthentic existential choice of impious and degraded sexual intercourse that makes her ‘falling off’ as well as ‘sexual mother’ and Denmark ‘a rotten state’. The second one is of Ophelia, a deflowered flower (by Hamlet), a puppet (in the hands of Polonius), a sexual rebel (causing her own insanity), is innocent. It is her lack of choice that not only causes in her escaping existence, but also leads more or less Hamlet to doom. “Frailty thy name is woman (Act I, Sc. ii. L.146).” and “tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed (Act I, Sc. ii. L.135).” do not stands only for Gertrude but also for Ophelia. In the matter of love and sex, none of them have free or existential choice except conditional leap in the terminology of the existentialists. The result is doom that affects not only to them but also to their dear ones. It is the absurdity of the world that it is brimming with sexual appetite and in which Hamlet finds himself like a sinner— in the words of Coleridge as well as in the terminology of King Lear ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
Existentialism as a whole chiefly focuses on the uniqueness of individual neglecting God with Nietzsche’s proclamation of “God is dead (p. 41)”, but Christian existentialism, being its branch, entails his/her relationship with the universe and God. Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism as well as the father of Christian existentialism, proclaims that this universe is fundamentally paradoxical and the alpha and Jesus Christ, who is the best example of the union of God and humans, is its best example. He equates God with love. To him, man is the synthesis of two sides— finite and infinite. Lack of infinite side in man causes despair which is like a sin. Such a man lacks faith in God consequently chooses such a way that is different from God’s will. Thus, he has limited choice that affects his existence. The result is catharsis and tragic end. The first thing that is observed in Hamlet is that he too, like Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega of Christianity, is the victim of the paradoxes of the universe. Although he has the both sides (finite and infinite) of the man besides faith in God that make man a man, the profound despair and erratic melancholy coiling in his soul make him choose the improper way (Revenge, feigning madness, even though the fatal or lethal combat with Laertes etc…)—against God’s will. Consequently, he has limited choice (especially reflected in the soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ or in the ‘only duel of the tournament scene) that affects his existence—even though causing his death. Undoubtedly, Hamlet believes in God with all possible respect. He is a God fearing man. The reason behind his not killing Claudius is also related to his sense of God and Christian civility along with morality. He does not want him (Claudius) to have the heavenly bliss when his father is bearing the chaos of hell. Another instance, related to his this belief, is seen when he tells Horatio: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet. Act I, Sc. v. Lns. 166-167)?”Although the skeptic phrase ‘things in Heaven and earth’ is for ghost, it indirectly indicates God, the Almighty and Omnipresent, showing a fragile bond between Hamlet as an individual and hostile universe of the Almighty. It is irony of the universe that people like Hamlet are its victim. About his piteous condition, Ophelia utters a few embracing poetic lines:
O! What a noble mind is here o’erthrown:
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword:
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down! (Hamlet. Act III, Sc. I, Lns. 158-162)
Hamlet, the title character, seems to be not only an existential character but also the prince of the clime of the existentialists. He is an existential protagonist because of his purposeless birth in a meaningless world (as he presumes); because of his endless effort to make his essence and existence as well as his authenticity hallmarking; because of his endeavour for self-consciousness and facticity; because of the over brooding existential angst, dread, and melancholy within. His noble feelings with duality, his great sense of responsibility with the sense of ‘to be or not to be’, and his grandiose action with free choice make him a paragon of existential men. Nobility in reason, infinity in faculty, mobility in form, gravity in expression, and angelic action along with godly apprehension make him the prince of the existential world. Besides it, he is near and dear to the existential thinkers and scholars because of the existential glimpses within and outside. His predicament is also very much alike of the existential people. When he is trialed in the kangaroo court of this absurd cosmos, he is condemned to death without any hearing, without any questioning, without any evidence against him, and without any solid raffia of his own except intellectual inertia. Nevertheless leaving a number of unanswered questions, leaving the trails of the impressions of his essence, his existence comes to an end in an existential way. The brown study of his persona reflects that like an existential man ‘rest is silence’ with the prince of the existentialists’ world—Hamlet.
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About the Author:
Dr. Dharmendra Kumar Singh is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at MHPG College Moradabad, affiliated to MJPRU Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, the Republic of India. Creative writing along with critical writing is his passion. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.