Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Existentialism
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
What is mankind? Who am I? What is the meaning of life? These are multifaceted existential questions that ancient and modern philosophies have yet to adequately answer. Countless philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of answers to these questions but died before finding a suitable answer. Certainly, the philosophy of existentialism is an interesting phenomenon. The dictionary defines existentialism as a "philosophical movement . . . centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will" ("Existentialism"). The character Hamlet from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet explores these existential questions, seeking truth and understanding as he tries to come to grips with his father's death. In the end, Hamlet proves to be an exceedingly existential character.
Prince Hamlet is a university student who enjoys contemplating difficult philosophical questions. When his father, king of Denmark, dies, he returns home to find evidence of foul play in his father’s death. The Ghost of Hamlet (the dead king) tells Prince Hamlet that his uncle Claudius is the murderer. Throughout the rest of the play, Hamlet seeks to prove Claudius’ guilt before he takes action against Claudius. However, Hamlet is pensive ad extremum, at times even brooding; he constantly overuses his intellect while ignoring his emotions and ignoring what "feels right." His extreme logic causes him to delay his revenge against Claudius until the final scene of the play where he kills Claudius and proves that he has progressed into a truly existential character.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet acts out of pure intellect and processed logic. He suppresses his natural instincts, his emotions, and trusts only in the power of his intelligence. For instance, when Hamlet encounters his father's ghost, he does not believe it is his father—even though he has an emotional reaction upon seeing it. Hamlet says “Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell / Why thy canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death, / Have burst their cerements . . . Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?” (I.iv.46-48,57). Hamlet is so confused by the sight of his father’s ghost that he is unsure of how to act. His intellect tells him that the sight is not possible, however his emotions tell him otherwise. However, he stifles his emotion and retains his doubts about the ghost. Later, Hamlet plans a play where actors re-enact the king's murder in an effort to prove the validity of what the ghost has told him.
Although Hamlet appears to be the epitome of an anti-existentialist from the outset of the story, Hamlet's logic slowly begins to unravel scene by scene, like a blood-soaked bandage, with layer after layer revealing snippets of Hamlet's emotion and feeling. When Hamlet utters the famous lines " 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 " he is contemplating the thought of suicide and wishing that God had not made suicide a sin (III.i.58-61). Hamlet's anxiety, uncertainty, and tensions cause him to doubt the power of reason alone to solve his problems. Hamlet begins to realize that reason is impotent to deal with the depths of human life—one of the central assertions of existentialism (Bigelow, paragraph 6). Perhaps this is why Hamlet feigns madness; he realizes that he lacks the emotions to avenge his father's death. Indeed, Hamlet does go temporarily insane in Act I, scene ii, and it is during this time when he is able to act out of pure sensation, with no thoughts about the consequences of what he says or does (e.g. when he undeservingly criticizes Ophelia). However, in uniting his emotions and reason, Hamlet is careful to avoid the temptation to commit suicide because if one commits suicide to escape life's pain, then one is damned to eternal suffering in hell. To Hamlet (and most other people of the 1600s), suicide is morally wrong. By making the decision to stay alive and fight Claudius' corruption, Hamlet demonstrates existential qualities. However, this is not the only scene where Hamlet acts existentially.
In Act IV, Hamlet encounters alienation and nothingness when he meets a Norwegian captain under the command of Fortinbras. When Hamlet asks the captain about the cause and purpose of the conflict, he is shocked to learn that the countries' armies will go to war over "a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name" (IV.iv.98-99). After Hamlet recovers from the shock of the captain's honesty, he is dumbstruck by the thought that Fortinbras would sacrifice the lives of thousands of men for an admittedly inferior "patch of land." At this point in the play, Hamlet is still struggling with his own inaction, unable to kill Claudius even though he knows of his guilt. Hamlet has a good reason to kill Claudius, yet he fails to do it. How can Fortinbras sacrifice so much for such a futile purpose? In this scene, Hamlet realizes the brutality of humanity and first ponders the idea that no one is safe—another central pillar of existentialism.
From this point on, Hamlet declares that he will have bloody thoughts. "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (IV.iv.9.56). Hamlet is impressed by the forcefulness of characters like Fortinbras and Laertes, who turn thought into action quickly (Phillips). Laertes, who, like Hamlet, has a father to avenge, does not hesitate for a moment when seeking vengeance on his father's murderer. As Hamlet decides to strive for this personal quality, he begins to act increasingly existential and decreasingly reflective.
When Hamlet finally does achieve his father’s vengeance, he was not spurred to it on his own, but by watching his mother and Ophelia die in front of his own eyes. Furthermore, as Hamlet realized that he had only two minutes to survive, he really had nothing to lose; this is when he made his move to stab and poison Claudius.
Prince Hamlet is introduced as a reflective, slow-to-act character. While he stays true to this characterization for almost the entire play, he does undergo a transformation by the end of the play. By the end, Hamlet decides that he is no longer going to deprive himself of the revenge he so badly desires against Claudius, so he kills him. At this point, Hamlet is existential. He is the only character who fights back against Claudius’s usurpation of the throne, and he accepts the consequences of his actions (i.e. death) without a flinch. This final existential act is what qualifies Hamlet as an existential character in an existential drama at a time when existentialism did not exist in literature.
Bigelow, Gordon E. “A Primer of Existentialism.” The Practical Stylist with Readings. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
“Existentialism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated . 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/existentialism>.
Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on Hamlet. 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet/>.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Character Analysis Essay - "Hamlet"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/character-analysis-hamlet/>.
Literary courses at any level will sometimes require students to write character analysis essays. We will be delving into their conflicts and how the characters resolve them. We will be looking through the eyes of the characters and analyze their roles in the story. If you are having trouble looking through the eyes of characters in a literary piece, look no further and read on because EssayPro is here to provide a top college essay service!
Table Of Contents
What is a Character Analysis Essay?
In a deeper sense, this is a type of essay which requires an understanding of the character in question. These kinds of essays are usually to understand protagonists and antagonists in any literary piece. One of the aims would be to make a profile and analyze characters well.
What Is The Purpose
More than to fulfill a requirement, this type of essay mainly helps us understand the character and the world he/she lives in. One of the important purposes of this essay is to look at the anatomy of a character in the story and dissect who he/she is. We must be able to study how the character was shaped and then learn from their life.
Different Types Of Characters
- Protagonists (heroes): The main character around whom most of the plot revolves.
- Antagonists: This is a person that is against the protagonist. This is usually the villain but could be also a natural power, set of circumstances, majestic being, etc.
- Major: These are the main characters. They run the story. Regularly there are only one or two major characters.
- Dynamic (changing)
- Static (unchanging)
- Minor: These are the figures who help tell the major character’s tale by letting them interact and reveal their personalities, situations, stories. They are commonly static (unchanging).
- Foils: These are the people whose job is to contrast with the major character.
How to Write it?
Of course to go into the deeper sense, and to truly understand these characters, one must immerse oneself in the story or literary piece. Take note of the setting, climax, and other important literary parts. You must be able to feel and see through the characters. Observe how the writer shaped these characters into life. Notice how little or how vast the identities of the characters were described. Look at the characters’ morals and behavior and how it affects situations and other characters in the story. Observe characters whom you find interesting.
How to start?
First, you have to choose a character you’d like to write about. Sometimes, a character will be readily assigned to you. It’s wise to consider characters who play a dynamic role in the story. It will captivate the reader since there is tons of information about these characters.
Read The Story
Even if you’ve already heard or read this story before, you will probably need to read it again. It will definitely help you notice something new that you’ve missed before. Keep in mind or highlight every place that your character appears.
Consider the following things:
- What specific descriptions does the author provide for each character?
- What kinds of relationship does your character have with others?
- How do the actions of the character move the plot forward?
While you are reading, take notes or highlight/underline all important elements of the story. That will add depth when describing your character.When you’re finished reading with your character in mind, review your notes, and formulate the main idea about a character. Make an initial draft while taking note of the character analysis essay outline provided by your instructor. If you’re not provided with a sample, you may follow this format:
Make An Outline
This step can be considered as one of the most important steps in writing. A well-constructed outline will keep your thoughts and ideas organized.
Make an introduction of your paper brief and meaningful. It should hold together your whole essay and should spark interest in people. Write a short description of the character in question.
Subdivide your body paragraphs into different ideas or areas to be considered regarding the character. Look at your professor’s rubric and make sure that you’ll be able to tackle the things required. You should also be provided with questions to be answered to better formulate your analysis. The body should answer the following questions:
- What is the character’s physical appearance, personality, and background?
- What were the conflicts that the character experienced and how did he/she overcome them?
- What can we learn from this character?
Your conclusion should also hold together your ideas and should shape a final analysis statement. Mention things about the character’s conflicts which we can experience in real life. Also, you can write about how a character that should’ve reacted to a certain situation.
Character Analysis Essay Example
There are many character analysis essay examples available online. Study how authors of these essays wrote about different characters. Go on and search for character analysis about Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, and the Crucible. Look at how conflicts are resolved by characters. Consider things to learn about the characters and take note if any of the characters reflect something in you. A character analysis essay is more than looking into the character but also looking into the character’s personality, actions, and decisions that speak to you.
Essay Writing Advice From Our Professional Team
Tutor Clement, from EssayPro
Often, a character analysis will help you understand the work as a whole better. When a teacher assigns you a character to analyze, they are essentially asking you to understand the character’s role in the novel. Discuss the character’s intentions. Sometimes, in some works, the intentions of the character may be blurry. A good example of those cases is Iago from Othello. Your job, in this case, will be to analyze Iago’s intentions (why did he want to kill Othello) and then support it with evidence from the text. Like all analysis, having a strong argument, in this case, is very important. You do not necessarily have to believe that your argument is true, but if you can support it then stick with your initial idea. If you are assigned a prompt that states something along the lines of “analyze a character’s influence on the work as a whole”, then this question is calling for a character analysis. Ask yourself questions along the way like: what would I do in their place. This will help develop a deeper sense of empathy with the character and thus help you analyze them better. Good luck!
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