Hamlet’s three main perspectives on life and its meaning and how does his philosophical outlook effect his purpose?
The Tragedy of Hamlet written by William Shakespeare is a play about Hamlet, a young Prince of Denmark who seeks to avenge his father King Hamlet who was murdered by his brother Claudius who eventually married Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) to become king. Though Hamlet is cynical and full of hatred for Claudius, his perspective of life and its meaning was shaped by three philosophical ideas namely nihilism, fortune and fate versus free will and the mystery of death.
Hamlet is a nihilistic character because he is pessimistic and believes that values and life are meaningless, and nothing can ever truly be known. In Act 2 Scene 2 when he is conversing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet says “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” which shows us that Hamlet believes there is no true meaning to life but it all depends on a person’s perspective. Hamlet has no belief in a greater force/supernatural because he willing kills Polonius whom was not his intended target, but he is not phased by committing one of the worst sins and this is shown in Act 3 Scene 4 when he says “How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!” which shows his intent was to kill with no moral thought to stop him and this shows that Hamlet is irrational, and he acts on impulse.
Hamlet also sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their graves by rewriting the letter which was meant to be his death note and he shows no remorse for his evil deeds in Act 5 Scene 2 when he says “They are not near my conscience” when he is asked about what would happen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s nihilism is also reflected by his willingness and ability to be always against the crown and he saw nobility to have no value because he goes against the laws of royalty back in Elizabethan England during Shakespeare’s time and falls in love with Ophelia who was not of royal blood. Hamlet shows no authority for Claudius who was his king which goes against the monarchy and this is shown by his statement “of nothing, bring me to him” in Act 4 Scene 3 where he is implying that the crown is nothing and has no value.
Hamlet thought life was meaningless because he believed that life was just redistribution of matter and this is shown in Act 4 Scene 3 when he says “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm” meaning that life is just a cycle whereby everyone came from dust and will eventually return to dust when buried.
Hamlet’s nihilism led him to become a pessimistic character and eventually his mind drove him to insanty because he was angry at Claudius for killing his father, but he committed the same crime by killing Polonius (Laertes’ father) and he showed no remorse for what he had done and he was stuck in a “catch-22” scenario which is a paradoxical situation where your mind becomes contradictory to yourself.
Hamlet faced the battle of fate/fortune vs free will. His actions are carried out by his freewill, but they determine his fate. While Hamlet is waiting for the ghost in Act 1 Scene 4 he says, “Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star” and this shows his understanding that a person’s fate or fortune can not be controlled but it is a predetermined course of events, he is also implying that man can either be brought into the world with fault or eventually it becomes a part of human nature.
Hamlet shows that fate is his pushing force in Act 1 scene 4 when he claims “My fate cries out” when he follows the ghost which shows that his will was not his own, he has no choice but to avenge his father which became his destiny which eventually shaped Hamlet’s future and led to his downfall because he was undecided and he kept on delaying his plan to kill Claudius and eventual fate took it course and he ended up dying as well. In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet refers to fortune as a “Strumpet” which is a female prostitute. Hamlet is likening fortune to a female prostitute because “she” grants favor for men regardless of them being good or bad such as Claudius who became king after killing his brother.
In Act 2 Scene 2 the first performer from Hamlet’s mock play states “Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel” referring to fortune’s wheel and the wheel is referred to as “her” because it belonged to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fate and the idea behind this phrase is that fate is random(unpredictable), it does not take into account nobility or peasantry and the perfect example is Hamlet who was full of misfortune and this took a huge toll on him and he ended up losing people he loved such as his father ,Ophelia, Gertrude and himself. Hamlet believes that fate and freewill are two opposing forces and this is shown by the Player King in his mock play in Act 3 Scene 2 where fate and free will “run” in opposite directions meaning no one has control over their fate.
Hamlet’s thoughts are encompassed by the mystery of death because he had no purpose in his life. Death is both the cause and consequence of his revenge; his new purpose was guided by vengeance which was self destructive.
Hamlet’s famous quote “To be, or not to be” which is part of his soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1shows Hamlet questioning life as he feels like everyone has betrayed him. This quote signifies Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts because he sees death as the only way to solve his problems as he views death through the metaphor of sleep, but Hamlet is confused by the concept of death because of the fear of the unknown and going to hell for killing himself. Hamlet’s desire to kill himself was not great enough for him to follow through as he now seeked vengeance. Hamlet says “Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” which is also evidence that he wants to commit suicide.
Hamlet shows his value of death through his reactions to a couple of character’s deaths. The death of his father left him traumatized as shown in Act 1 Scene 2 where he is angry at his mother for marrying his uncle and he is wearing dull clothing for mourning. Hamlets also acts the same way following Ophelia’s death in Act 5 Scene 1 when he is arguing with Laertes about how much he loved Ophelia more than her own brother ever did. Hamlet portrays death as an unfortunate event full of sadness when it involves his loved ones. However, Hamlet is not moved by the deaths of Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he believed that death is not a coincidence but a consequence, as all these characters all had bad intentions for Hamlet and they deserved to die.
In Act 5 Scene 2, Hamlet says “if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”, which shows the development of Hamlet’s character where he no longer fears death because eventually everyone dies, and he is ready to accept his fate. Before he dies, he is happy that the truth has been revealed.
In conclusion, Hamlet is a very complex character who was indecisive but had a pessimistic perspective of life, acted on impulse and his sole purpose of living was revenge for his father and he was content with his death because he had completed his quest of vengeance.