Shakespeare’s character is philosophical spectators of different degrees. Tragedies were written by him mostly explores the effect of human beings’ inner experiences and their effects on wider political and ethical issues. Hamlet is one of the finest instances where Shakespeare shows how human beings are connected through their inner world and its varying shades.
By the 21st century, the meaning of existentialism has been interpolated to such an extent that it’s impossible to describe it without a certain amount of generalisation. In relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, certain existential ideas can be seen to be emerging.
In Existentialism, confronting one’s own self, efforts to understand it is a point of reference. Existentialism, the term, might’ve been coined later but it is “a timeless sensibility” to be found throughout the records of human understanding even from long past.
Shakespeare is acutely aware of our abandonment on this earth, the forlornness with which we are thrown into this world. Hamlet, the protagonist of the play, is essentially an existential hero.
From the very beginning, his soliloquies and monologues reveal his “insight into the horrific truth” which reveals to us the out of joint nature of this world and its ways. He is intensely aware of the contradiction in his own volatile nature.
In the beginning, when he is notified about the sighting of his father’s ghost, he says that he thinks that he sees his father “in his mind’s eye.” Hamlet is intensely aware when it comes to consciousness. He ponders upon life in his very first soliloquy that “this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” It shows his preoccupation on mortality.
Existentialism tries to find a meaning out of this despairing awareness of death. In an existentialist manner, he explains that “of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted° with golden fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, 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?”
With this very question begins the fold of existentialism. Widely known soliloquy of Hamlet “to be, or not to be” is the rise of “why” as Albert Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He says, “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.”
Hamlet’s madness is his conscious choice, an act of estranging himself. It reveals the duality in human consciousness. In the graveyard scene, Hamlet gives the final touch to his existential conundrum.
He seems to be in a position which Existentialism tries to put one into where the meaning can be brought out of this seeming meaninglessness. This is when Hamlet resigns from the despair of existence and accepts it in a way which may say that a man is condemned to be free and he can give any meaning to his life as he wants to. Hamlet’s existential condition reminds us that “it is we who are Hamlet.”