Friday, February 15, 2013

Hamlet and the Unbearable Loneliness of Existence

                            “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
                             Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (Hamlet, I. ii)

                            “Now I am alone.” (II, ii)
Music to accompany article: Hamlet Overture (Tchaikovsky)

There are events in life that irrevocably alter our relationship with reality, and with ourselves. The customary, rational way of thinking cannot fathom the unexplainable, and we have no emotional resources to accommodate the abnormal. Karl Jaspers called such situations Grenzsituationen (the boundary situations). In Hamlet’s case, it is betrayal that brings his world to breaking point.

     Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, remarries his uncle Claudius only “one little month” after the death of his father, King Hamlet. With a “most wicked speed”, and “with such dexterity”, she is now warming the “incestuous sheets”. Then the Ghost tells Hamlet that his father was in fact murdered by Claudius, now the king. Was his mother an adulteress? And was she a murderer’s accomplice? Life in the court goes on as usual, as if nothing has happened. Can a man, especially one as intelligent and perceptive as Hamlet, “understand” this? To make matters worse, his beloved Ophelia becomes a puppet in the hands of her ever-meddling father Polonius and begins to reject Hamlet’s affections. There is no one in the world that can contain his disintegrating Weltanschauung (world view), not even his loyal friend Horatio. Hamlet is alone.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet speaks with the skull
of “Yorick” in the 1948 film production of Hamlet

     Much has been written about Hamlet’s delay in acting out revenge. But would revenge change anything? Would it bring back his trust in the world and in people? Nietzsche was right in his assessment of Hamlet’s hesitance: one needs an illusion to act, and Hamlet has lost all illusions. He glares evil in the eye with unflinching courage, while his journey towards truth becomes a journey onto death.

     Hamlet, like Oedipus, is a tragic hero because he is conscious. Conscious of the wretchedness of the world, of the futility of any action, and of the absurdity of suffering. William James’ description (written in another connection) fits Hamlet’s state of mind:
“you see how the entire consciousness of the poor man is so chocked with the feeling of evil that the sense of there being any good in the world is lost for him altogether. His attention excludes it, cannot admit it: the sun has left his heaven.”
                The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

     Hamlet is also a Schopenhauerian hero who recognises that the ultimate release from suffering is the renunciation of the will to live. He expresses his readiness to die in a moment known in the play as the fall of the sparrow:
“If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all...” (V. ii)
     The sweet Prince dies in the arms of Horatio who lives to tell his story to the world. And his story is also our story.