Hamlet: Existentialism

By: Riley, Melissa and Haley

What is Existentialism?

... A philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. The way humans find themselves existing in the world.

  • Themes of existentialism that are found in Hamlet include Anxiety/Fear/Pessimism, absurdity and death
  • Includes humans trying to make rational decisions in what they see as an irrational universe
  • Central claim of existentialism: “Existence precedes essence” you exist before you inherit an identity or values. Therefore, existentialists can create their own values or personal essence
  • Refusing to belong to any school of thought and accept any beliefs or social systems
  • Having a feeling of there being no purpose or explanation of existence
  • Believing individuals are entirely free and that humans must take responsibility for themselves and exercise their freedom and choice

How is Existentialism shown in Hamlet?

Hamlet's persona is very negative because he lost his father; on the contrary, Claudius views the situation as a normal course of events in life. Hamlet is very much the pessimist that views the world as an absurd place, seeing only the ugliness and uselessness in his surroundings.
"God! O God!/How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!/Fie on't! O fie! 'tis and unweeded garden,/ That grows to seed: things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely." (1, 2, 132-137)
  • Hamlet has a negative response to his father's death that leads him to view the world in a negative manner.
  • Hamlet chooses to see the world as an absurd place that is "stale, flat, and unprofitable" and like an "unweeded garden" (1, 2, 132-137)
  • His reaction to his father's death alters his view of the world and his very essence.

Claudius: "Hamlet,/But, you must know, your father lost a father,/That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound/In filial obligation for some term/To do obsequious sorrow." (1, 2, 89-92)

  • This highlight the contrast of the essence between Hamlet and Claudius.
  • Claudius views the death to be a natural course of life, and explains to Hamlet that he is acting absurd.
  • Claudius accepts the world and course of life for what it is.

The existentialist theme that is found in the famous "To be, or not to be: that is the question" (3, 1, 57) quote is the absurdity of life, fear of death and the freedom to choose between the two.

  • Hamlet contemplates life itself and what the essence of his existence should be.
  • In his state of depression he considers the choices to live or die. He ponders the absurdity of continuing to live a meaningless life because his is afraid to choose death. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause: there's the respect/That makes calamity of so long life" (3, 1, 67-70)
  • Hamlet exists but without purpose in life because he is afraid to take action.

Claudius has anxiety and fear that he will get caught for killing King Hamlet if Hamlet continues to live; therefore, he makes a logical decision to hire someone to kill Hamlet.

Claudius: "By letters conjuring to that effect,/The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;/For like the hectic in my blood rages,/And thou must cure me: till I know 'tis done" (4, 3, 65-68)

  • Once Hamlet is dead, Claudius believes that his anxiety will vanish.
  • This shows the rational decision that Claudius is trying to make out of the irrational circumstances that he has inflicted upon himself.
  • Claudius is very much the existentialist who creates his own values regardless the situation.

Hamlet doesn't know how to react to the series of events that occur in his life. It is only when he meets Fortinbras that he feels he can perhaps let go of his own religious beliefs and exercise his freedom to avenge his father.

Hamlet states "When honor's at the stake. How stand I then,/That have a father kill's, a mother stain'd,/Excitements of my reason and my blood,/and let all sleep, while to my shame I see/The imminent death of twenty thousand men" (4, 4, 55-59)

  • Fortinbras is willing to go to the extreme extent of killing thousands of people for a small piece of land in order to honour his father, however, Hamlet is unable to kill the one person that murdered his father in order to honour his own father.
  • Hamlet has fear in committing a sin, even though it is what is expected of him in order to avenge his father's death. The scenario that Hamlet finds himself in, i.e. having to avenge his father's murder is irrational.
  • Hamlet wants to convince himself that avenging his father is not only his obligation but a rational decision.
  • He is inspired by the young Fortinbras' essence. This is a man who takes a decision regardless of the consequences. This is the point where Hamlet makes a choice in spite of his belief.

How is Existentialism shown in other texts and the world?

Shakespeares "Macbeth", Act 5, Scene 5. (Text to Text)

Macbeths "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" Soliloquy demonstrates existentialism because Macbeth is questioning his own existence, and basically says each day is simply a count down until our own death. Similar to Hamlets "To be or not to be" speech.

Golding's "Lord of the Flies" (Text to Text)

In this novel, the boys stranded on the island demonstrate existentialism when they start to question the leadership of the group. The boys overthrow Ralph and soon lose control. This is similar to once the King Hamlet has died, order in the kingdom is temporarily displaced and Hamlet lacks stability.

My Friends and I thinking about next year (Self to Text)

When deciding where to apply, and where to accept and what exactly we want to do with our lives, I think it is fair to say we all had some existential thoughts. Asking questions like: What do I want to accomplish? What am I meant to do?

Religion (Text to World)

Existentialism is often associated with religion because religion gives people a source to turn to either for support, comfort, personal or family beliefs. They offer explantations for things in our lives that we cannot explain. This is very similar to all the references to Christianity in Hamlet.