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Mason Curtin
AP English Literature & Composition
5th Hour
Perceiving Life and Death like Hamlet
To properly discuss universal motifs, such as life and death, one must be aware of the
significant impact of perspective. Perspective is everything, but it can also be misleading.
Though most motifs are universal, our perspective concerning them is decidedly more
personal. Hamlet is aware of this concept, and it is expressed through his word choice.
Raymond Reno points out that phrases such as, “man delights/not me” (2.2), “How weary,
stale, flat and unprofitable/seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2), and “the earth, seems
to me a sterile promontory” (2.2) indicate that Hamlet is aware of how his point of view affects
the world he lives in (Reno, 107). In a sense, Hamlet is living in his own world because his
perspective has altered every experience he has ever had. In the same way, individuals live in
their own universe based upon their own perspective, but guided by rules that govern the
universe. If you take, for example, person A and person B, the concept above suggests that if
person A’s consciousness were to reside in person B’s body, that Person A would experience a
different world than person B would; even though person A would be experiencing everything
person B would, person A’s perspective would differ from person B’s experiences and
memories. Though person A and B experienced the same events, how they perceive them is
what ultimately makes a difference to their memories. To propose that we are made up of our
experiences was a thought ahead of Shakespeare’s time. This question was raised specifically
during the Enlightenment. Consciousness was defined as being a person’s subjective
experience of the world and mind. In this sense, Hamlet is quite the modern character, posing
questions to anyone who thinks deeply on Hamlet.
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One such question presented to the reader is, ‘How do I perceive life and death?’ In
Hamlet’s Quintessence of Dust, Reno points out that Hamlet takes on two very distinct attitudes
concerning his perception about these motifs. The first attitude lasts from 1.1 up to 4.4, and is
best summed up by Hamlet’s line, “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (4.4). This
first take on life and death is quite startling to the modern world, but is less surprising
whenever one considers the ‘hell on earth’ that Hamlet has experienced. He has every reason to
be filled with the flames of vengeance that engulf his thoughts. A dead father, a “seemingly
virtuous” (1.5) mother who marries her brother-in-law, a visit from the supposed ghost of
your late father, banishment from home; these circumstances are enough to push anyone over
the edge. Hamlet’s ‘go-getter’ attitude is based on the rationality that nobody else will do
exactly what needs to be done, so Hamlet must jump into action himself. His attitude is ironic
because Hamlet spends 1.1 through 5.1 not acting on the desire to avenge his father’s death,
yet speaks and thinks passionately about doing so. The second distinct attitude Hamlet adopts
for the remainder of the play is Hamlet’s acceptance of taking life for what it is. Hamlet says,
“But thou wouldst/not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but is no matter” (5.2). Hamlet
clearly indicates that he feels uneasy about the sparring match set up between himself and
Laertes (Reno, 107), but follows by stating that it doesn’t matter. This attitude is a 180° turn
from his previous outlook on life, and resolves the inner-conflict Hamlet has been dealing with
for the duration of the play. In Act 1, Hamlet is at an all time low; he tries to comprehend the
world, realizing, “All is not well” (1.2), but feels unable to do so because nothing appears to
remain constant. By the end, he realizes that life is turbulent, but its nature can’t be changed,
and thus he accepts the ever-changing aspect of his life. There is, however, one constant that
Hamlet’s existence and turbulent life depends on: time.
Without time, life and death cannot exist together; there is either life without death, or
vice-versa. This simple, ironic principle makes time the most powerful concept in the known
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universe. Hamlet views time as a vicious thing that has the power to destroy anything. Hamlet
questioningly says, “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time…?” (3.3). Hamlet
perceives that time is his torturer; without it, he would either be immortal, or nonexistent. The
concept of time is what allows the tragedy of Hamlet to occur, including the numerous ironic
reversals that befall the characters. In his essay, Ironic Reversal in Hamlet, Thomas Van Laan
discusses how Hamlet’s ironic reversal occurs from the beginning to the end of the play. He
writes, “… an individual’s self-assertion brings him only self-destruction” (Van Laan, 251).
This quote is proven to be true several times within Hamlet. Polonius spies on Hamlet and
expects to be rewarded for discovering the reason behind Hamlet’s madness; he is instead
killed by Hamlet before any information is disclosed. Ophelia gives herself and her virginity up
to Hamlet to make sure that she is married to Hamlet; she is instead rejected by Hamlet because
she has done so, which only adds to the madness that overtakes her in Act 4, resulting in her
suicide. Claudius schemes with Laertes to come up with a devious plan to poison Hamlet;
instead, he is destroyed by his own vices that were meant only for Hamlet. Over and over, time
allows ironic reversal to occur, bringing death and destruction in its wake. These abstract ideas
are not unique to Hamlet’s universe, but can be applied to our own.
All of the ideas previously discussed are pertinent to determining how Hamlet perceives
the world, and more specifically, life and death. To speak simply, Hamlet adopts two attitudes
concerning life and death, which were already addressed by Reno; on a deeper level, Hamlet
holds a single attitude concerning these absolutes. As Reno observes, in the first four Acts of the
play, Hamlet holds more of a ‘live while you can’ attitude, and by Act 5 Hamlet seems to
change to a ‘nothing matters’ type of attitude. Contrary to Reno’s observation, Hamlet holds a
single idea of what life and death mean to him, and it can be best observed through his
soliloquies. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet states, “O, that this too too sullied flesh would
melt,/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew…. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to
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me all the uses of this world!” (1.2) which relays the message that Hamlet wishes his body
would just melt away so he wouldn’t have to deal with the situation at hand. This quote leads
the reader to believe that Hamlet sees the world as a meaningless hunk of rock, but at this
point in the play, Hamlet has adopted the first attitude of fiery vengeance. So how can he wish
he didn’t exist and claim that the world is meaningless while he also believes in the importance
of action? Hamlet embraces the concept of duality, meaning he believes in two opposite
thoughts that balance one another out, creating equilibrium of oxymoron. At the same time
that Hamlet believes that his actions make all the difference in the world, he also believes that
no action truly matters from a global perspective. It’s astonishing that Hamlet can take a step
back from his current situation to see just how meaningless it is when compared to the entire
world. Hamlet’s thoughts of duality change by the end of the play with his attitudes. The first
dualist thought that Hamlet holds is an attitude of wanting to act, with a mentality that he
wishes he was dead; the second dualist thought is an attitude that reflects Hamlet’s realization
that nothing matters, paired with the mentality that he might as well go through with his
intentions, and act upon them. Though his dualist mentality changes, it is still balanced, and
thus negligibly equivalent to the first. By the time Hamlet’s opinion on dualism changes, he is
mentally prepared to take action against his uncle, but realizes how futile the entire situation
is. Hamlet’s action presents the theme that a simple life is meaningless; breaking the norm, and
taking action, is what develops us into true characters. To conclude, Hamlet’s view on the
world is both optimistic and nihilistic; it is both caring and uncaring; it is both wishing to take
action and actually taking action. Hamlet is the epitome of the dualism of man, and it is this
main point that proves to the reader that Hamlet is a modern, thinking, life-like character, that
can view the world through his own lens, and through a universal lens.
Is all of this talk of life and death “…no matter” (5.2), or does this assertion hold
any truth in our lives? Speaking informally, I firmly believe that most thinking people perceive
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the world in the way that Hamlet does. I have personally seen the world as both. Prior to
sophomore year in high school, I held Hamlet’s first dualist thought: I tried to change my
world, but only ever thought about doing anything, never really taking action. Sophomore year
hit me like a semi-truck, and I realized that I cared too deeply about things that really didn’t
affect me at all. With the new responsibility I had as a sophomore, it was crucial that I
managed these responsibilities to figure out what truly mattered to me. I didn’t know what
motivated me in life, and spent months trying to figure it out. It was ultimately decided that the
potential to succeed motivated me to get out of bed in the morning and go through the
motions. After this revelation (though I didn’t realize it), I had adopted Hamlet’s second dualist
mentality: realizing that many stressful events shouldn’t matter as much to me, but that I
should oblige and go through with the events anyway. In the end, it doesn’t matter which
mentality you adopt, but critically analyzing Hamlet as a character will help you better
understand who you are. Why does this matter? Polonius states, “This above all: to thine own
self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man”
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Works Cited
Reno, Raymond H. “Hamlet’s Quintessence of Dust.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 12. 2 (Spring,
1961): 107-113. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. (1609). Dover, 2009. Print.
Van Laan, Thomas F. “Ironic Reversal in Hamlet.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900,
6.2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1966): 247-262. Print.