Curtin 1 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. Curtin 2 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 Curtin 3 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 Curtin 4 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 Curtin 5 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” (1.3). Curtin 6 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.