Research Papers

Existentialist Question and Prince Hamlet: A Case Study of Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Nabeela Nazish


Existentialism is a philosophical movement that views human existence as having a set of underlying themes and characteristics, such as anxiety, dread, freedom, awareness of death and consciousness of existence. It proposes that man is thrown into space and his life is meaningless. It considers death as a vital source of finding meaning in human life. It also held man responsible of his essence. This paper aims to find existentialist philosophy in Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet” and it will focus mainly upon the character of Prince Hamlet. How different characters are fallen into an unwanted space where they struggle to find meanings of life and failing to find any aim of existence joins hand with death in pursuit of their existence. This paper aims to find out how Shakespeare deals with the question of life and its meaning in his greatest work “Hamlet” and how death becomes most important force of the play.

The research is based upon Existentialist school of thought, the school of Soren Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. This school of thought deals with the most common question of human existence and freedom to choose their will. Existentialist question is as old as philosophy itself and Socrates also pondered over it. This theory deals with human existence and its state in an irrational state of affairs, its efforts to construct an essence in a hostile space and time and role of death in determining the meaning of life. Literary practitioners who followed the movement are Sartre, Albert Camus and Samuel Becket. But the question has been placed a vital importance in literature throughout the history. Great tragic works of Shakespeare are clearly influenced by this question of meanings of life and failure of constructing an essence and meaning leads his heroes to death.

The play opens in a situation where old Hamlet is killed and Claudius has got married with Gertrude. Hamlet is thrown in a situation where he is looking at life a meaningless and absurd thing. He finds it irrational and trying to create some meanings. He expresses his anguish in such words

“O that this to too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the everlasting had not fixed

His cannon giant self-slaughter God! God!

How weary, stale,flat,and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!”(act 1,sc 2)

Hamlet is loosing his faith in world and is unable to understand how customs of the world work.He is full of anguish over hasty marriage of his mother and has lost faith in ideals of chastity,honesty and fidelty. 

“Fie on’t,ah fie,’tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed,things rank and gross in nature”(act 1 sc 2)

Hamlet is suffering from existential dilema and cursing the world and its ways to man.Life of man is a thing of pity where he is in hands of irrational and absurd fate.Hamlet is mourning here and finding himself helpless wishes to get dead to remove this pain of life.Hamlet considers the world a place of filth and woe.Hamlet finds the life and time in chaos and tries to give the time an order.He thinks that by finding an integrated solution of this irrationality will also give his existence an essence.He talks about time and being in such pregnant ways

” The time is out of joint.O cursed spite,   That ever I was born to set it right.”(act 1 scene 5)

Hamlet finds nothing important or in proper business of life.He is sceptical about the upcoming events and anguish arises from his soliliquies and conversations.He tells Polonius that only his existence is a thing of grace that can be given to him.

“You cannot,sir,take from me anything that I will not more willingly part withal-except my life,except my life,except my life.”

(act 2 scene 2)

Hamlet is in a condition same as Viladimir and Estragon faced in “Waiting for Godot”.Out of joint time is waiting for an order and meaning by man but man himself is unable to create his self.Time is still in both cases of Hamlet and Waiting for Godot,it is man who has to take responsibility to create an essence of himself.The play proceeds to complications in conflict and Hamlet’s struggle against the world continues.Sometimes he is utterly lost and sometimes he determines to create an order by punishing the culprits and providing the grieved solace.The murder has created an unjust space and usurping the rights of grieved created a sense of dread and anxiety.Hamlet is facing an existential dilemma under this irrational and unjust world. Hamlet’s existentialist attitude prevails through out the play and his musings make him monster. His soliloquies are embodiment of his internal and external struggle and he exclaims in anguish

 “for there is nothing either

good or bad but thinking makes it so. (Act 2 scene 2)”

The falling structure of medieval life and emerging modern age created a chaos where people like Hamlet standing between the ages couldn’t understand the way to cope with it. They were losing faith in dogmatic notions of original sin and wickedness of man and believe in faculties and secular virtues of man were emerging. Hamlet was unable to understand to get a choice how to react in this irrationality and chaos.His believe in modern sense of justice was hindering his way to impose a duel upon Claudius and his ideals of human fidelty has also broken.He expresses his disappointment in these words

“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

paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence 

of dust? Man delights not me—(act 2 scene 2)

Tragedy of Hamlet is not very different from tragedy of Macbeth and King Lear.Macbeth express his dismay over life and and his misery in a world which signifies nothing and seems to him like a foul’s tale. Gloucestor in King Lear remarks that human beings are just like flies which are killed for sport. The whole play of Hamlet is a complex journey of finding meaning with life and giving it an order. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy of “To be or not to be” shows this dilemma clearly where he can’t adopt a course to achieve his motives.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is tragedy of character and this character fails to find its place in absurdity of life. Finally fighting with this foul life, Hamlet joins death to give some sense of meaning and order to state of things.

Conclusion: After analyzing the character of Hamlet and comparing briefly it with its counterparts like Macbeth and King Lear, we can conclude that existential attitude prevails throughout the play. The protagonist feels himself in irrational time and place and tries to create his destiny but fails to create an order and rationality throughout his life course. Death at last proves to be a source of giving meaning and order to existence of character.

Work Cited:

History of Criticism From Plato to Present-M.A.Rafay 2006,pg26

Hamlet-Critical Study-New Kitab Mahel

Nabeela Nazish is an MA English and M.Ed who currently teaches in Punjab Education Department.
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