Hamlet: The Existential Struggle Of The Main Character

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Shakespeare’s Hamlet essentially explores an individual’s struggle to attain certainty and remain virtuous in a morally ambiguous world. When Hamlet learns the truth of his father’s death, he realizes that his world has transformed into one of deceit and struggles in order to overcome the disintegration and betrayal of his supposedly loyal relationships. He is plunged into a state of melancholy and pessimism, exacerbating his contemplation on humanity and contributing to his struggles in uniting conflicting models of revenge with his Christian values. It is only Hamlet’s realization at the end of his ordeal which allows him to attain a greater insight and a peaceful death; one which is free of disillusionment but with the final acceptance that he cannot control his destiny.

Shakespeare explores Hamlet’s failure to ascertain the truth in his duplicitous world which results in his cynical perception of life. Symptomatic of Claudius’ heinous crime of regicide, the disruption of the Great Chain of Being is evident as Denmark is depicted as innately corrupt. This is depicted through the decaying garden imagery of Denmark as an “unweeded garden”, through this Shakespeare foreshadows the prolific growth of deceit which Hamlet struggles to resist. This widespread treachery is revealed through Claudius’ use of the motif “the harlot’s cheek, beauties with plastering art is not more ugly to the thing that it helps” which indicates that he is aware that his usurpation of power has caused a dissolution in honesty in Elsinore. This is one of the contributing factors to Hamlet’s crisis of conscience due to his inability to gain the epistemological truth, this is revealed through costuming as he is distinguished mourning alone in the court in his “inky cloak”, his black clothing symbolic of his melancholy. A range of adjectives “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” all convey Hamlet’s pessimistic attitude and subsequent contemplation on the futility of life. However, the irony is evident, as Hamlet’s adoption of this “antic disposition” contradicts his own desire for truth as he reverts to the ploy of pretense to disguise his own suspicions. Consequently, Hamlet figuratively varies his integrity, despite recognizing the plausibility of acting to determine Claudius’ reaction to “The Mousetrap” will metaphorically “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” and reveal the truth through the drama. Hence, it is Hamlet’s failure to distinguish the truth in his newly perceived duplicitous world which results in his cynical perception of life and inherent sense of disillusionment.

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Hamlet’s sense of isolation and despair caused by the disintegration of his loyal relationships consequently causes him to question the nature of his existence. Hamlet’s disgust towards his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” results in his contemplation on suicide as he figuratively desires that his “too solid flesh would melt”, in which the image of melting flesh exemplifies the extent of his disillusionment, as suicide was forbidden in Elizabethan England. His struggle to distinguish honest relationships consumes him, evident in his interactions with Ophelia EXAMPLE. The contrast of his initial identity with Ophelia’s perception of Hamlet elucidated through musical imagery “like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh”, conveys his melancholy through the loss of coherency in the disrupted tune of his mind and estrangement from his previous princely identity. This failure to distinguish loyal relationships exacerbates his sense of existentialist angst, inciting his contemplation on the nature of his existence, revealed in his “o what a piece of work is man” monologue as he praises man’s infinite possibilities. Utilizing the simile “like a god”, Hamlet mirrors the humanist belief in the potential of mankind. However, he reflects the transitional period of Shakespeare’s writing from Medievalism to Renaissance Humanism, through his inner struggle to resolve to oppose philosophical ideas. By stating that man is merely the “quintessence of dust”, he embodies counter-humanist views on the degenerate nature of man through his loss of faith in mankind. This shift in his personality from awe of the potential of man to contemplation on the futility of life illuminates the paradoxical nature of Hamlet’s quest for truth as his failure to ascertain epistemological truth of the nature of his existence exacerbates his disillusionment. Therefore, the betrayal of nearly all of the dependent relationships (maybe talk about his relationship btw his mother; father destroyed) in Hamlet’s duplicitous world plunges him into a state of existentialist angst as he is unable to determine that nature of his existence and attain certainty.  


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