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Essay on Hamlet – Hamlet’s Preoccupation with Philosophy

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was the first in Shakespeare’s series of problem plays, the tragedies depicting the complications from betrayal, death and love. A common characteristic of all these tragedies was the inability of the main characters to find an optimistic solution despite all their attempts to find definitive answers to the life’s most daunting questions. From the moment Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, he suffers from continuous insecurities and doubts everything, including even the sense of his own existence. Hamlet’s preoccupation with philosophy was Shakespeare’s way to intensify the motifs of doubts and fear in the depicted world and lead the readers to the logical conclusion that there’s no solution to the eternal question ‘to be or not to be’.

Doubting everything, Hamlet can’t act upon his own thoughts and turns to philosophical reasoning as a fruitless attempt to find the truth and make a moral decision in a complicated situation; whereas the process of his philosophical quest becomes one of the central plot lines of the tragedy. The author puts Hamlet into the atmosphere of delusion and uncertainty in which there are no obvious answers and no easy solutions to the moral dilemmas. Understanding his responsibility for the destinies of his loved ones and the fate of the entire state, Hamlet doubts his own perception, and what the main character believes in one scene, he later distrusts in another one. In one episode, he is certain that his father’s ghost came to him demanding revenge, but later on the main character hesitates if it was his father:

The spirit that I have seen 
May be the devil; and the devil hath power 
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps 
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy, 
As he is very potent with such spirits, 
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.600-05.)

The vagueness and the inability to overcome it is Shakespeare’s way to connect the literary reality he’s created with the real life, so that every reader could associate with Hamlet’s inner struggle. Hamlet’s preoccupation with Philosophy is an exaggerated form of typical human search for the truth and an attempt to make moral decisions in situations where they can’t rely on generally accepted moral principles.

Hamlet’s most well-known soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’, which has been given numerous interpretations, is the condensed form of the central philosophical dilemma of the tragedy which further took various shapes in the play. The main meaning of the soliloquy is questioning whether this life is worth living after taking the revenge and seeing its awful consequences. Hamlet thinks of a suicide and the religious aspect is the major factor that prevents him from putting an end to his life. Hamlet weighs up all pros and cons of killing himself, understanding that the afterlife might be even worse than his current situation. Even though Hamlet makes desperate attempts to find a logical and rational explanation to his main question “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (III.i.59-61) There’s no doubt that the main protagonist is thinking of death and the fear of afterlife as well as his doubts whether the life after death is real are among a few factors keeping Hamlet alive. In the different parts of the soliloquy, he seems to give preference to the different solutions. Thus, enumerating the numerous sufferings through which a human has to go, Hamlet makes readers believe that his logical conclusion is to put an end to his miserable life. In the next moment, however, Hamlet considers the uncertainty of something after death, a destination from which nobody returns and rapidly changes his mind. Thus, the central soliloquy of the tragedy as the intense exemplification of Hamlet’s philosophical reasoning clearly demonstrates the main protagonist’s way of thinking and the main philosophical dilemmas of life and death.

Along with the motif of mortality, the question of political justice and politician’s moral code is the corner stone of Hamlet’s philosophy and his picture of life. The death of a king is the starting point of the plot, and the political motifs of the murderer raise an important question of political justice and the responsibility for the fate of the entire nation. The famous words of the guard Marcellus who admits “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” have become a prophecy for the following development of events in the tragedy. Like a foreshadowing for the deaths that followed, this servant was able to feel the atmosphere and make a valid prediction, while the prince’s attempts to find a logical explanation or a philosophical perspective on the situation were fruitless. Thus, a simple and probably uneducated man representing the entire nation outgoes the ruler in wisdom and understanding of the basic principles of life and politics. The inner struggle, preoccupation with philosophy and agonizing doubts of the prince of Denmark symbolize the state of the entire nation who also lack confidence in their future. Even the title of the play emphasizes the origin of the prince and his responsibility for his country and its people. Hamlet’s conscientiousness for the destinies of his compatriots intensifies his uncertainty, which is used by Shakespeare as the main device for unfolding or restraining the events in the tragedy.

Leaving readers without any satisfying answer to the numerous life questions which can be condensed to the brief form of ‘to be or not to be’, Shakespeare gives everyone food for thought and intensifies the dramatic effect of the play. Hamlet’s uncertainty and his preoccupation with Philosophy was the author’s device used for raising the important questions of life and death, revealing the variety of conflicting opinions on them and leading everyone to an important conclusion that there’s no single answer, and the very search for the logical explanation is senseless.