Life is absurd. We are born into a world without a clear reason and we must play silly little games and perform trivial roles in order to be accepted into said world. And, in the end, we disappear. Our existence dissolves into nothingness, and we spend much of our time alive attempting to come to terms with our own eventual lack of existence; in itself a fruitless act. The tools of our existence, our minds, cannot conceive of their nonexistence. These are the problems that pestered the philosophers of the Existentialist movement of the mid-twentieth century, including thinkers such as Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. While this movement was the first to put a name to this philosophical query, they were far from the first to be haunted by these facts of life. Since the birth of humanity, we have wondered about the purpose of life on earth. Religions were born out of this very question. They tell us how we came to be, why we exist, what happens when we cease to live. In many ways, we can see religions of all forms attempting to soothe the existential dread of generations of mortals. Artists have also grappled with existentialism in their works. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written hundreds of years before Sartre or Camus were born, gives us a surprisingly detailed look into the ways in which existential dread may drive one to insanity from the lack of answers to our most pressing questions. Through the play’s exploration of death, identity, and the meaning of life, Hamlet sheds light on Existential quandaries centuries before the philosophers of the movement put pen to paper.
Hamlet begins with death. The play takes place after the former King Hamlet has died and been replaced on the throne by his brother and begins while watchmen discuss the appearance of a ghost resembling the late king who has been returning to the castle every night. Immediately, the audience is confronted with the most prominent of existential anxieties: Death. Additionally, when the audience first meets Hamlet, he is adorned in all black, still mourning the death of his father while the rest of the court attempts to move on from the death of their king. If everyone around him can move on from the death, why is Hamlet, other than his specific grief of losing a parent perhaps, unable to find closure while even his mother has moved on? It is because Hamlet is the only person who, in the passing of his father and the accession of his uncle to the throne, has been confronted with the idea that his own identity—something that he was told was his destiny his entire life and something he has set his own understanding of himself around—is not his natural right. Hamlet grew up knowing that once his father died, he would become king. He understands himself through his position as a future heir. However, once his uncle usurps the throne, Hamlet must grapple with the idea that being king is not the natural core of his identity. In Existentialist philosophy, it is noted that identity is something we craft for ourselves because of our circumstances. We form it around what we believe the meaning of our life is. However, we tell ourselves that our identity, or the one we’ve created for ourselves, is natural to our existence and not a matter of circumstances. For example, when an athlete gets a career-ending injury, they are faced with an existential crisis. What do they do now that they are unable to do the thing they told themselves they were born to do? Hamlet is placed in this very same predicament. While lamenting his mother’s marriage to his father he states: “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer —married with my uncle,/… She married. O, most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,”1 Plainly we can see this passage as Hamlet being horrified by how quickly his mother married his uncle after the death of his father. But I believe this scene can also be read through an existential lens. Hamlet, in dreading his mother’s change in identity, is also dreading how his own identity has been challenged since his father’s death. With wicked speed and dexterity, he was pushed away from the role he was born to fill. What is he to do now? Further, as Hamlet focuses more and more on death, we see the play grappling with the idea of mortality and the end of it.
Almost immediately, Hamlet expresses his desires for death and to kill himself. It begins with Hamlet saying he would kill himself were it not for God’s “canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”; however, as the play progresses his desire for death continues as does his fear of it.2 In his famous monologue, Hamlet says:
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
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep
It is quite interesting that Hamlet chooses the phrase “to be” to refer to being alive. To exist or not to exist, that is the question. Hamlet goes on to say:
the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn,
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of?4
Hamlet is dealing with the horrors of living and existing. He is suffering immensely in life, but he cannot bring himself to kill himself. Is it better to live and suffer or to plunge one’s self into the unknown? There is something in the finality of death that scares Hamlet. It is the end of ends. From where “no traveler returns.” In Existentialism, the idea of mortality is horrifying. Not simply because we die. But because in life, we must know we are alive; we can understand we are alive and in doing so our aliveness must understand that it will cease. Our mind knows that eventually, it will not be anymore, however, the mind cannot conceive of its own lack of existence. As the play progresses, Hamlet begins to wonder: What does it matter what we do in life?
Toward the end of the play, after Hamlet has murdered Polonius and been deemed mad by many members of the court, Hamlet goes to a graveyard. There he begins interacting with the skeletal remains of anonymous bodies. At first, he picks up a random skull and imagines what the decaying remains might have done in their life. He ponders: “Or of a courtier, which could say ‘Good mor-/ row sweet lord! How dost though, sweet lord?’”5 Existentialists often talk about how, as humans, we hold a ton of importance on rituals and actions that are, in the grand scheme of things, rather silly and futile. For example, in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the protagonist wakes one morning to find out that he has become a giant beetle. However, his biggest concern is how he can make it to work on time while adjusting to his new form. He is still possessed by the rituals and etiquette of the human realm. In Hamlet’s graveyard scene, it seems as though Hamlet is expressing these same sentiments. At one point, these greetings and formalities would have been very important in the body’s life, however, in death Hamlet makes fun of these same formalities. Further, Hamlet begins to contemplate how eventually, everyone will die, even men such as Alexander the Great. “Alexander died, Alexander was buried,/ Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam.”6 In this scene, the major existential themes of the play come together. Identity and Mortality. Hamlet realizes that in life, it does not matter, in the grand scheme of things, what one does, what role one served, or the identities one held close. In death, we turn to dust and from dust the earth rebuilds itself, recycling life. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet was faced with a crisis of identity. Who is he if not the King? It is these contradictions, life’s lack of meaning yet our inability to view what we do in life as meaningless that causes these moments of existential dread. Now, Hamlet begins to realize that whether or not he is king does not matter. Death comes for everyone, and in death, we are all equal.
It would be easy to say that the existential message behind Hamlet is that life is meaningless. It would also be easy to interpret the Existentialists’ overarching philosophy in the same light. However, I think the message is more positive than that. Hamlet, in stripping away the illusions of identity and legacy, can realize that life’s meaning does not come from cosmic or godly grace, but from within one’s contentment. If there is no greater meaning to life, then the only meaning possible is our own happiness and comfort. Hamlet does not have to suffer in his life because of his position or perceived identity, it is possible for him to change the way he lives his life in order to find happiness. Earlier, Hamlet questions whether he must live in suffering or kill himself. However, he fails to consider a third option. Hamlet’s suffering is contextualized by the roles he thinks he has to play and the identity he thinks is naturally his. However, by understanding that these aspects of life and society are simply constructed and have no natural weight, Hamlet would be able to free himself from suffering.