Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hamlet, Skepticism, and the Rest of the Gang

Hamlet portrays an extreme example of skepticism in that Hamlet himself can never seem to make up his mind about anything. The classical view of humanism, especially as demonstrated by Montaigne is that man need only but turn inward to find the answers to his problems. Yet, no matter how inwardly focused our seemingly determined Hamlet finds himself, he never takes a determinate course of action.

Shakespeare (or to whomever we wish to give the credit) points out through Hamlet’s constant indecision that this simplistic view of humanism is probably just that: too simplistic. For example, when Hamlet first learns of the “most foul and unnatural” murder (what form of murder isn’t foul and unnatural, by the way?) of his father he swears to avenge the dastardly deed and then causes his associates to swear that they will reveal the vision or anecdote to no one. Ironically, however, although Hamlet starts out with a firm resolve to avenge his father’s murder, he waivers throughout the play and even grows unsure of himself (which is telling as well because the classical Greek understanding of drama is that action is the principal motif or virtue, as it were). This uncertainty is also ironic as Hamlet constantly flaunts himself as superior to others throughout the play. Take for example, when he mocks Polonius (especially when he runs him through and essentially labels him as a meddling fool), Ophelia (“Get thee to a nunnery!” and how he chides her about his lying in her lap), his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who, like Polonius, get a more malign and exacting treatment than that of both Ophelia and the Queen (in that the former are physically executed at his orders), to name but a few.

Hamlet declares that “the play’s the thing” which will spur him to action, but in the end, it’s not his own inward voice or deductions that tell him to act but the simple fact that he’s about to die and has only two alternatives: take revenge or die a failure.

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