The Existential Hero: Hamlet Essay

1018 words - 4 pages

To be without value or meaning permits the violation of norm behavioral standards. Existentialism is championed in the responsibility and free will of man. The world is utterly “worthless, meaningless, empty, and hopeless, … to use a favorite Existentialism, absurd”(Ross 1). A man must become unconventional by supplying an authentic meaning to life. Shakespeare’s character Hamlet in the play Hamlet, explores these existential principles as he seeks truth and understanding after his father’s murder. He attempts to establish order in a chaotic world full of betrayal, spying, and death. This leads to Hamlet’s inevitable downfall and the death of those close to him. Hamlet rises as the existential hero in Shakespeare’s Hamlet through his confrontation with moral responsibilities and the purpose of life. The existential ideal gives structure and meaning to the action of Hamlet.
Hamlet is a conflicted character. He is maddened by his father’s, the King of Denmark, murder and his mother’s, Queen Gertrude, untimely marriage to his uncle, King Claudius, who is also his father’s murderer. It is a tangled web of lies, death, and duplicity that Hamlet lives in. “Denmark [certainly] is a prison” for him (II.2.262). Hamlet becomes withdrawn in the play, no longer having an enthusiastic and playful demeanor. His relationship with his mother is destroyed, he denounces Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Ophelia, and he becomes estranged with society as he feigns insanity. He is the quintessential character for Jean Paul Sartre’s existential principle that “Hell is other people.” Ultimately, Hamlet’s nature completely changes. He states to Guildenstern that as “of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition” (II.2.318-321). One can only describe him as “sensitive, irritable, wildly passionate, yet loving and longing” and most importantly “heart-broken” (Williamson 94). Yet, as Claude C. H. Williamson argues in “Hamlet”, if a man is so naturally devoted like this to a cause, then he is “a man made to be loved and honoured” (94). Hamlet’s “intellectual keenness in deceiving, in feigning madness, in discovering the plans [and reading the intentions] of his enemies, … shows him the master of every form of subjective intelligence” (Snider 82). Hamlet’s blatant authenticity, however, ruins even his closest relationships and challenges his moral obligations.
Shakespeare was practicing existential principles in his plays before Sartre and Kierkegaard came along. Theodor Meron, in his essay “Crimes and Accountability in Shakespeare,” states that “the play [Hamlet] show[s] the resilience of the concept of accountability, which Shakespeare refers to in both secular and spiritual sense” (2). The character Hamlet exercises the existential principle that “one is responsible for all the consequences of one’s actions” (Ross 1). Hamlet is always trying to do the right thing; he is...

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