“To be or not to be,” that is the question you have undoubtedly heard and associate with one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works, Hamlet. This play contains so many memorable lines that it is continually referenced in and serves as the inspiration for films, books, and plays (try watching The Lion King with this in mind). The timelessness of Hamlet lies in the depth of its plot, the complexity of its characters and Shakespeare’s mastery in portraying the universal facets of the human condition.
Hamlet is set in Denmark between 1300-1499 and is believed to be based on a Norse legend. The play’s central focus is the royal family, specifically Prince Hamlet, the son of the recently deceased king. Hamlet begins as an introverted, depressed character who spends much of the play delivering existential soliloquies. He is extremely troubled by suspicions that his uncle Claudius, now the king, killed his father in order to marry Gertrude, his mother. These suspicions are confirmed when the ghost of the former king appears to Hamlet, urging him to revenge his murder. Instead of directly killing Claudius, Hamlet creates an elaborate and ineffective scheme requiring him to feign insanity and put on a play to prove the king’s guilt.
When this fails the body count begins to rise. Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, commits suicide when he accidentally stabs her father through a curtain, incurring the wrath of her brother, Laertes. In the meantime Claudius decides that Hamlet knows too much and puts him on a boat to England where he is to be executed. Instead, pirates take over the ship and Hamlet manages to have his escorts killed in his place. He then returns to Denmark where all hell breaks loose. Hamlet finally avenges his father’s murder by killing Claudius, but not before Claudius allows Gertrude to be poisoned by mistake, Laertes mortally wounds Hamlet, Hamlet kills Laertes and nearly all the major characters die. Then, just to top it off, a foreign army captures the palace and takes control of Denmark.
One of the central themes in Hamlet is the opposition of action and passivity. Hamlet spends much of his time thinking about his revenge in the abstract, and it can be argued that only Claudius would have died if Hamlet was more direct about his murders. Despite the fact that he spends a significant amount of time thinking about action, Hamlet’s early attempts to take control of his life seem to lack good planning. He has no clear course of action for actually murdering Claudius and ends up killing the wrong person in a fit of violence. The fact that Hamlet’s victim was stabbed through a curtain suggests that Hamlet is still uncomfortable with actually carrying out his revenge and lacks the conviction necessary to face the magnitude of his actions. In this way Shakespeare reveals his belief that simply thinking about something is not enough to ensure its realization. Commitment is an essential element of successful action. No matter how thoroughly Hamlet debates his options, nothing really comes of his intentions until he fully commits himself to his plan, accepting that human life is limited.
The existential ideas presented in Hamlet are thought-provoking largely because they focus on the uncertainties of both life and death. During the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy Hamlet questions whether it is better to live with the troubles of life, of which he is aware, or to commit suicide and face the unknown. Hamlet is no more able to predict that killing Ophelia’s father will drive her insane and cause her to commit suicide than he is to say anything certain about the afterlife or lack thereof. This uncertainty is heightened by the appearance of the ghost. The one character able to say something definitive about death focuses instead on the living world, suggesting that even he is unable to understand the complexity of the afterlife. He cannot say whether it is better to be alive or dead, only knowing that the events of his life were unjust. The world functions with a certain level of entropy and the future is just as nebulous a concept as death itself.
The issues explored in Hamlet will be relevant as long as people are around to live, die, and think about living and dying. Shakespeare boldly portrays human beings as they truly are: complex, imperfect, and temporary. He probes deep into the human condition and makes his readers, regardless of age, nationality, and even the century in which they live, ponder the same unanswerable questions and experience the same myriad of emotions. In many ways Hamlet transcends death, one of the major themes of the play, simply by inspiring the creation of so many other works. For Hamlet the rest has been a resounding cry from readers rather than silence.