What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2)
About a month after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, Shakespeare was born, and the ideals of Renaissance humanism flowed from one creative genius to another. In this monologue from Hamlet, Shakespeare poignantly praises the wondrous power of humanity, matching Michelangelo's humanist portrayal in The Creation of Adam, where Adam and God float in almost the same plane.
Shakespeare's character Hamlet, however while acknowledging the infinite power and beauty of humankind, is suicidal and desperate, and cannot comprehend his own wretched state of existence. This astonishing play leaves 17th century Renaissance and catapults into 20th century anomie and moral relativism: Hamlet declares sarcastically, "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," but in his tormented view, corruption has poisoned everything; he is suicidal and the world seems "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." And while the notorious "To be or not to be" speech begins with a contemplation of suicide, it ends with questioning the very purpose of taking action, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue and resolution /Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pitch and moment/ With this regard their currents turn awry /And lose the name of action."
As with most of Shakespeare's plays, the story from Hamlet had appeared in an earlier work, a simple revenge story called The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. In this play, a the wife of a man murdered by his brother marries the murderer while her son plots revenge by feigning madness. Shakespeare of course, has the reputation of taking your average popular story and turning it into a staggering work of genius. From a standard story of a son's revenge, albeit with feigned madness as a ploy, Shakespeare incarnates a densely dysfunctional family whose darkest secrets will never be told. Indeed, Shakespeare eliminates not only the answers, but the questions. Hamlet is in despair, wishing his own flesh would dissolve, obsessed with his mother's sexuality and "incestuous" relationship with his uncle. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead father, whom he reveres and fears, feeling that he himself is a "rogue" and a "slave", a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal". Why can't he avenge his father? Why did his mother remarry so quickly? Why is he so deeply depressed?
As readers, we need to find the darker questions: Why is Hamlet so repulsed by female sexuality? Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed her husband? What are the "black and grained spots" on her soul? What truths does she refuse to uncover? What memories must Hamlet erase about his past life? What secret is it that he must never tell? Indeed, "the rest is silent" at the end of the play, as this story is buried with Hamlet. The psycho-sexual aspects of this play alone seem so shockingly modern. The story of a family torn by possible sexual abuse, suppressed memories, denial, emotional trauma, mental illness and tragic lack of validation for the victim is not only a work of genius in a time before modern psychology, but it is a courageous and astoundingly insightful narrative through which we might see in Hamlet's mirror our own dark traumas, perhaps come to understand the unspoken and denied secrets of ourselves and others, and as Hamlet pleas, uncover the poison within. In the play, these many dark secrets poison all of Denmark.
For actors, English teachers, intellectuals and literary critics, touching Hamlet is a milestone of accomplishment. All literary critics must tackle this play, all actors strive to play this role, as soul sucking as it might be. Philosophers such as Nietzsche are drawn to him. Everyone wants to claim a bit of Hamlet. He has been described as an existentialist, a Buddhist, a Christian. He has been psychoanalyzed by Freud himself and others as being Oedipal. Lately, he has been diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. The play has been called a dark comedy. And, as Harold Bloom points out, someone who is reactionary, paranoid, angry, brooding, abusive and suicidal -- really is NOT a very nice person. So why do we forgive him? Why is he so bewilderingly seductive and sympathetic? At the end of the play are our hearts with Horatio's as he watches this extraordinarily troubled young man die and cries, "Goodnight, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
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