In the last post I gave a brief synopsis of the play. Now I would like to begin addressing its importance for us.
In many respects, Prince Hamlet is the most human character I have ever encountered in literature. Although of royal lineage, he is in many respects an everyman who is called upon to respond to a world I think he would prefer to ignore; just as we have little choice in our engagement with the world as we mature, neither does Hamlet.
Although the play begins less than two months after the death of his father, there is much to suggest Hamlet had a rather idealized, innocent life prior to that traumatic event. We can infer this from the shock and despair permeating his first soliloquy in which the melancholy Dane says, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" “In other words, he wishes he were dead. But his disaffection and disappointment with the world goes deeper: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” In fact, he wishes it were not against God’s law to kill himself. Here is a young man, reacting with despair to two events: his father’s unexpected death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle, a man young Hamlet sees as vastly inferior to his father. Both events have shaken his faith in the world and in human nature, leading the Prince to see the world no longer as Eden-like, but as “an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely.”
Perhaps the most painful revelation for Hamlet is the fact that his parents’ marriage was not the utopian union he had imagined: “Why, she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on and yet, within a month - …married with my uncle/ My father’s brother … O most wicked speed: to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets…” So there we have it, revelations of unpalatable realities: love that was a sham and a hasty and incestuous remarriage.
If we were to view this part of the play allegorically, we could see it as the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood. The world poses challenges to all of us in its imperfections. How we respond to those imperfections is ultimately a measure of our character. Do we turn our backs on them and seek oblivion in one form or another? Or do we confront the challenges and engage with the world? That is Hamlet’s challenge, and it is also ours.
While this brief examination of an important idea hardly does justice to the theme, I hope it gives you at least a hint of how it resonates with the human condition. In my next post, I will continue discussing this and related themes of the play.