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Humanism in Hamlet Essay

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Humanism in Hamlet Essay

To refer to the term `humanism' we are directed to the Renaissance period and a very imprecise definition of its exact meaning. This is mainly because it is a very complex word in which to attach a single definition to. Therefore we have to look at it in the context in which we are seeking to analyse. To sum up `humanism' with respect to Hamlet refers to human nature and `the dignity of humanity. The Renaissance was a period which broke away from medieval thoughts and values that were now thought to be overly religious and constrictive and formed new ideas that focused upon the individual; in effect the birth of humanism and humanist thought. Medieval thinking that claimed that `the sinful, bestial aspects of humanity, which called for treating the present life as a cesspool of temporary evil that humans must reject through ascetic practices in preparation for the afterlife' contrasted greatly with the humanist thought of viewing the present life as a worthwhile event. With these new humanist thoughts it could have been possible to push religion to the side line in favour of `the potential of human beings than to the reliance of human beings on God'. In fact humanists did not completely reject God, especially considering the strength of the Catholic Church at this time, but they focused upon individuals in this life rather than the next. However, to much extent they did discard the idea of the afterlife or at least they did not concern themselves with the preparation for death.

Hamlet was undeniably an `archetype', he was a common representative of life at the time of the Renaissance, he was `everyman' but to refer to Hamlet as an archetypal humanist, we first must look at Shakespeare himself as a humanist. Of course he was heavily influenced by the classical and Renaissance ideas of `reason and of mankind and human individualism' but Shakespeare did not ever dismiss religion as untrue or the belief in God as unimportant, so in many cases he could not be entitled a proper humanist. In fact in many of Shakespeare's plays the characters often believe in devils, ghosts and witches, beliefs that were familiar and very common at this time. In this respect Hamlet has attributes of both a humanist and Renaissance man, and is simply a product of his time who is caught between medieval thoughts and new found moral choices that can be made for human, rather than religious reasons. This idea is important to dwell upon, as it seems to create a contradiction. How can Hamlet be both a medieval and a Renaissance man? Being born into a world in which religious beliefs are stamped upon him and then being faced with new thoughts that allow him to question the mere existence of humanity creates an immense inconsistency for this character. This is mirrored throughout the play as we follow Hamlet on his journey through his conscience, his `antic disposition' and what he believes is right and wrong.

Hamlet is a very famous Shakespearean protagonist but he is possibly not what we would expect from Shakespeare's leading role. In his soliloquies we are given insight into the doubts and uncertainties within Hamlet's life and we are expected to empathise with his dilemmas and moral choices. The play then turns around and we discover that it is not simply a Shakespearean tragedy or a revenge play but it is much more complex and sub-textually we can read much further into the actions of Hamlet and some of the characters around him. By doing so we can build up a picture of whether Hamlet truly was an archetypal humanist or whether he simply carried some of the initial qualities and thoughts of humanist thinking which he over ruled with traditional principles. To come to this conclusion we must, throughout, return to look at the contradictions within this play and establish whether or not this would allow us to make one final irrefutable answer to the statement, `Hamlet is the archetypal liberal humanist' or is he simply just toying with the ideas?

A good example concerning many of the issues I have discussed previously is that of the ghost of Hamlet's father. This is a major contradiction in the play in a number of ways but it is also the first major swing towards humanism that we can pinpoint upon Hamlet. His `excessive mourning' over the death of his father is a trait of humanism but it seems to be overshadowed by his use of `biblical language' which `denounce the biblical ethic' and also the request the ghost is making upon Hamlet. The ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his murder stating that it is `Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/ But this most foul, strange and unnatural.' It is viewed as unnatural as it is the murder of a brother and it was murder for reasons such as envy and for gain. In fact the ghost is of great contradiction and especially in this case of Act 1 Scene 5 where his reasons for persuading Hamlet to kill Claudius are very illogical. He claims that he exists in purgatory and is `confined to fast in fires,/Til the foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away.' The ghost highlights the unspeakable horrors that purgatory holds but yet, he still expects Hamlet to seek revenge on his murderer and therefore predetermine his own fate and reside in the same end as his father. Hamlet agrees to `wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/ That youth and observation copied there, / And thy commandment all alone shall live'. It seems the ghost has ordered a certain amount of justice but Hamlet himself has used his own intellect in deciding what to do; this is evidently a very humanist approach. He cares for the welfare of others which is why he cannot simply act on such a cold hearted impulse, he ponders on the consequences of his actions displaying yet more contradictions in the play. This aspect of his humanism is apparent by the way he must ensure that Claudius is truly guilty before he murders him and therefore that the ghost is not evil and intent on deceiving him. The ghost poses many questions and contradictions within the play as it is really representative of the fate and destiny that Hamlet has before him and also important in highlighting the right and wrong of Hamlet's potential decisions.

Shakespeare is famous for his use of soliloquies to articulate the character's emotions at the time. Looking in depth at some of Hamlet's soliloquies gives us a very apparent insight into his humanist views and of course his `ante-humanist' views as well. In Act 2 Scene 2, although not a soliloquy, Hamlet is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and seems to express his humanist views almost exactly:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble

in reason, how infinite in faculties, 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?

It is important to look at this speech and Hamlet's views on humankind as he builds up `an elaborate and glorified picture of the earth and humanity before declaring it all merely a “quintessence of dust.”' In fact Hamlet continues to glorify the whole of humanity and heighten the greatness of human beings, only to end with a physical representation of death, as humankind merely as dust. Ending on this representation of death also highlights how Hamlet claims `that we are no more than part of a continuing cycle in which we are born from and return to the earth, no greater or less than any other creature'. He also seems to be stating that humankind's great qualities seem to have no true immense effect upon the world. This significant question is also asked again in Act 4 Scene 4 where Hamlet's apprehension of being unable to find the answer becomes even clearer and he states `What is a man,/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.' Although this is a rhetorical question it emphasises the uncertainties within Hamlet's mind and how he is anxious to uncover the answer. We are also directed to a comparison between man and beast and what separates us, the obvious difference being that we have a conscience and an ability to think, learn, love and be honourable. God gave Hamlet and human's reason and Hamlet expresses how he can use it, although it is clearly full of contradictions. We see a return to medieval thinking as Hamlet states that his thoughts will “be bloody, or be nothing worth” because “honours at the stake”. He is torn between the two worlds where once again honour is introduced but we are forced to ask ourselves do Hamlet's actions contradict his words, it is an example of “Shakespeare showing that what someone says is not always what he believes”. In fact at such a time when what was not understood was generally discarded, we can see that Hamlet's thinking and understanding leads him no where, especially at this point in the play.

As well as Hamlet's words not necessarily being what he believes we are also faced with many examples of Hamlet's words contradicting his actions. Indeed there is an inconsistency between Hamlet's words and actions as he often decides what he will do and then decides against it. This is evident in the universally famous speech “To be, or not to be” where we face many problems in examining Hamlet as a humanist, especially his essentially humanist interpretation of death:

“To die, to sleep -

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to… To die, to sleep -

To sleep, perchance to dream”

Hamlet is debating whether death is truly the end of life or whether it is the beginning of something much more frightening that we can never know. Traditionally humanists do not believe in the afterlife, which before now we suspect Hamlet does not. However, this is the first display of Hamlet's fear of the afterlife and these deeply embedded thoughts prevent him from seeking revenge on his uncle because he knows what is right and what is wrong. The afterlife is a deeply religious thought and it is interesting to point out that the only other character that seems to concern himself with this thought is, ironically, Claudius. At points throughout the play Claudius attempts to prey, but cannot because he cannot repent, he only tries to receive forgiveness because of his fear of the afterlife. We are faced with the idea that only God can take life and decide the fate of man, which is also mirrored in Hamlet's intended actions. Does Hamlet have the right to decide who can live? It is almost as if to deny fate being carried out is a sin in itself.

The theme of fate and destiny within Hamlet is very noteworthy as it a great source of contradictions against the idea of free-will. Common humanist thinkers suggest that fate does exist but it is in our own interest to control it and deny it from becoming reality. As previously discussed, Hamlet does have many early humanist views, tainted with traditional medieval views and he is definitely a character struggling to deal with destiny and fate. However, Shakespeare is not the only playwright to examine these ideas as in the renowned Hamlet rewriting, `Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' Tom Stoppard unmistakably poses these difficult questions. Although this play only focuses upon two outsider characters it does follow the chronological order of Shakespeare's Hamlet and it does address many of the same themes, although they appear much simpler. The idea of free will and fate is one of the first contemplations within the play starting even as early as looking at the title. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do die at the end of Hamlet, that is their fate and they do not try to alter it or re-write it; they accept it, unlike Hamlet. Stoppard also examines the idea of the play within a play but in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead we meet the players outside of performance and they discuss with Guildenstern how they `take our chances where we find them'. This leads to a staccato discussion, using words of no more than one syllable, about chance and fate and the player concludes `It could hardly be one without the other'.

Humanism affects Hamlet in a number of different ways throughout the play, mainly because he displays his options to choose between right and wrong and creates his decisions using his intellect. His individual thought allows him to form these decisions but it this fatal flaw? All humans are fallible for many different reasons and it seems that in Hamlet's quest for further knowledge and he search to answer unanswerable questions, he finds his downfall. However, Hamlet is an archetypal liberal humanist embodying the ongoing argument of the Renaissance man versus the medieval man, and therefore we can conclude that Hamlet is simply a product of his time.