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Metaphysical Doubt in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet and Metaphysical Doubt

A vast tragedy, negating any attempt at a single interpretation, Hamlet is before anything else the drama of a man who does not hesitate to confront his own imperfections and who refuses illusions and idealised appearances:

‘What 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? Man delights not me…’ (Act Two, Scene Two, Arden)

The tragedy, Fluchère tells us, takes place above all in Hamlet’s consciousness, as

all the events which form the play’s framework are reduced to a symbolic representation, to an internal unrest which no action will resolve, and no decision will quell. The deepest theme, masked by that of vengeance, is none other than human nature itself, confronted by the metaphysical and moral problems it is moulded by: love, time, death, perhaps even the principle of identity and quality, not to say ‘being and nothingness’. The shock Hamlet receives on the death of his father, and on the remarriage of his mother, triggers disquieting interrogations about the peace of the soul, and the revelation of the ghost triggers vicious responses to these. The world changes its colour, life its significance, love is stripped of its spirituality, woman of her prestige, the state of its stability, the earth and the air of their appeal. It is a sudden eruption of wickedness, a reduction of the world to the absurd, of peace to bitterness, of reason to madness. A contagious disease which spreads from man to the kingdom, from the kingdom to the celestial vault’:

‘[A]nd indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

The Gravedigger and the Inevitability of Death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet: The Gravedigger and the Inevitability of Death

From the appearance of the Ghost at the start of the play to its bloody conclusion, Hamlet is pervaded with the notion of death. What better site for a comic interlude than a graveyard? However, this scene is not merely a bit of comic relief. Hamlet’s encounter with the gravedigger serves as a forum for Shakespeare to elaborate on the nature of death and as a turning point in Hamlet’s character. The structure and changing mood of the encounter serve to move Hamlet and the audience closer to the realization that death is inevitable and universal.

This encounter is essential to the plot, in that it provides for Hamlet’s return from England and sets the stage for Hamlet’s discovery of Ophelia’s death. It brings Hamlet from the state in which he was able to easily arrange for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to one in which he can feel deep sorrow at the loss of Ophelia. It further grants him a better perspective on the nature of death and on his own fate. Its sharp focus on death further serves to prepare the audience for the conclusion of the play. Up to this point, Hamlet has been an active agent in trying to fulfill his destiny as prescribed by his father’s ghost. His actions were disorganized and his goal continually foiled. For example, his attempt to control the situation renders him incapable of killing Claudius when he is at prayer, since Hamlet wishes to manipulate the circumstances of Claudius’ death so that he is “about some act that has no relish in’t” (III, iv, 91-2). The lesson of the graveyard is that death is inevitable, not contrived. Having learned this lesson, Hamlet is a more passive agent of his own fate and the plot resolves itself. The …

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…e his fate happen. Rather “the readiness is all” and he need only “let be” (V, i, 225; 227). He has answered his famous question “to be, or not to be” with the simple phrase “let be” (III, i, 56; V, i, 227).

The encounter with the gravedigger is clearly a turning point for Hamlet in which he realizes the two truths that are the theme of the play: death is inevitable; death is universal. By thus dramatizing the theme and placing a statement of it on the protagonist’s lips, Shakespeare conveys this message to the audience. The statement of Hamlet’s theme by its main character is borne out in his subsequent speech and actions, bringing about the restoration of order that is the conclusion of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. ca. 1600-1601. Ed. Edward Hubler. A Signet Classic. New York: Penguin Publishers,1963.

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