To Be or Not To Be, Despair or Drudgery? - My review of Hamlet
A young(!) Derek Jacobi as Hamlet
Everyone knows a little bit about Hamlet, but I didn’t know how great the play's effect on culture truly was until I began reading it. Immediately, I started recognizing phrases, such as “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, or “To thine own self be true” which I always thought were just old sayings. Not only was it easier to understand than other Shakespearean plays (though, admittedly, the last one I read when I was fifteen), but the story is intriguing and quick-paced. And, also to my surprise, it makes broad true statements about humanity, the Fall, and the futility of revenge.
Hamlet himself is a perfect example. At the beginning of the play, he in a state of hopelessness and desperation. In a nutshell, his father is dead, his mother has married his uncle, and Hamlet ain’t happy about it. Not an enviable state of affairs, but Hamlet’s despair has advanced to the extent that he wishes “the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon ’gainst self-slaughter.” When it is revealed that his father was murdered, Hamlet’s despair ignites into a passionate and near obsessive desire for vengeance. He justifies it to himself by saying that Claudius is a murderer, and in fact, he is just the hand of God meting out justice.
As the play progresses, other characters must deal with that yearning for justice. Ophelia and Laertes are both distraught at the death of their father, to the point that Ophelia goes mad, while her brother, in a red fury, attacks the king’s guards and makes an attempt on the king himself. Unlike Hamlet, he realizes that his revenge is not sanctioned by the Almighty, but disregards it, tempting damnation.
Even Claudius, when he’s alone, feels the terrible burden of guilt and sin, but thinks himself trapped, unable to confess, and unable to make it good. Quite rightly, he sees that there isn’t enough sincerity in his confessions to urge him to abandon his ill-gotten gains, and until there is, he has not surrendered fully, and cannot receive salvation.
Ironically, Hamlet himself has a few lucid moments where he makes clear that there is another way, one which does not end in a vicious cycle of retribution. Almost unconsciously, he is aware that forgiveness is possible. In speaking to Polonius about the players, he says that if everyone receives their just deserts, then “who shall scape whipping?” And at another point, he urges his mother to repent,
“Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker.”
In the end, as Shakespeare no doubt intended, the all-pervading mindset of despair and futility culminates in death. Where there is no hope, there can be no future, and all must resign themselves to one of two options. If one fears “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns,” one must jadedly tread the “stale, flat and unprofitable” world. Or on the other hand, one decides that “not to be” is the answer to the question.
I prefer To Be in what is not a "stale, flate and unprofitable" world - the Kingdom,