Shakespeare’s Hamlet Analysis: Socrates, Nietzsche, Absurdity, Art, Politics

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Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. The latter, perhaps, wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart.
-Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche

The artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but it is meaningless or even destructive among intimates.

-The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett

Introduction – I’ve read Hamlet three times over the past four months and have watched multiple productions, resulting in about twenty pages of scribbles that keep biting the dust because I’m always left with the impression that it’s not good enough. That I’ve missed the meaning. Only by including the lessons from Socrates and Nietzsche do I feel like I’ve arrived at a more solid understanding of Hamlet that goes beyond whether or not Gertrude was involved in King Hamlet’s murder or the exact degree to which Fortinbras’s situation reflects Hamlet’s. To focus on these things is to miss the poignant and timeless beauty.

Hamlet, Socrates, and Nietzsche – Hamlet illustrates how rationality can lead to irrationality. He has gazed too deeply into this life, swung from the stars, and maybe even spoke to a figure from the underworld in the form of his father’s ghost, and in the process he has failed to observe the ancient Greek principle of “Everything in Moderation.”

The popular analysis of our timeless Prince is that he resists the corruption of the surrounding world, but there’s evidence to the contrary. Did he not murder without cause? Did he not hurt Ophelia? Did he not also play the part of actor, leading people to believe things that are not true? He is only human “all too human.” In other words, Hamlet is a figure, like Socrates who uses his reason, but this reason also leads to tragedy, and, paradoxically, irrationality. Together these two figures illustrate the fallacy in thinking that we can always use the power of deduction to arrive at true understanding, let alone a positive outcome.

Nietzsche’s Dionysian Man is also paralyzed by superior knowledge. Along with Hamlet, they’ve come to realize that the world has been set into motion long before their birth and will continue long after they are gone. They’ve viscerally grasped their own impotence and unimportance, qualities belonging to everybody’s existence. In Hamlet’s words: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” Another example (and one of the play’s most underrated passages) is is when the watchmen are talking about the futility of stabbing a ghost:
We do it wrong, being so majestical
To offer it the show of violence,
For it is, as the air, invulnerable,
And our vain blows malicious mockery
.

That’s what people do on a daily basis. Chase ghosts, or waterfalls, if you want to use the poetic imagery of some of the finest minds in the 1990’s.

Our first reaction to the realization of our own powerlessness is depression, but Dionysian man has instead learned to laugh at this absurdity—levity through wisdom. What defines the superman (aka overman) is that he becomes a spectator rather than a participant in the divine comedy, and from then on his participation in the theater of life can be joyous rather than a burden. So whereas “Know Thyself” is the ancient Greek command associated with Socrates, Nietzsche would seem to say, “Know thy World. Then Laugh at it.”

But how can a person arrive at this conclusion, let alone carry out the prescription? In fact, it wasn’t enough for either Nietzsche, Socrates, or Hamlet/Shakespeare to simply accept that life was absurd; they attained catharsis through an art form.

Absurdity and Art- Art is the response to un-intelligibility, lack of knowledge, and absurdity. In Socrates’ final moments, it appears he realized he was not as wise as he had previously thought because he had used his system of logic to deem art meaningless. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that while imprisoned in his final hours a vision came to him in a dream and commanded him to compose a song. He seems to have realized that “ like a barbarian king, he had failed to comprehend the nature of a divine effigy, and was in danger of offending his own god through ignorance.” The principal question that dominated his thoughts in these last hours was, ostensibly, “Have I been too ready to view what was unintelligible as being devoid of meaning?”

But I disagree with Nietzsche in his belief that this must have been a profound epiphany. Socrates had been practicing the art of acting for years, with the end goal of mocking the human pretension around him. Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil writes: “what did he do all his life but laugh at the awkward incapacity of the noble Athenians, who were men of instinct…and could never give satisfactory answers concerning the motives of their actions?” Thus, he was not a stranger to art, and deception, but in these earlier times he had not yet realized the inability of logic to arrive at an understanding of all facets of life. In other words, “there’s more things in heaven and earth, Socrates, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Meanwhile, we first meet Hamlet when he’s wearing mourning clothes and moping around the castle. He rejects what he perceives as people’s falsity when they adopt all the trappings of grief, but are not actually aching from the heart. Contrast this with Claudius who perceives this refusal to act as “A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, / To reason most absurd.”

But, just like the divine dream coming to Socrates a time of great need, a parallel occurrence happens to Hamlet when he’s visited by his father’s ghost. We don’t get to witness his thought process, but sometime fairly immediately after speaking with his dead father, he realizes how useful art can be. Through his art (acting), like Socrates, he reveals the world. His feigned madness holds a mirror up to those around them and forces them to gaze upon their own wretched image. We get to see his fake insanity contrasted with the legitimate ravings of Ophelia, Claudius as the legitimate king when in fact he’s a murderous usurper, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playing the part of friend, etc. But, again like our famous Athenian, he also viscerally realizes he’s a part of the same faulty humanity, the same play. He may use art to escape the rigid rationality of his mind, but he cannot escape the Theatrum Mundi.

Socrates also refused to “play the game,” leading to his rejection by society, though this wasn’t perceived as insanity. The other Athenians realized that he was, in fact, breaking down their social structures, and so they accused him of corrupting the youth. A very similar theme is seen in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But I think Nietzsche, and perhaps Shakespeare, would argue that this stage of artfulness is only Phase 2 of 3 on the path to wisdom because at this point, while you can mock the absurdity of life, you’re still unable to laugh at it. Why do I think Shakespeare would have taken this viewpoint as well? Firstly, his tragedies are always extremely balanced. While he can understand the emotions of a character like Romeo or Hamlet, both of whom are deeply depressed at times, he remains detached. There’s an element of him not taking these figures as seriously as they take themselves. I’ll never know the true workings of his mind, unless my “Five People I Want to Meet in Heaven” list works out, but this is my best guess.

But neither Socrates or Hamlet ever got a chance to live out Phase 3 because their lives were cut short, though not against their will. Hamlet had managed to finally kill Claudius, was content with the thought that Fortinbras will become the next king, and exchanged words of absolution with Laertes. Compared with his earlier apprehension and inaction, reaching its height in his infamous “to be or not to be” speech, this is character growth; Socrates willingly killed himself to avoid a worse fate, having reconciled himself with the arts. Considering how heavily influenced Shakespeare was by Montaigne, I can only imagine Montaigne’s phrase “to philosophize is to learn to die” flickering through his mind as he wrote Hamlet.

Interestingly, though in his earlier days Nietzsche was considered one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century, his own mental health later deteriorated. It would be fascinating if we learned that the madness at the end of his life was feigned (seeing that he was familiar with Hamlet), but it’s likely that he really did begin to believe in and worship the god Dionysus, among other things. Nietzsche and Hamlet both looked too long at Medusa’s face and were never quite the same. And while art can serve as a temporary refuge from this world, in the end it doesn’t quite redeem it because it’s only a fiction.

Politics – As do other of Shakespeare’s plays like Julius Caesar and King Lear, Hamlet has an overt message about the fears inherent in royal succession. Claudius is the classic usurper-king who’s struggling to hold Denmark together, though the people obviously are discontented. Those at court behave falsely toward him, making him seem more an actor than a legitimate king, and those in the countryside are quick to get behind Laertes and declare that he should be the new king only 2 months into his reign. This is not to mention that within his own family, there’s one, Hamlet, who wishes to see him dead. Things were rotten in the state of Denmark, that is for sure.

But most interestingly, it’s hinted at the end that Fortinbras will be the next king once the other options are dead. Fortinbras has some character traits that Hamlet and Claudius do not: while King Hamlet was a warrior king, Claudius is clearly not; he’s more of the slimy courtier type. Hamlet, on the other hand, clearly does not have the decisiveness or firmness needed to rule an entire kingdom, and admires these qualities in Fortinbras. But though it might make Hamlet happy to see Fortinbras ascend to the throne, this actually means that Denmark has passed into foreign hands. Traditionally when a ruler has no direct ties to a people, this can head to tyranny. It would seem, then, that King Hamlet’s death was the end of an era, and after his death begin a period of corruption and anarchy which only ended with a dictator-like man to step in and restore order. Viva la revolucion!

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