Hamlet pertains to everything--everything in life that is most essential, if we are willing to look beyond our ordinary existence into the "extraordinary." Hamlet is only one of many tragic heroes in the history of drama, but unique in so many ways, not the least of which is that he speaks anew to each generation. Both the nature of his mind and his dilemma are contemporary and universal.
In all other tragedies before Hamlet, each tragic hero has a clearly identifiable "flaw," which Aristotle, first literary critic, says contributes to a downfall--a feature in all tragedies since the birth of Greek drama. Macbeth’s is ambition; Othello’s is jealousy, King Lear’s is pride, and so it goes—until Hamlet. All other tragic heroes before Hamlet could have changed their fates by reflecting on their situations and themselves, thereby acquiring a bit of self-knowledge, with which they may have been better equipped to make different choices and thus avoid tragedy. Hubris, a kind of pride or inability to even imagine they have any flaws, prevents them from doing so. Not so with Hamlet.
Hamlet, however, exhibits a great deal of self-knowledge, as he thoughtfully examines both himself and his situation. He finds he has only two choices, revealed in that most well-known of soliloquies in all of drama. His fate comes not from his own ego, his subconscious or hubris. It is dictated from beyond the grave by the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who comes to seek revenge for his “murder most foul.” He reveals that he was killed by his own brother, Claudius, who lusted for crown and queen. And so Hamlet questions: “To be or not to be." Is he to ignore his father's command to avenge the murder and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or is he to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”? He will, of course, choose the latter, which means he will also die. Killing a sitting king is treason, and who will believe a ghost told him to do it?
Hamlet is presented with “outrageous fortune”: an unexpected development not of his own making, not due to a flaw or a wrong action. The task is thrust upon him, and so he agonizes, “Oh, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”
Some literary critics, feeling compelled to find Hamlet's flaw (since Aristotle said it must exist) have determined that Hamlet "thinks too much," which prevents him from action. While this is true, he has much to think about, doesn't he? He is in grief over his father’s recent death and his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to his murderous uncle; in confusion at the appearance his father's ghost, in dread of fulfilling the command to avenge his father's murder; and in sorrow at the rejection of his lover, Ophelia. He must contemplate it all to try to sort it out. Yet, he thinks logically and determines that, before he kills the king, he must have proof “more relative” than a ghost’s appearance (which may be the devil’s trick). All of this thinking takes time, is necessary, and is not a flaw at all.
Although we may never be in such clear and present danger as is Hamlet, we too, at some point, (and maybe at many) face a seemingly irresolvable dilemma not necessarily of our own making. We too must either bear a crisis in silence, or “take arms against" it. These are always our only two logical choices for life's problems--large or small. At first, however, we may wish we could somehow, in some way, escape our fate, as does Hamlet:
Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!
Throughout Hamlet, there is a many-layered motif of observation. The guards observe Hamlet when the ghost appears. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern observe Hamlet to discover the source of his “antic disposition.” Polonius and the King observe Hamlet and Ophelia. Polonius spies behind the curtain in the queen’s chamber, and Hamlet observes the king watching the so-called "play within the play." Also, Hamlet begins and ends with keeping the watch. In the first scene, the palace guards keep watch on the battlements. In the last scene Prince Fortinbras (the next ruler of Denmark and foil to Hamlet) gives orders to, “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,” where he can be viewed and honored.
The character of Hamlet in Shakespeare's time was unconventional, to say the least, which is only one of the features of the play that accounts for its universality and continuing relevance. I believe Shakespeare speaks more fully of the human condition in Hamlet than in any other of his plays. Hamlet is the existential "everyman" in an absurd situation—LIFE, which has been said to be “a rock and a hard place.” Hamlet is representative of humanity, and Denmark is a microcosm of the world in which we observe, “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts…accidental judgments, casual slaughters…deaths put on by cunning and forced causes…and purposes mistook.” Sounds like the evening news!
In all dramatic works, as in life itself, there is a turning point. Hamlet clearly states his pivotal moment (although often overlooked by critics as such) when he accepts life and death on their own terms: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” He does, of course, accomplish his mission impossible, kills the king, and is himself slain, but not before he asks his friend Horatio, the only person who can bear witness, to tell his story aright to the world.
Here, I am reminded of James Baldwin’s insight: “…while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we've got in all this darkness.”
The play, and specifically this play, IS the thing that catches our conscience, challenging us to find in the characters and situations LIFE writ large, magnified through its ritual and pageantry so that we may observe and recognize our own reflections.
I am Hamlet; You are Hamlet.