One of the greatest works of art and literature ever created was William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The story shows things that cannot be said, things which, moreover, are Truths too big for even man himself. The essence of revenge, anger at the structure of life, beliefs in nothing, and all-encompassing ideologies are expressed so well and so completely that Hamlet has secured its place even among those who wish to ignore it. Inside the story, we find Hamlet, one of the most completely human and interesting of all persons. He is driven to what is seemingly insanity by the death of his father and the events that follow. Some of the speeches Hamlet makes against man, the world, and God are of crucial importance. This essay will seek to look more closely at Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene 2.
The background before Hamlet’s speech is upon the meeting of his childhood friends Guildenstern and Rozerncratz. To say the least, both these are men of stupidity. They were sent by the king to determine whether Hamlet was planning on taking over the throne. At the beginning of the exchange, Hamlet opens by jesting with the two and making the mood light. The overly naive and optimistic Rozencratz proposes that “the world’s grown honest” (2.2.255-256). To Hamlet, this is a beautiful declaration of insanity. Hamlet then postulates that the world and especially Denmark is a prison. The king’s men disagree and try to push their ideas onto Hamlet: that ambition is wrong. This Hamlet dismisses, rather easily, and inquires of them why they have honestly come. The two cannot keep up with Hamlet’s mind as he outsmarts them and discovers that they have come to spy on him.
At this time Hamlet diverges, more or less, from the topic of conversation and into his philosophy. The speech quoted at length reads: “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and 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 no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. 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? Man delights not me- no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” (2.2.318-334).
What Hamlet is conveying here is a vastly complex set of ideas. To start, it is helpful to remember that he regards the world as a prison and Denmark as the worst of that. It is not that Hamlet is merely, throughout the rest of the play, ambitious and wanting power. No; there is something much deeper going on. Hamlet’s idea of the prison presents itself as the start of nihilistic philosophy. The world is terrible, something akin to a prison, something one cannot get out of except by extreme cunning and action. So, with that being understood, let us look at Hamlet’s speech.
Hamlet opens by conveying his confusion about his state but also that that state is in despair; “I have lost all my mirth,” he declares (2.2.319). Speaking on, he says that he sees the earth, in all its wonder, as improper; the sky, reasons Hamlet, in all its majesty, is only a mockery of what it appears to be. He then turns from the natural world to man. He recognizes man’s infinite beauty of existence. What man is, says Hamlet, is beyond man himself. Yet, what lays under that, what man is made of, his essence, is nothing! Hamlet disproves of man because man jests and mocks and suffers. The world is evil and man is terrible, Hamlet seems to say, and yet fools take existence lightly.
After this Rozencratz remarks, rather frankly, “...there was no such stuff in my thoughts” (2.2.335-336). The coming of a band of actors is quickly mentioned. Although this seems a meaningless diversion, it is of great significance. The coming of players, of those who pretend to be something they are not, is exactly what Hamlet is talking of. Regular man hides his lies, but the actors, in their plays, show theirs openly.
In light of these observations, what is the meaning of Hamlet’s words and the actions surrounding them? To put it simply, whatsoever life is, the whole existence of it and everything beautiful about it is nothing in the face of evil. Many have debated whether or not Hamlet is mad, but it is apparent that, from this passage, Hamlet is not mad. He is a philosopher. His ideas are those of hopelessness. He laughs and jests only because it is the real form of man—that of a mocker. The universe mocks man, mocks him unrelentingly. So, why then should man not mock the universe? Why should man not mock man? It is the only reasonable thing to do. Hamlet even proposes, before this speech, “...there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.268-269). Hamlet can, without moral codes, do whatever he pleases. He may as well scoff and recognize that life is a meaningless tragedy. Hamlet’s speech here is merely what he thinks it is to be human.
The height of philosophy is shown here. Hamlet reasons the entire universe out and then presents a way to live. And that is what philosophy is; real philosophy. It is not debating linguistics, metaphysics, or epistemology. No, rather, all of those are proposed to show one how to live. However, Hamlet bypasses these discussions and gets directly to the heart. He declares what the universe is; he declares what man is; he declares what one should then do. He has no need of outside and unrelenting thought because everything is presenting itself before him. The world is evil and so is man. What one thinks he is, that he is not. What one thinks the world is, that it is not. Life is terrible and, for Hamlet in this place in the story, there is no escape.
To conclude, then, the interaction documented here between Rozensturn, Guildencrantz, and Hamlet is one that displays what Hamlet thinks of the world. Among the other great speeches in the play, it is easy to miss this one. However, it is of towering importance. In it, we find Hamlet’s philosophy and what is behind his actions. Although Hamlet is later on cured of this philosophy, more or less, the original induction of it leads to the death of those closest to our prince. The philosophies of the characters in Hamlet shaped them; the philosophies of the individuals in our lives shape us.
Shakespeare, William, Barbara Mowat, and Werstine Paul Ph.D. Hamlet ( Folger Library Shakespeare). 1st ed., Simon & Schuster, 1992.
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