Hamlet. With everything ripped away – love, family, crown – he is left in a deep well of uncertainty; every day he struggles to clamber up the slippery walls. The ascent is slow and painful as uncertainty and indecision kick him back to the mire below. In Hamlet’s case, the loss of honor and of certainty are tightly linked. His place in the royal family was one of both honor and certainty in that, royals were revered as mighty, untouchable beings and thus had security. Hamlet was an honourable prince from a great family with a sure future. In one blow, Claudius proved these assurances wrong – certainty and honor were easily stripped from Hamlet’s family. Familial bonds were snapped like dried flower stems. Our main character was relegated from a royal heir to an unstable nephew. Seemingly, all certainty had evaporated overnight with the spilling of a little poison.
In coming to know this tragically comical protagonist, I was confronted with his eerie depth of character; Hamlet seems convincingly lifelike. One moment, he seems to hold a certain view and then in the next moment, contradicts himself. Such swings mirror the complexity of humanity, engaging readers since the play’s inception. This infamous behavioural inconsistency is truly endearing and, even in his cruelest moments, I found myself rooting for Hamlet, though not always sure for what I was cheering. Such a unique character engages readers throughout the entirety of his meandering quest for reclamation of lost certainty and honour.
This play is one of irony and contradiction and Hamlet was given the ability to toy with people as easily as he toys with words. His dynamic changes, so numerous and extreme, were initially puzzling. Some theorize he is mad, to others he is a victim of depression, to me he is the attempted orchestrator of a greater play. There is method to his madness. A reader must step back from the seeming contradictions of his character to see the logic behind them. His words, “I must be cruel only to be kind” excellently underscore his paradoxical character. (3.4.181) He sees his cruelty as a means to a greater cause, and therefore must not be too severely criticized for it. His cruelty and “madness” are really just symptoms of a battle waged within himself – the war against uncertainty. This enemy is inextricably linked to Death, whether it be a fear of death or the loss of a loved one in death that haunts. Hamlet defies Death by procrastinating a ghastly duty, assigned by dead King Hamlet. Our character does not want to live – desires to give in to death – but is too afraid. Hamlet resists and resists until at last he can no longer fight. A war against Death can never be won. Despite all the uncertainty and fear it inspires, death itself is the greatest certainty. This is a truth Hamlet comes to realize throughout the play, a reality that changes him completely. In the end, rather than resisting this force, he fights alongside it.
The Letter I Never Sent
I told you once if my love weren’t true then
the stars aren’t fire then
the sun stays affixed in the east, never rising and
the truth is a liar and then…
Tonight I lied.
I crept into your room yesterday morning
You – I had to see you.
Ophelia- the things I’ve seen! What I have beheld!
I no longer know truth from lies.
I hoped to tell you – share my burden
I crept into your sewing room
I hoped it would remind me of the world I once knew, that
you’d be a transport to my lost home
But on seeing your ivory face – instead of the immovable ivory marble columns I hoped for,
Pillars to anchor me to the ground that is slipping from under my feet –
I saw the ivory of chalky bones and the pale white mists of remembrance that reach into my sleep each night now
And your blue, blue eyes barely concealed confusion and terror
At the sight of my own face
The words on my tongue stayed tip-toe perched
For I knew at once that you could not help me
Please, please forgive my silence
as silently as a memory gone back
to wherever restless ghosts of the past dwell.
Even as I crept back to the shadows
where I now dwell too,
my gaze remained affixed on your ivory complexion.
For you needed the truth
Before I expel my own soul to live amongst the souls long gone,
Before I abandon my own convictions to give surety to those transient spirits,
Only a truth could have barred leprosy of hatred that has surely infected our dreams.
Our love festers
Yes – Truth is long dead
Oh, I make no sense.
If sense has failed even me, how my senseless speech would have rot your ears!
So I didn’t tell you.
I spewed hateful lies.
Oh – how they sounded like truth in my head until they were borne upon the air.
Oh God! That you didn’t believe me!
Please, please, let those memories slip out pretty ears and trickle down alabaster chin –
a river of forgetfulness.
Do not drown truth in lies.
Lies exploded from an ache within.
Such pain – a valid truth in its own right, but not a truth meant for you
Your ears – not meant to collect such jagged obsidian
I was cruel,
whirling igneous blades meant for someone else
at you, Love.
Ophelia – why return my letters?
I meant – mean – every word I said
Once, I knew what to say, how to say it, and spilled all into the words I wrote for you
Now such expression – impossibility.
No longer can love shape sense into letters with ink – sense has dissolved, and love’s ink has become dilute
My own thoughts – to me now confusion – to you surely enigma
My burden I can not share –
This I knew with a single look into cold ocean blue eyes, twin springs
Such eyes returned my letters, hurling this heart back at my feet
Oh God – I’ve already lost everything once, now I prepare to lose it all again at the bidding of a spirit, one hardly
more tangible than the spider-silk of your golden hair.
So I took back the letters I had sent
But not the words I had said
Do you see?
“Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love.” (2.2.107-110)
Unsent letters, unpublished poems, half-finished sketches. All capture raw feeling. These hold the briefest, most fleeting instances of unadulterated truth. With pen in motion, we have the full intention of sending, publishing and completing, but once considered in the coolness of reflection, their emotion grows foolish. We forget how, in that moment, this was what our heart and mind were screaming. We now try to rationalize the products of a moment’s passion – creatures never designed for rational scrutiny. These poems conceived in half an instant are not meant to be considered with more reason than could be spilled in half an instant. Such truth lives in these half-alive masterpieces, but we are often too busy recanting their painful truths to understand them. In those moments of passion, truths slip out before we have the time to convince ourselves that they are lies. These passionate, irrational verities often are unleashed by deep guttural emotions. Thus I chose to write this half-finished, unsent letter to Ophelia from Hamlet’s perspective. It is a sort of controlled stream of consciousness to capture that rawness and confliction he no doubt feels while attempting to regain a lost world of certainty. Rather than blindly placing Hamlet on the scale of judgment, we should first consider what internal burdens alter his true weight.
Before an earthquake shook his world, before his father died and his mother remarried and his uncle stole his rightful crown, Hamlet’s life was one of certainty. He knew stability and was, therefore, a stable person. His father, a strong, beloved, seemingly unshakable king provided surety. The queen’s love for his father seemed as dependable as the sun’s rising. The certainty of his love for Ophelia, as expressed by the above quote, was another constant in Hamlet’s life. The above quote expresses Hamlet’s heart in its truest form, unguarded by walls he later erects – sarcasm, hate, and insincerity – in response to the destruction of his world. There is something so beautiful about the Hamlet we never really meet, the one about whom Ophelia reminisces. His words to her are Certainty: “Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love”. This assurance that his love is more genuine than even the integrity of Truth itself is the ultimate guarantee of certainty.
However, his later treatment of Ophelia lies in stark contrast to these moving words. His character shift from an ardent lover to an aloof acquaintance can mistakenly be attributed to the appearance of his father’s ghost. However, that is simply the catalyst to a reaction that has been brewing from the moment his uncle killed his father. Hamlet had watched his whole world crumble around him, as confirmed by his father’s spirit. He had, perhaps, only one stronghold left – Ophelia. And then she returned his letters. Together, these tragic reactants caused the anger and conflict Hamlet is now known for.
I imagined what Hamlet would have liked to say to Ophelia. Rather than his frustrated words, stemming from anger towards his mother and laced with coolness emanating from a preoccupation with vengeance and self-loathing, these words reflect his feelings for her.
An individual may become consumed with a frantic quest to restore what was lost when he is stripped of all that provides security. In response to the unfairness and horror, feelings of animosity and confusion can be projected onto those who haven’t warranted such treatment. Misplaced blame and angry expressions inflict painful blows on those least deserving. Often, the realization that one’s actions were unjust and hurtful comes too late – long after the damage is irreversibly dealt.
The greatest tragedy of Hamlet and Ophelia’s lost love is that it became a casualty to his struggle for certainty. Rather than fighting for the one good thing he still has, he allows it to crumble. In fact, he bludgeons their love with a sledgehammer. Hamlet uses Ophelia to feign insanity, murders her father without showing remorse for her inevitable pain, and viciously hurls insults. These actions are seemingly irreconcilable with his above-quoted words unless we acknowledge the emotional anguish he was feeling. He had lost everything except her. Then she scorned him at her father’s prompting. Now, it seemed, he had lost it all.
After considering his emotional pain, it becomes easier to understand his actions and to imagine his thoughts. True feelings, as expressed in the quoted text, do not vanish, but may be overshadowed by more immediate pain. This letter is a guess at Hamlet’s unexpressed feelings. People certainly do not always say what they feel, and I believe that the conflicted, unsure soul of Hamlet barred him from telling the truth.
This Must Be So (original)
This piece can be broken into three main compositional elements, each with its own meaning. However, it is more powerful when considered as a whole.
Text: The snake’s words, “This must be so”, are a reference to a particular scene in Act 1 that is central to Hamlet’s struggle with uncertainty. They pertain to the reality of death against which Hamlet rages. Additionally, they connect the snake itself to the character it represents.
Snake: In this composition, the snake is Claudius. This parallels his role in the play. He is referred to as “the serpent that did sting [Hamlet’s] father’s life”.(1.5.39-40) Not only does Claudius’ depiction as a serpent reflect this metaphor in the play, it also connotes other attributes that Western culture associates with snakes. No doubt, by referring to Claudius as a serpent, Shakespeare also intended to conjure words like treachery, lies, deception, danger, and poison.
In the play, Claudius acts as an agent of death, as does Hamlet, both by doing death’s work to achieve their own goals. Claudius kills out of ambition; Hamlet kills out of fear and uncertainty. The lives lost at Hamlet’s hands are all a result of Claudius’ initial killing of the king; all deaths tie back to Claudius. If Death is personified as a greedy collector of souls, we can see how Claudius does its bidding. Therefore, the snake also represents Death itself. In the picture, the snake seems to claim the skull, as Hades claims the souls in the underworld. Interestingly, it is Claudius’ claiming of King Hamlet’s life that brings about Hamlet’s frantic search for certainty. Thus, death and its consequences are the ultimate fomenters of uncertainty for Hamlet.
Skull: When the name Hamlet is mentioned, images are conjured of a man dressed in mourning hues, brooding, and holding a skull aloft. The skull is iconic in this play and rightly so. It represents one of the greatest themes both in Hamlet and in life itself – death. From the appearances of the ghost to Polonius’ murder to Ophelia’s suicide to Claudius’ and Gertrude and Hamlet’s endings, death presides throughout this play. In fact, few of the main characters are left alive by Act 5, Scene 2. How does this relate to my character of choice, Hamlet?
Through all these deaths, Hamlet is a common theme; he is central to them. Conversely, Death is central to Hamlet as a person. Thoughts of his mortality, the nature of the afterlife, his hand in others’ deaths, and his heinous commission all weigh heavily upon his mind. In itself, the skull is a powerful symbol. However, never could it stand alone in this composition, just as Death is not a solitary force in Hamlet’s life. It is literally and figuratively upheld by the snake – Claudius – and, together, the snake and skull incite a major change in Hamlet.
In Act 1, scene 2, during Claudius’ admonition to Hamlet to stop grieving for his father, he touches on a truth that is a key in this play. Hamlet comes to understand this truth in the final act. Referring to death, Claudius says, “This must be so”. (1.2.107) The power of these words lies in the simple, elegant truth they present. Death is an inescapable enemy; despite the uncertainty thoughts of death can create, death itself exists as an absolute certainty. Hamlet is initially afraid of death and what lies beyond. Though he spends much time musing about it and speaks rather confidently about it, he is truly terrified. This fear leads to cowardice. He says it perfectly in his famous soliloquy, “Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” (3.1.77-86) The fear of which he speaks and the resulting uncertainty leave Hamlet impotent to carry out his wishes. Though he does kill Polonius, he does so indirectly. He stabs Polonius through a curtain, which represents his willingness to act, but the cowardice that prevents him from confronting death directly. He is uncertain at whom he strikes, but obscurity makes striking easier. Killing Claudius would be confronting the realities of his father’s death, and the horrible realities of death itself. Claudius’ earlier words, “This must be so”, insinuate that death need not be mourned nor feared; it is simply a natural stage of life. Those words – the beginnings of a thread that is woven through Hamlet’s thoughts and actions – are finally resolved in the last act.
In Act 5, Hamlet undergoes significant events that result in major character shifts – the first being his discovery of Yorick’s skull. While looking upon the skull, Hamlet finally articulates words in agreement with Claudius’ earlier sentiments. This shows a mature understanding of death’s difficult reality, though he still displays a revulsion toward it. He speaks jokingly but implies that it makes him ill that all end up like poor Yorick. He does not yet perfectly display the callous acceptance of death that will allow him to act against Claudius. Still, he acknowledges that this must be so.
It is only when he is poisoned and forced to confront the reality of his own death that he summons the courage to kill Claudius. He is certain that he will die shortly, and no longer finds himself grappling with the uncertainties that once distracted him from his goals. That one certainty, coupled with his more mature understanding of death, allow him to confront Claudius directly. Hamlet has finally confronted death itself fearlessly. To finally overcome the uncertainties that prevented him from truly living, Hamlet has to accept the absolute certainty of death, coming to an important realization: our time here is finite; as unsure as we may feel in life, there is no greater assurance than death’s steady approach. Death’s prospect brings even greater uncertainties than we now experience. This must be so. There is no bargaining with death. We must create our own certainties while we still have the chance.
From an outside perspective, Hamlet’s choices are irrational and foolish. He destroys those closest to him rather than leaning on them for support. He struggles to fulfill the commission that will give peace to his family. He repeatedly expresses desires to die but never acts. It seems Hamlet does everything backward. It does not make sense.
However, when considered with emotional context, our Danish enigma can be solved. Understandably, Hamlet’s struggle to regain honour and certainty is particularly strenuous. He had been raised in an environment of certitude and prestige, with a powerful king for father and a devoted queen for mother. A love he shared with Ophelia seemed unshakable and the political climate was calm. Then, with one death, everything he trusted in was shattered. There seemed no one to rely on; thus he embarked on his restorative journey alone. His self-imposed solitude was a mindset he carried along with him and it manifested in interactions with others. As he pushed people away in response to deep emotional pain, he unintentionally surrounded himself with more death – more uncertainty, more dishonour.
The resulting plethora of questions and of indecision prevented Hamlet from achieving his goals. At every opportunity to choose, to regain certainty and honour, to be free, Hamlet was paralyzed by doubt. Only when the choices were made and the questions were answered for him could he act. Only when the great certainty – Death itself – was upon him, could he silence the noise of doubt and find clarity. With that new-found internal peace and certainty, Hamlet reclaimed that lost honor in avenging his father’s murder.
Hamlet’s story is not an isolated dramatization of an interesting idea. In one way or another, all humans have struggled with the paralysis of indecision and of lost conviction. Even the most basic existential question reflects the struggles of arguably Shakespeare’s most complex character.
Who am I? Where is my life going? During my senior year of high school, I’ve been frequently asking myself such questions. Very soon, I have to make immense decisions regarding the trajectory of my life. I seem to be stuck in an impossible place – having to choose who I will be but not knowing who I am.
As I have lived and matured, I have lost the certainty of a simplistic self-view. The more I learn about my self, the more I realize my ignorance of self. This is not a unique struggle; I know that many people of all life stages are up against the same wall. However, I am alone in my struggle. Only I can choose who I will be and I should know who that is. Values and goals – which I certainly have – should be my guides. However, something holds me back from following these ushers. What holds me back, as it held Hamlet back, is my uncertainty. Who will I be in a week? What if I make a mistake? What if I waste time I don’t have? I am paralyzed by indecision and my search for certainty is fruitless. Now I am beginning to see that I must make the best choices possible with as much information as possible, but I must not expect to know everything before choosing. Absolute certainty is often an illusion.
The vagaries of life can be walls obscuring the view of the future. If outcomes were easily predicted, decisions would be easy. In many instances, there is no certainty until a decision has been made. Therefore, to gain that surety, one must sometimes act first and question later. Moving forward in life demands action and action demands a simple decision, one we often over-complicate. To act, to grow, to find ourselves and find certainty, we must be willing to make a simple choice: to act, or not to act. It is that simple.
Each character in Hamlet responds differently to uncertainties. Gertrude’s reaction to the loss of King Hamlet is polar opposite to Hamlet’s reaction. She seeks the security she knew when married to the king and finds it in marrying Claudius. She restores her certainty by relying on others to provide it. In contrast, Hamlet pushes people away and relies on his own strength. What is the cause of this dichotomy of action? It is the perspective one has about what provides certainty and honor, for these things are sought where they are believed to be hiding.
The idea that people are creatures of habit holds true universally. Gertrude no doubt was accustomed to a life of security and certainty with the seemingly unshakeable king. For her, having a reliable companion who provided the certainties of a home, love, wealth, and power, was a priority. Therefore, when her world fell apart, she searched out those certainties in a companion.
On the other hand, Hamlet is a university student at the time of his father’s murder. Based on this history and the amount of time he spends philosophizing, a reader can infer that he places value in knowledge and logic. Further proof of his need for knowledge to create certainty is the “mousetrap” he plans to prove his uncle’s guilt. He needs concrete proof of this before resolving to kill Claudius. Of course, his rationality is often contrasted by rash decisions. For example, he hastily kills Polonius without knowing who he is stabbing. From the perspective that Hamlet is sane, this behaviour can be explained by returning to his need for certainty before he can act.
This character is conflicted by his desire to act despite a lack of surety. Hamlet is a man of reason in a world seemingly devoid of it. Having his uncle murder his father then wed his mother is madness, but that madness is his reality. Seeing that he can not rely on other people or on reason, he finds himself awash with internal conflict that results in indecision. He is unable to act with the decisiveness he desires, but is compelled to act nonetheless, therefore acting irrationally to fill this need.
It is often those who depend on simple things for comfort and certainty that can easily find it. Those, like Gertrude, who require only secure attachment to another person for certainty need not search exhaustively for it. Others, like Hamlet, who rely on forces like logic and reason struggle to restore surety when tragedies destroy their lives. Such disasters often strike without logic or reason. They hit at the worst times, in the the worst ways. They are chaos and chaos is not reasonable. This explains why Gertrude moves on from King Hamlet’s death so quickly while Hamlet is left reeling. Such individuals have opposing perspectives on where certainty is found; therefore, Gertrude is able to restore hers much more easily.
Ultimately, certainty and honor can both easily slip from one’s grasp; unforeseen events can snatch these securities away. When the ground underfoot crumbles, relying solely on oneself is destructive. Hamlet’s inability to ask for support lead him to drive potential allies away and struggle alone. Singlehandedly battling with uncontrollable forces like death and destruction – forces that bring uncertainty and dishonor – is futile and exhausting. Individuals, like Hamlet, who attempt to restore these assets alone often become consumed by frustration and isolation. This frustration manifests in thoughtless actions which perpetuate the cycle of exasperation and loneliness.
The remedy for this destructive whirlwind is empathy. Though difficult, seeing beyond the blustery actions to the internal pain of one who has lost emotional security is vital. There always will be the certain uncertainties of death and calamity. There always will be chaos. There always will be hasty, destructive reactions to the losses these bring. All these are givens. Showing insight and empathy to those ravaged by loss, to those struggling to regain what was stolen, is not a given – it is a choice. Against pride and hurt, showing genuine concern for such ones may break this cycle of self-destruction, allowing these ones to find what they yearn for. Unlike in the lives of Hamlet and Gertrude, there is a now third option for those seeking to reclaim lost certainty and honour. There is now a reminder that this battle need not be fought alone. Rather than destroying others or relegating self, there is the choice to lean on people of inexorable principle who can aid in the universal war against uncertainty and dishonour.