Hamlet: The Paradox of Regret

Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells a lot of stories. It tells the story of a man who seeks to avenge his father. It tells the story of a man who destroys those he loves to restore honor and certainty. It tells the story of a man who can’t make up his mind, and who can’t commit. It tells all these stories in one tale of tragedy and human fault. Hamlet displays the worst of human emotions. Anger, fear, jealousy, hatred- and most notably, in my opinion- regret. Regret is a paradox because it is the archnemisis of certainty. There cannot be certainty when restoring honor when regret threatens all choices, and it rarely helps.

There’s a common aphorism that plays itself something like “don’t regret a thing, because in those moments they were exactly what you wanted” that’s ironically said to people to quell their regrets and comfort them in their times of woeful reminisce. It’s ironic because it’s probably the least helpful aphorism I’ve ever heard. Regret can certainly be one of the worst feelings and emotions we feel. We regret what we did, and we regret what we do not do all the same. It’s a bad feeling I think because it’s a useless feeling. It isn’t productive, it’s never healthy, and it can drive a person insane. Aside from allowing you to recognized and learn from your mistakes, regret is an antagonist to happiness. Not only is regret harmful when you’re experiencing it, but it also lingers above your head with every significant decision you make. The fear of regret keeps people from doing great things, just as p it makes them do things they actually do end up regretting. Regret is a gamble, a gamble that we take because of our abundance of over-cognition. We think too much about the future that we forget that there’s a present, and we dwell to much on the past that we remember there’s a future. Ultimately I think this aphorism is useless because, it’s easy to tell someone to live without regrets, but it isn’t easy to understand the decisions they made, why they made them, and what it feels like to regret them.

I think this idea of how hindsight and foresight- or lack-thereof- create a vicious cycle of regret and indecisiveness is at the core of what Hamlet is as a study of the human condition. Restoring honor and certainty, as noble as it may seem, isn’t an easy task, and it isn’t usually, rightfully so, one that’s taken about too lightly. Hence the decisions that go into the quest of restoring honor and certainty are just the ones that regret likes to threaten the most. The decisions Hamlet had to make can reflect hyperboles of some of the most common important decisions we all make to find, maintain, and restore our own sense of honor and certainty. Have you ever needed to lie about yourself to excuse your actions? Have you ever had to hurt someone you love for their own good? To protect them? What about the regret you could experience? Have you ever wished you could go back in time and change something that you’ve done? Have you ever felt so unsure about something that you think it over a hundred times? Have you ever felt obligated to do something? If your answer to any of those questions is yes, then you can understand in some fashion the struggle that Hamlet had gone through. In our last Hamlet blog, I talked about the conflict between honor and certainty, and how it breeds uncertainty that hurts progress. But I didn’t explain how exactly that creates indecisiveness. It’s the fear of regret that causes that indecision.

During Hamlets Soliloquy in Act 3, scene 3, he contemplates killing Claudius while he is in prayer. However, he decides against it due to him thinking that Claudius was repentant and killing him in the middle of his prayer would allow his soul to go to heaven, which would not be a fitting punish,net for the man who killed his father. Little did Hamlet know, however, Claudius was not repentant, but rather he was was admitting to himself that there was a chance he wasn’t remorseful. This is ironic, since Hamlet ends up regretting not killing Claudius now, because he would’ve saved himself and those he loved so much pain. His certainty at that moment made him make the decision that caused him the most regret. The most awful truth about this is that it reflects the complete lack of certainty we have in our own lives. We have so little control over what we know, where we are, what the future is going to be like, yet we destroy ourselves with the thought that we have control of the past and that we could have done things better. This is the paradox of regret. The ultimate consequence for the lack of certainty. For indecisiveness. “But in our circumstance and course of thought,” we think we know, and that’s terrifying.

We all seek honor and certainty because we fear regretting our choices. Doing what is right by you is what honor and certainty entails. We don’t want to regret our decisions, because that means, in failing to make choices that support our moral values through the intense scrutiny of time, we lose touch with what honor and certainty mean to us. That is why we fear regret, and that intense fear of regret ultimately ends up fostering indecisiveness, bringing us only further from restoring honor and certainty. This catch-22 is what kept Hamlet from killing Claudius. He feared the possibility of regret for his actions. He chooses inaction as opposed to action, and he ended up regretting it later on. Hamlet believes he is doing right by refusing to kill Claudius in prayer, because he fears that Claudius will go to heaven, and not receive the punishment he is due. Afterwards, once he understands the full context of the situation, he regrets his choice of inaction. That is terrifying, because despite the fact that Hamlet did do everything he could in his power to justify his actions, there was no way for him to know that he would regret his decision to let Claudius live. That lack of certainty is exactly what gives regret its power. That is why I believe regret is the predator of certainty.

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