“The more you know, the less you understand”
Certainty is a relatively simple concept. Defined as a firm, internal conviction of verity, a deeply held belief in a personal truth, certainty is housed within. Though it can be shaken by external forces, the notion of certainty is primarily dependant on internal conviction. In contrast, the idea of honour is largely developed by societal rules and expectations. A society’s definition of honour may be based on dated customs, hold little stake in practicality or reality, and change with time. Honour is much more abstract than certainty and, as such, it can, ironically, introduce uncertainty. Though very different concepts, honour and certainty are inextricably linked. They often come as a pair; institutions such as family, religion, and social hierarchy simultaneously create a sense of both. With those assurances of honour and surety, one feels at peace. When these seemingly steady sources of comfort are lost, an individual – particularly one leaning heavily upon these pillars – faces great conflict. Such a one develops the acute need to reinstate what once gave support and shelter. Unfortunately, the restoration of such constructs as certainty and honour is not simple. One involved in this difficult undertaking must be able to act decisively and rationally despite the inevitable chaos resulting from lost certainty and honour. Shakespeare’s lead character in his play, Hamlet, experiences both the confusion of such loss and the agonizing quest to restore what has vanished. Hamlet’s struggle proves that, to reestablish lost honour and certainty, one must be willing and able to act without complete certainty, to find logic in illogical circumstance, and to derive method from madness; attempts to intellectualize the disorder of loss result in much thought, little action, and often – self-sabotage.
Ones most ravaged by the loss of honour and certainty are those who most depend upon it. Consider Hamlet. His place in the royal family was one of both honor and certainty as royals were revered, mighty, untouchable beings, thus residing in security. Hamlet was an honourable prince from a beloved family with a sure future. In one blow, Claudius proved these assurances unreliable; certainty and honor were easily stripped from Hamlet’s family. The Danish Prince was relegated from a royal heir to an unstable nephew. Seemingly, all certainty had evaporated overnight with the spilling of a little poison. As Hamlet speaks of his father, he alludes to the haven his family once was: “ So loving to my mother / That [my father] might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly”.(1.2.140-144) He was raised in a secure environment, always assured by the certainty of his parent’s honourable, unwavering love. Upon such securities, one can build an identity; this foundation allows an individual to grow freely, unhindered by a preoccupation on self-preservation. In Hamlet’s case, he grows to be an intellectual, more focused on the intangibility of philosophy than the physicality of survival. During peaceful times, when swaddled by certainty and honour, great intellect can be an asset. However, such lofty focus soon becomes a weakness when these comforts are removed. From Hamlet’s initial encounter with the Ghost King, his misplaced focus is apparent. He exclaims, “Remember thee! / Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there, / And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmixed with baser matter”. (1.5.98-105) Hamlet’s attention rests on his father’s wish for remembrance, not on his weighty commission of revenge. Though retribution was dead King Hamlet’s foremost priority, Hamlet seems to devote most of his energy to the psychological act of remembrance. This is a passive activity; it is looking backwards. Though wise to glance behind, gazing too long at the past is crippling. Focus should be primarily on a future course of action. In the struggle to restore honor and certainty, one must accept what has happened and move forward. By assigning his son to exact vengeance, the Ghost hands Hamlet an opportunity to restore certainty and honour. However, Hamlet’s misdirected reaction foreshadows his ensuing struggle to act. Though all acts – even impulsive ones – require thought, a person must be able to eventually transition from thought to action in order to achieve goals.
The ability to reason is, arguably, humanity’s defining trait, informing the search for certainty and honour. This capacity – an incredible asset, in times of disaster can distort into a great weakness. As Hamlet watches an army risk all, motivated by reasons as thin as “eggshell”, he ponders his own inability to act, even when “honour is at stake”. His words, “What is a man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused. / Now, whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th’ event— / A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward…”, speak to this idea. (4.4.32-43) Hamlet argues that humankind was created with “godlike reason” – an almost divine capacity for thought – and without putting it to use, people are no greater than beasts. A paradox lies in this: reasoning too little make one akin to an animal; reasoning too extensively saps a person of a second human trait – decisive action. Human actions, unlike those of animals, result from reason, not instinct. In addition, the terms “godlike reason” and “bestial oblivion” accurately describe common attitudes toward intellect. There is often believed to be more honour in thought than in action, the ‘brains vs. brawn’ idea being an example. Not only are these generalized as being mutually exclusive, one is seen as having greater dignity. This stereotype holds some truth, but it leads toward a bisected mindset. A person can be both thoughtful and physical, but people are often conditioned to think in extremes. This adds greater complexity to the search for honour and certainty; one may also attempt to seek these honourably – through very thoughtful inaction. The belief that the cerebral is more virtuous than the physical is a handicap. Individuals who unceasingly intellectually prod for surety and reason before acting are disadvantaged in difficult circumstances, particularly in the struggle to restore certainty and honor. Hamlet is a such 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 rely neither on other people nor on reason, he becomes awash with internal conflict and its resulting indecision. Such ones may find themselves unable to act with the desired decisiveness but, compelled to act nonetheless, become internally conflicted. When unable to act without external assurances, a semblance of certainty and honour may be found, but not without intense struggle.
Unfortunately, certainty and honour do not always coincide; a search for certainty may bring about dishonour. After amassing enough certainty in his own impending death to kill Claudius, Hamlet finally avenges his father. He lays dying, asking one last favour of Horatio: “O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me! … Tell my story.” (5.2.341-347) Here he begs his closest friend to tell his story, clarifying the misunderstood intentions behind his actions. Throughout his story, unable to decide on a steady course of action, he impulsively lashes out. This delays the restoration of honour and certainty, destroying all his relationships in the meantime. In Hamlet’s circumventive journey to restore certainty, he obliterates his honourable reputation. By eventually killing his uncle, Hamlet does yet find certainty in such difficult circumstance; his untarnished honour is the price he pays. This futile trade-off need not always be the case. Even in trying situations, honour and certainty can both be achieved, but this coexistence can only be accomplished by a decisive individual. This is the primary cause of Hamlet’s dishonoured fate. As in Hamlet’s case, indecision results in vacillation and erratic action – inefficient and ignoble. For Hamlet, the consequences of this dishonour are short-lived, but for those whose death is not immediately impending, the repercussions are deeply felt long-term. This reality adds greater emphasis on the need to be decisive in action. Hamlet’s character never truly develops this vital skill in his search for honour and certainty; ultimately, unable to find internal conviction, he relies upon external motivations to guide him. This example poses a warning to hesitant individuals: those seeking honour and certainty must act with unwavering determination. Failing to do so jeopardizes more than a successful mission; it risks personal honour.
Heeding the warning outlined by Hamlet’s tragic quest for certainty and honour is crucial for those who do not wish to follow in his stead. His near-failure to reach a goal results from misplaced focus on remembrance and intellect, ending in the degradation of his own honor. The complex task of restoring surety and honor demands steadfast resolve, iron-clad focus, and a touch of recklessness. Particularly in this pursuit, one must be able to act without complete knowledge. Naturally, in a time of uncertainty and dishonor, one can not be reliant on these now-absent footholds; an effort to replace them must be conducted without their support. If unable to find fortitude enough to continue onwards without such comforts, the paralysis of indecision will strike. At such an impasse, one might desire to act, though unable to do so with calmness and dignity. This results in erratic choices which negatively impact one’s reputation, diminish honour, and create further setback. There may seem no way to succeed in this circumstance, but victory is not impossible. Triumph belongs to one who can balance the humanity of hesitant ponderings with the animalism of instinctual action.