Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and it has over the centuries become his most famous work. The full title of the play is "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" by William Shakespeare who lived from 1564 to 1616. Many interpretations have been made of this complex and profound play. Clearly it is about revenge. Hamlet's father, the King, has died and his Uncle has married his mother soon after. Then a ghost in the appearance of his father visits Hamlet and his friends and tells Hamlet that his uncle seduced his mother and killed his father. The play then swirls around what Hamlet will do with this information. Obviously he is enraged by it. However, Shakespeare, through Hamlet's words and actions, warns us against taking premature actions. We need to develop delayed gratification skills and anger management skills to survive in both the ancient and the modern world. This is why this play has lasted so long. The words are hard to follow because language changes over the centuries. It is lovely and poetic at times, but also confusing. It is not the language that has caused the play to thrive over centuries, it is the profound understanding of human nature and the wise counsel Shakespeare provides through his play that makes us want to read and watch it time and time again.
Shakespeare has Hamlet get angry over the news that the ghost provides. However, he also has Hamlet question the news. Is it from the ghost of his father or from a demon that has assumed the shape of his father, a demon that is tempting him? Hamlet tests the situation by having a group of wandering actors give a play for the court in which a murder takes place that is comparable to the one the ghost says happened and Hamlet observes his Uncle's reaction. The reaction is clear, therefore, Hamlet knows that his Uncle did indeed kill his father. This is a very important lesson for us all. We so often read or hear something---gossip from a friend, a report of some event delivered over television---and we take it as fact without really checking it out. Thus are our thoughts formed and thus can they mislead us.
Remember, thoughts can create feelings and feelings drive our behavior.
Hamlet: "…there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."
Act 2, Scene 2
Some would have us believe that abortions should under no circumstances be allowed, as it is the murder of an infant. Others would have us believe that the mother should be free to make abortion decisions and that at some early point the fetus is not yet human and should not be accorded the same rights as the mother. Abortion is neither good nor bad until we decide to think of in one or the other way. It is our thoughts about these rights of the mother and the unborn that drive our feelings and those feelings drive our actions. Shakespeare wants us to slow down and act wisely. To avoid the dichotomous thinking, the right or wrong, the simplistic thinking inherent in the "pro-choice" versus "pro-life" debate and other such arguments. The wisdom built into the play is clearly stated in the following.
Polonius' advice to his son Laertes before he leaves Denmark for France:
"Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware unfledged courage=spirited youth
Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear 't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man they ear, but few they voice.
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as they purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy (rich, not gaudy),
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. husbandry=management of one's money
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Act 1, Scene 3
So Shakespeare wants us to slow down and listen. To pay attention to how we live and behave and what forces influence our thoughts and feelings. Above all, he advises us to be true to our self. Humans have a spiritual nature that is loving and thoughtful and if we are true to it then we will not hurt others. The most powerful area that Shakespeare wants us to pay attention to applies to the questions that swirl around issues of life and death. Is there an afterlife? Will God punish us if we kill ourselves as a way of avoiding the pain that life may deliver up to us? Shakespeare has Hamlet struggle with this in one of the most important messages that he has imbedded into his play.
"To be or not to be---that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep---
No more---and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to---'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep---
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub, rub=obstacle
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, bodkin=dagger fardels=burdens
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn bourn=frontier
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,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action."
Act 3, Scene 1
To act or not to act, that is the question.
Action is driven by feelings.
To feel or not to feel, that is the question.
Feelings are influenced by thoughts.
To think or not to think, that is the question.
Shakespeare wants us to think, to think, to think! To not jump to false conclusions. To think with depth about what is causing us to feel and behave the way we are.
To think about how both good and evil are created by the way we choose to think, the attitudes we adopt. Attitudes that rulers and advertisers try to influence. Attitudes that religions attempt to mold. Shakespeare would have us not fall under the spell of dogma but to rise up to the higher reaches of our soul and explore the meaning of life and then to act based on feelings of commitment to values that have been carefully thought through.
However, Shakespeare also sees that one of the problems with making choices relates to our fear of the future. If we knew for certain that the worst thing that might happen to us is a simple end of life, then we would act differently. With the possibility of something beyond life, then we are confused and wonder what actions should we take. This is the greatest of puzzles and poets, novelists, playwrights, and other artists have struggled with this question of what might or might not happen to us after our body expires, after our heart stops beating. Do we have a soul? Does some part of us continue to exist? How would you change your current behavior if you knew the answer to this question?
For me, Ophelia is an outstanding example of the negative, a warning from Shakespeare of what can happen to us if we do not exercise our mind wisely.
She loves Hamlet, she is confused by his actions, she goes mad and dies because she is unable to connect the dots, to make sense of it all. Her thoughts become muddled. She loves him, he one moment says he loves her and the next insults her? What is she to think? Hamlet then murders her father Polonius. The thoughts get further confused. Those thoughts drive her feelings wild. Those wild feelings then drive her actions to taking her own life. This tragedy is played out in modern life every day as young women find their lives destroyed when they let their emotions carry them into disastrous behavior.