Do we matter? Will anything we do endure? These are questions from existentialism. The dictionary defines existentialism as ?the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad? (Merriam Webster).
In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Hamlet struggles with the concept that nothing from our lives last and time grinds everything away. Hamlet?s major conflict was his existentialist view of the world. Does a prince of Denmark have any worth if ?Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away? ( V. i. 206-209)? Hamlet saw examples of lives crumbling to dust. Twenty thousand men and twenty thousand ducats are spent on ?A little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name. To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.? ( IV. iiii. 19-21).
These lives are expended for nothing and even Hamlet?s father, a good and wise king, was murdered with only Hamlet mourning for an extended period. The king?s wife said ?Seek for thy noble father in the dust: Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.? ( I. ii. 72-74) and she later encourages Hamlet to stop pretending to mourn for his father. Hamlet protests that he feels actual grief for his father but he fears that his father?s life is already becoming meaningless. This existentialist worldview forced Hamlet to overanalyze before action because he wanted his acts to have a lasting impact. He becomes too contemplative about decisions. He would not murder Claudius in spite of the ghost of his father ordering him until the play proved guilt. Even with this proof, Hamlet will not kill Claudius during prayer because he believes his decision will matter and he must choose wisely. In the graveyard, Hamlet saw people?s skulls and wondered what the courier?s compliments or the jester?s tricks had brought them but another spot in the earth. Hamlet saw the acts of well respected men not protect them from the grave and anonymity when he said, ?This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more? ( V. i. 98-103).
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Hamlet?s inaction appeared in his relationship with Ophelia. He admitted at her grave that he loved her but he did not attempt to have more than a physical relationship. Hamlet?s fear of action led to other problems. Hamlet was so obsessed with his lack of action and the worthlessness of life that he contemplates suicide asking, ?For who could bear the whips and scorns of time? ( III. i. 69-70).
He believes he would be foolish to suffer through his life when he will simply be forgotten after his death. In an ironic twist, Hamlet refrains from suicide because the Church considered suicide a sin but an existentialist believes sin is not defined. Hamlet?s existentialist views caused him great misery. He was loath to act because he feared the acts were pointless anyway. He had no wish to live because his life would not be remembered. Hamlet died believing his life counted for nothing.