Why We Need Hamlet

October 9, 2015

“there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

Our modern calender lists two basic reference points: BCE and AD. If we were to create a new calendar for the modern era, perhaps we could write it as before and after Shakespeare. A playwright whose works influenced every author for centuries, Shakespearean language has seeped into our daily habits and rhetoric. He created characters of such force that we know them better than we know ourselves. The celebration and spirit of his works help us to better understand human history. We only have time to focus on one character today, but perhaps Hamlet can better demonstrate how entrenched we are in Shakespeare.

Hamlet is a self-crusade in the sense of The Crusades, tortuously making himself, constantly questioning and reasoning with himself. With him Shakespeare bridges a gap of human spiritual development that no one before ably captured. Due to Hamlet's self-creation, self-debating, and dialogue, we are more aware of our own spiritual selves. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes: “That the history of the world, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development and realization of spirit – this is the true Theodicaea, the justification of God in history. Only this insight can reconcile spirit with the history of the world – viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not 'without God,' but is essentially His work.”

Hamlet, therefore, functions on two levels. First, Hamlet proves to be a mirror of self and the larger social community, reflecting the truth of ourselves back to us. This idea is bound to the historical self. Secondly, the play creates dialogue for a future self, for the immortal self, highlighting morals, paths, obstacles. Hegel also states, “The will – potentially true – mistakes itself, and separates itself from the true and proper aim by particular, limited aims. Yet it is in this struggle with itself and contrariety to its bias, that it realizes its wishes; it contends against the object which it really desires, and thus accomplishes it; for implicitly, potentially, it is reconciled.” The idea of individual rights and individual souls has not always existed. As humans gained worldly experience, they also gained independence and freedom. Hamlet expresses the individual experience.

Part of this is due to Hamlet's lengthy speeches. Shakespeare's longest play devotes most of the dialogue to Hamlet. Imagine the novelty of listening to a play where much of the speech is new or creative and catchy. Shakespeare coined many new phrases in order to breathe life into characters, give them depth and allow the audience to intimately understand the character's inner turmoil, personality and self. Shakespeare was aware that human speech is riddled with personality, that it is extremely difficult to write true emotion and that a full-bodied character must speak, not only eloquently, but uniquely. Shakespeare created his own urban dictionary as a form of character development. Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom places Shakespeare as the first 'genius' in his book Genius. Bloom writes, “Shakespeare's language is primary to his art, and is flourabundant.... The true Shakespearean difference, the uniqueness of his genius, is elsewhere, in his universality, in the persuasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preturnaturally natural.” Shakespeare created people, not characters, but people with souls, complexities, and contradictions.

According to Bloom, Shakespeare's genius stems from his ability to allow characters an element of 'self-overhearing'. This idea of hearing oneself for a brief moment as if external is quickly replaced by the knowledge that voice and audience are the same. Powerful moments of recognition occur again and again in Hamlet whose famous 'To be or not to be' recalls us to ourselves. Hamlet embodies and demonstrates the process of development and the realization of spirit that Hegel described. Bloom writes, “In the Hegelian sense, Hamlet is the freest artist of himself, and could tell us much more about what he represents, if only there were time enough. I interpret that to mean that Hamlet is the supreme artist of self-overhearing, and so could teach us at least the rudiments of that disconcerting art. To hear yourself, at least for an instant, without self-recognition, is to open your spirits to the tempests of change.” Great civilizations of human history have labored towards this openness, this space, until finally reflected in Hamlet himself, immortalized by Shakespeare's brilliant play. Bloom continues, “If to invent the ever-augmenting inner spirit, including its faculty for self-overhearing, is not the invention of the human, as we since have known the human, then perhaps we are too overwhelmed by social history and by ideologies to recognize our indebtedness to William Shakespeare.”

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

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