• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #137: Hamlet


A skull of infinite jest

Hamlet is one of the great works in English literature for many reasons, but among them is the fact that it can serve as a bit of a cipher. Much like the Bible itself, Shakespeare's longest work has been interpreted many different ways, through many different lenses, and subject to appropriation by all manner of social and political agendas. Is the Prince of Denmark mad or brilliant? Is Ophelia a stereotype of hysterical femininity, or a post-modern paragon of womynhood? The play is so dense and so intricate that it defies simplistic framing and invites amateurish study. Like so:

For me, the central conflict and timeless agony is Hamlet's struggle with the tensions between thinking and feeling, and between intention and action. He is at war with himself far more than with the external forces in his life. If he could ever get his mind and heart on the same page, he would have a much better chance at suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Yes, he ponders death and suicide as he endures teen angst over his hot-and-cold girlfriend, and wrestles with grief over his father's death and his own reluctance to engage in vengeance against his uncle. But the infamous "to be or not to be" is as much about whether we live while we live, whether we pursue our aims with passion or whether we remain safe and snug in harbors of our own making. Hamlet is a smart guy, and he sees the dangers of the open sea. He knows that an action done is not easily undone. And so he dithers, and he worries, and he chews at choices like a dog on a bone. In the end, the tragedy results not from his action but from his inaction. He is the anti-Oedipus, a man who hastens his fate not by actively trying to avoid it, but by passively allowing it to happen.

There's an object lesson here, aside from the furious host of other messages and themes and subtexts the play is so thick with. Internal conflicts can be as deadly as those we think exist in the world outside ourselves. And yes, you can worry yourself to death. Action carries risk, but so does inaction. There are no safe harbors, not really.

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