Hamlet as a person of Renaissance: is Hamlet a humanist?
The humanism of Hamlet, his options to choose between right and wrong and creating his decisions using intellect. The human nature and the dignity of humanity. Hamlet as a famous Shakespearean protagonist. Using of soliloquies to articulate emotions.
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Hamlet as a person of Renaissance: is Hamlet a humanist?
I think, humanism affects Hamlet in a number of different ways throughout the play, mainly because he displays his options to choose between right and wrong and creates his decisions using his intellect. His individual thought allows him to form these decisions but it this fatal flaw? All humans are fallible for many different reasons and it seems that in Hamlet's quest for further knowledge and he search to answer unanswerable questions, he finds his downfall. However, Hamlet is an archetypal liberal humanist embodying the ongoing argument.
If we refer to the term `humanism' we are directed to the Renaissance period and a very imprecise definition of its exact meaning. This is mainly because it is a very complex word in which to attach a single definition to. Therefore we have to look at it in the context in which we are seeking to analyze. To sum up `humanism' with respect to Hamlet refers to human nature and `the dignity of humanity. The Renaissance was a period which broke away from medieval thoughts and values that were now thought to be overly religious and constrictive and formed new ideas that focused upon the individual; in effect the birth of humanism and humanist thought. Medieval thinking that claimed that `the sinful, bestial aspects of humanity, which called for treating the present life as a cesspool of temporary evil that humans must reject through ascetic practices in preparation for the afterlife' contrasted greatly with the humanist thought of viewing the present life as a worthwhile event. With these new humanist thoughts it could have been possible to push religion to the side line in favour of `the potential of human beings than to the reliance of human beings on God'. In fact humanists did not completely reject God, especially considering the strength of the Catholic Church at this time, but they focused upon individuals in this life rather than the next. However, to much extent they did discard the idea of the afterlife or at least they did not concern themselves with the preparation for death.
Hamlet was undeniably an `archetype', he was a common representative of life at the time of the Renaissance, he was `everyman' but to refer to Hamlet as an archetypal humanist, we first must look at Shakespeare himself as a humanist. Of course he was heavily influenced by the classical and Renaissance ideas of `reason and of mankind and human individualism' but Shakespeare did not ever dismiss religion as untrue or the belief in God as unimportant, so in many cases he could not be entitled a proper humanist. In fact in many of Shakespeare's plays the characters often believe in devils, ghosts and witches, beliefs that were familiar and very common at this time. In this respect Hamlet has attributes of both a humanist and Renaissance man, and is simply a product of his time who is caught between medieval thoughts and new found moral choices that can be made for human, rather than religious reasons. This idea is important to dwell upon, as it seems to create a contradiction. How can Hamlet be both a medieval and a Renaissance man? Being born into a world in which religious beliefs are stamped upon him and then being faced with new thoughts that allow him to question the mere existence of humanity creates an immense inconsistency for this character. This is mirrored throughout the play as we follow Hamlet on his journey through his conscience, his `antic disposition' and what he believes is right and wrong.
Hamlet is a very famous Shakespearean protagonist but he is possibly not what we would expect from Shakespeare's leading role. In his soliloquies we are given insight into the doubts and uncertainties within Hamlet's life and we are expected to empery these with his dilemmas and moral choices. The play then turns around and we discover that it is not simply a Shakespearean tragedy or a revenge play but it is much more complex and sub-textually we can read much further into the actions of Hamlet and some of the characters around him. By doing so we can build up a picture of whether Hamlet truly was an archetypal humanist or whether he simply carried some of the initial qualities and thoughts of humanist thinking which he over ruled with traditional principles. To come to this conclusion we must, throughout, return to look at the contradictions within this play and establish whether or not this would allow us to make one final irrefutable answer to the statement, `Hamlet is the archetypal liberal humanist' or is he simply just toying with the ideas?
Shakespeare is famous for his use of soliloquies to articulate the character's emotions at the time. Looking in depth at some of Hamlet's soliloquies gives us a very apparent insight into his humanist views and of course his `ante-humanist' views as well. In Act 2 Scene 2, although not a soliloquy, Hamlet is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and seems to express his humanist views almost exactly:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble
in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and
moving, how express and admirable in action, how
like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And
yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
It is important to look at this speech and Hamlet's views on humankind as he builds up `an elaborate and glorified picture of the earth and humanity before declaring it all merely a «quintessence of dust.» ' In fact Hamlet continues to glorify the whole of humanity and heighten the greatness of human beings, only to end with a physical representation of death, as humankind merely as dust. Ending on this representation of death also highlights how Hamlet claims `that we are no more than part of a continuing cycle in which we are born from and return to the earth, no greater or less than any other creature'. He also seems to be stating that humankind's great qualities seem to have no true immense effect upon the world. This significant question is also asked again in Act 4 Scene 4 where Hamlet's apprehension of being unable to find the answer becomes even clearer and he states `What is a man,/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.' Although this is a rhetorical question it emphasises the uncertainties within Hamlet's mind and how he is anxious to uncover the answer. We are also directed to a comparison between man and beast and what separates us, the obvious difference being that we have a conscience and an ability to think, learn, love and be honourable. God gave Hamlet and human's reason and Hamlet expresses how he can use it, although it is clearly full of contradictions. We see a return to medieval thinking as Hamlet states that his thoughts will «be bloody, or be nothing worth» because «honours at the stake». He is torn between the two worlds where once again honour is introduced but we are forced to ask ourselves do Hamlet's actions contradict his words, it is an example of «Shakespeare showing that what someone says is not always what he believes». In fact at such a time when what was not understood was generally discarded, we can see that Hamlet's thinking and understanding leads him nowhere, especially at this point in the play.
As well as Hamlet's words not necessarily being what he believes we are also faced with many examples of Hamlet's words contradicting his actions. Indeed there is an inconsistency between Hamlet's words and actions as he often decides what he will do and then decides against it. This is evident in the universally famous speech «To be, or not to be» where we face many problems in examining Hamlet as a humanist, especially his essentially humanist interpretation of death:
«To die, to sleep -
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to… To die, to sleep -
To sleep, perchance to dream»
Hamlet is debating whether death is truly the end of life or whether it is the beginning of something much more frightening that we can never know. Traditionally humanists do not believe in the afterlife, which before now we suspect Hamlet does not. However, this is the first display of Hamlet's fear of the afterlife and these deeply embedded thoughts prevent him from seeking revenge on his uncle because he knows what is right and what is wrong. The afterlife is a deeply religious thought and it is interesting to point out that the only other character that seems to concern himself with this thought is, ironically, Claudius. At points throughout the play Claudius attempts to prey, but cannot because he cannot repent, he only tries to receive forgiveness because of his fear of the afterlife. We are faced with the idea that only God can take life and decide the fate of man, which is also mirrored in Hamlet's intended actions. Does Hamlet have the right to decide who can live? It is almost as if to deny fate being carried out is a sin in itself.
humanism hamlet protagonist renaissance
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