Hamlet’s lessons for a happy holiday season and a successful life in general. Who knew Shakespeare’s tragic Danish Prince could offer such good advice on positive mental health while careening towards a bloody end for him and his entire family?
“There is nothing either good or bad, thinking makes it so.” Hamlet speaks these few words to his friends turned pawns of his uncle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Act II, Scene 2 of the legendary play. He continues to describe Denmark as a prison, from which he cannot escape. In the moment, the Danish prince surely feels that way during this bout of melancholy. He’s recently learned that his uncle, Claudius, has murdered his father, usurped his throne, and taken his mother for a wife. He also suspects Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of falsity even at this early point, and his mood is necessarily dour. Trapped by his thoughts, the castle he calls home and the surrounding countryside has been transformed into the worst sort of dungeon. As Hamlet sees the world, it is a goodly prison itself, “in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.” Most of us are not princes, princesses, kings, or queens, playing for these kinds of stakes, but Shakespeare’s eleven simple words, a single sentence with no single word more than two syllables, perfectly capture a universal element of the human experience. One that is both incredibly obvious, and yet equally subtle, even deceptive: We all know that we are prisoners in our own minds, a victim of our own thoughts. There is nothing we experience – or can experience even in principle – that is not the product of our brains. The outside world and whatever truths it holds does not mainline directly into our minds. We have no direct access to reality. Rather, everything we experience, every observation we make is filtered, first by senses that can extract only some of reality and, even that, only piecemeal. Our eyes do not see color, shape, and motion as one coherent thing, but across different receptors for each individual aspect of an object or scene. This raw information is then subject to internal mental processes to assemble a coherent image, and extract relevant information. Only then does an experience enter consciousness, as though our minds take the real world, cut it into the thousands of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and then hastily reassemble it without all of the proper instructions. The end result of that process is all we have access to, be it good, bad, or indifferent.
Thoughts or observations alone, of course, do not define us. Rare is the thought unaccompanied by feelings. Our emotions color everything we do, often long before and long after we actually do it. Anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and more all affect our experience of an event, sometimes to a startling degree. For some people, anxiety can transform an ordinary occurrence into something overwhelming and menacing. Regret, guilt, nostalgia, a general sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, all work retrospectively on an experience, changing how we feel about it after the fact. Experience is affected by emotions and other physical factors that aren’t even directly involved, doing something while angry or tired is completely different than when relaxed and refreshed. Anger and sadness, in particular, can overwhelm all reason, making you think and act the opposite of what you might otherwise. A good overall mood, however, can sometimes even make hardship come easy. Powerful emotions like fear can warp experience so dramatically that even time seems to follow a different course. We can remember the details of a bad fall or the instant before a car accident as if they were rendered in slow motion. Of course, there is the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun, implying the opposite, that it drags when you’re not. To be certain, how emotions interact with experience is not easy to predict. We’ve all been tired or out of sorts, only to drag ourselves to some event or something almost against our will, only to have an excellent time despite ourselves. In fact, some of our most memorable experiences often occur after overcoming a desire not to have the experience. We’ve also had the opposite. We’re primed for an occasion, but for some reason things don’t quite click the way we expect, and we end up disappointed even if we can’t explain precisely why. Of course, we do not know where our emotions come from either. What makes one person sad might have little impact on another; what causes one person intense anxiety might mean nothing for another. We might be able to sympathize with a person’s feelings, empathize with their emotional state, but we can never know for sure ourselves given the unbreachable opacity of other minds. Sometimes, traumatic emotions can be powerful and completely irrational. People have all sorts of fears they can’t control, from leaving the house to heights to insects. They have all sorts of desires as well that get under their skin from who knows where, from foot fetishes to illegal behaviors.
Emotions, however, are not the only thing we can’t control. Our thoughts themselves, however logical, abstract, or inspired also seem to come from nowhere, or at least somewhere outside our conscious awareness. Everyone is familiar with the image of a lightbulb going off in someone’s head, or the eureka moment where something dawns on you that was dark a just moment earlier. The thought seems to spring into our mind, sometimes fully formed, and without any previous knowledge, as if the random pieces of a puzzle suddenly assembled themselves into a classic work of art. Shakespeare himself remarked on this aspect of our minds later in Hamlet. Act III Scene 2 features the famous “play-within-a-play,” where Hamlet stages a drama for Claudius that closely mirrors the murder of his father and intimates that he will ultimately marry Hamlet’s mother. As Hamlet put it, “the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” He stages a performance at the castle, inserting lines into an existing play that he believes will incite Claudius to admit his guilt. During the performance, the Player King delivers a lengthy speech after his queen declares that she will never marry another for love. He responds by claiming he believes she means it now, “But what we determine oft we break.” The Player King proceeds to catalog the influence of emotion on our thoughts and will. “What to ourselves in passion we propose, The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.” Violence and anger burn themselves out, joy and grief can turn from one to another on the slightest thing without warning, and love is no different, changing with our fortunes “For ‘tis a question left us yet to prove, Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.” The Player King concludes, “Our wills and fates do so contrary run That our devices still are overthrown; Our thoughts our ours, their ends none of our own,” meaning no one else can know our thoughts, but we cannot know where they come from either. We cannot say for sure whether this is one of the lines that Hamlet inserted himself, but either way it can be seen as part of a continuum of thought begun in the earlier scene. Thinking makes the world the way it is, but we have no more control over it than the whims of fate. Thus, Hamlet is in a prison of both his own making because he feels that way and because fate made his uncle kill his father and marry his mother.
Typical of Shakespeare’s all-encompassing genius, the introduction of fate provides another perspective on the human condition. What we want is rarely what we get, and most of our plans come to naught. Shakespeare revisits this idea again when Hamlet returns from the sea later to start Act V, having killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by forging the letter directing the King of England to behead him. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” Here we see the tension between circumstance and free-will. We are all confined in some way or another, some as kings, others as beggars, some beautiful, others ugly, and all points in between, but that doesn’t mean we have no sphere of action or influence over events. No choice or ability to change things. We might not be able to change places with royalty from will alone, much less aspects of our physical appearance or mental make up, and yet that should not mean that all action is useless. Hamlet being Hamlet, however, we encounter a fundamental contradiction as well: If thinking makes everything so and we cannot even control our thoughts, why bother taking action to change our state or improve our situation? This is underlined in the play itself, which is essentially about Hamlet’s complete failure to take any meaningful action despite having his father killed, and his crown and mother stolen. Hamlet has far more reason to act than most, and yet repeatedly chooses not to do so, preferring to explore this oxymoron of action in the oxymoron of language, where he appears most comfortable. As the late, great Harold Bloom described the scene with the Player King, “Whose nature is mirrored here, Hamlet’s or humankind’s? Do all of us will against our own characters/fates, so that our designs are always thwarted? If character is fate, so that there are no accidents, then our desires do not matter. Freud thought it was all over before our first birthday; Hamlet seems to give us even less freedom from overdetermination. If everything that ever will happen to you is only a mirror of your own character, then holding the mirror up to nature becomes rather a dark activity: all of us are the follow of time, victims of an unfolding we cannot affect.”
A dark view, certainly, but fortunately, not the only view presented by either Shakespeare or even Hamlet within the play. Hamlet himself can be seen as a victim of fate until he returns from England in the fifth act. While away, he takes what might be the only decisive action in the play, consigning his former friends to death in exchange for his own freedom. He returns a much freer man himself, as though he had cast off the thinking that previously confined him to prison. Mr. Bloom described him as “the freest artist of himself in all literature.” The razor wit is still present as he remarks on gravediggers singing while they work, “Has this fellow no feeling of his business? He sings in grave-making,” and ponders who the deceased might be in another plot, “This might be the pate of a politician which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?” At the same time, there is an earnestness to the jests, a reduction in his mania, and a general comfort with his only true friend, Horatio, that has been absent so far. Previously, Hamlet has used his intelligence and skill at pithy observations primarily to goad his different adversaries. He says what he thinks will elicit a reaction from them, the same way he staged the play-within-a-play to prod Claudius to admit his guilt, rather than an example of what he actually thinks or believes. The returned Hamlet is different, however, starting from his first real reminiscence of a childhood memory when he learns he holds the skull of the former court jester, Yorick. “I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” For the first time, he expresses his love of Ophelia, who has drowned in a fit of madness while he was away. “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?”
To be sure, Hamlet proceeds from there to his tragic end, resulting in the death of his mother, his uncle, and Laertes, but he does so with a certain resigned dignity. At points, he almost seems to be enjoying it, remarking that “The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” He repeats the phrase while in his death throes, and yet still can’t resist the imagery of the play-within-a-play, remarking at the audience gathered for the final duel. “Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest), O, I could tell you—But let it be.” At the very end, he worries only about his wounded name, “O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind Me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story.” Hamlet cannot know what becomes of him after he sheds this mortal coil and enters the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns to quote his immortal soliloquy earlier in the play, but Shakespeare at least hints that the resurrection of his reputation will come to fruition. Fortinbras of Norway storms the castle shortly after Hamlet dies, and declares that the Danish Prince should be offered full military honors. “Let four captains Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, For he was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royal; and for his passage, The soldier’s music and the rite of war Speak loudly for him.” Whether or not any of this was worth it, or perhaps more importantly whether it could have turned out any other way after Claudius put events in motion by killing Hamlet’s father is beyond our ability to answer. It might not matter anyway as we can assume Fortinbras would have sacked the castle regardless of who was in power, another example of the contradictions that undergird the entire play and ultimately life itself. It is worth mentioning that Shakespeare himself saved Hamlet’s good name by crafting the world’s greatest and most famous play around him, making him one of the most recognizable characters in all of human history,
At the same time, taking life lessons from Hamlet, especially during the holiday season, is a tricky proposition. After all, he leads most of the characters in the play to their deaths and he is personally responsible for at least three of them. Fictional or not, he is not a man we should seek to emulate. This does not mean that no valuable lessons are contained in the play itself and various supporting interpretations. For one, it is undoubtedly true that the only thing we truly have is our experience of the moment. This experience is contingent on the vagaries of fate and our own minds, combining everything we’ve done and seen and thought into one all-consuming portrait of the present, but the one constant in life is that we cannot suppress consciousness and the experience of reality it brings save for sleep and drugs. We are, all of us, stuck in every moment of our lives, all day, every day, whether we like it or not. There is no fast forward, no means to escape until the next moment comes. Our minds can turn any or all of these moments into prison or paradise, but it can only do so moment by moment. There is no universal “happiness” state where every moment is made better according to our will. Though most everything we experience is a product of all that came before, in the end, there is only each moment passing by. The happiest person in the world will have their share of sad, miserable moments. This is unavoidable and to some extent uncontrollable. We must accept that, but we should not forgo control entirely. Emotions are opaque, but they are not entirely impenetrable. If we probe and question, check ourselves, and keep asking why, why, why, we can influence the outcome, pushing our mental state, however slightly, in a more positive direction. One push leads to another, and so the appropriate merriment cannot be too far away – if we truly want it and let our thinking make it so. The alternative is to make of your life a prison. The choice is ultimately yours, or at least the choice to try is yours. Try your best and you could have a very merry Christmas the way Hamlet might’ve, had he been born into a better world.