The moody prince of Denmark is not who you’d first look to for life advice. His visible frustration with his surroundings, family, and his own inertness should be an example of how not to deal with life. Yet, the more we look at the character himself, the more we can feel and see our own frustrations with modern life.
For those prepared to meet Hamlet on his own terms, he’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of societal pressures. After all, the play is about a society divided about even the things everyone should agree on.
Hamlet’s Denmark can’t even agree on how to grieve a loved one properly. Hamlet is still in mourning two months on and his mother has gone off and remarried.
Hamlet shows us the value of feeling our emotions.
In Act I, Scene 2, Hamlet’s own mother berates his continuing grief over his father. Worse still, the people who publicly humiliate him are the very two people who should have been comforting him. I didn’t appreciate this myself until my father passed away suddenly.
My mother was far more sympathetic than Hamlet’s.
Within six months—the same length of a long-term deployment when I was a kid—I was supposed to be “over it.” Poor Hamlet only had two months. I know exactly what it feels like to see everyone else move on, like nothing happened while you’re still dealing with a missing piece somewhere.
Polite society will tell us to just deal with it and put on a happy face. Hamlet doesn’t do that. He allows himself to feel his emotions—allows himself the grief, the anger, the bitterness, and the insecurity. You can argue all day about whether this was beneficial, but I think it was a heck of a lot better than toeing the line.
Laertes toe the line and look how that ended up. He leads an outright rebellion and then conspires to commit murder with another murderer.
Hamlet shows us we can achieve what we want on our terms
Ok, I can hear it now.
Yes, Hamlet shows us something about achievement. The man who spends most of the play worrying over his lack of action does, when you look at it, achieve what he set out to do at the beginning. Not only that, he achieves what he set out to do without having to resort to plots and stratagems. Or cold-blooded murder.
Hamlet was university educated and clearly of a different mind than his father in many respects. Fighting without just cause being one of them. Hamlet had just cause, but he had no evidence aside from the ghost’s word and his own observations during a play at court.
Not until he discovers the writ from Claudius, ordering his execution once they arrive in England.
That was a move against his own life. Which meant he could then act. He was the son of a king. His father’s murderer threatened him. In writing. Which means, as the son of a king—a king himself in the making—he could act.
Nearly everything was against him, too. I think we can all relate to that in our lives. We’ve all had those moments where we feel not only along but ineffectual.
Hamlet shows us we can feel all those things and still achieve what we set out to do.
Hamlet shows us the value of waiting for answers.
Hustle-culture whispers we must make things happen for them to happen at all. This leaves very little room for deliberation or thought. And this can damage us in more ways than we can imagine. Not to mention that we can end up making some very terrible blunders.
What if Hamlet had just gone in and killed Claudius after listening to his father’s ghost? The play would certainly have been over sooner. But would it have achieved the same thing? I would argue not.
Polonius would have still lived, but do you honestly think a man who is a chronic meddler would have contributed that much to a thriving kingdom? This is the man who basically called his daughter an idiot and then tried to use her feelings against Hamlet.
Had Hamlet acted any sooner than he had, he not have been acting with any amount of authenticity. He’s not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are there to spy on their old friend with no consideration to loyalty or love. He’s also not Laertes who is prone to emotional outbursts which cause more problems than they cure.
Hamlet is none of those things. The one time he is, Polonius is once again playing the part of spymaster. Hardly an innocent bystander.
There is value in waiting, taking a breath, and debating the correct course of action. We may all know what must be done, but we may not know how we should do it. While Hamlet’s long deliberation still puzzles us, it should teach us the value of waiting for things to happen.
Otherwise, we will end up leading a rebellion that gets nowhere. Like Laertes.
Hamlet and the Modern World
Looking at Hamlet’s actions as an adult, we find less confusion and more deliberation. We still may not agree with all of his actions, but I think we can better appreciate some of his ways of dealing with the situation he was in.
Imagine being publicly humiliated for showing emotions that aren’t popular, then forbidden to live your life, then being constantly spied upon, then having the love of your life taken from you, all while knowing a crime had been committed.
Translate that into our modern society for a moment. How many of us have been browbeaten into cancelling PTO? Have you ever felt like there was always someone looking over your shoulder waiting for you to mess up? When was the last time you were told your life choices weren’t acceptable?
It happens to us every single day. We couldn’t even talk about our mental health until recently.
We are all Hamlet trying to get through the mess that can be the modern world. The real question is whether we are going to meet that mess with his deliberation. Or if we are going to rush in before we have all the facts.
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