Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Existentialism
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
What is mankind? Who am I? What is the meaning of life? These are multifaceted existential questions that ancient and modern philosophies have yet to adequately answer. Countless philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of answers to these questions but died before finding a suitable answer. Certainly, the philosophy of existentialism is an interesting phenomenon. The dictionary defines existentialism as a "philosophical movement . . . centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will" ("Existentialism"). The character Hamlet from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet explores these existential questions, seeking truth and understanding as he tries to come to grips with his father's death. In the end, Hamlet proves to be an exceedingly existential character.
Prince Hamlet is a university student who enjoys contemplating difficult philosophical questions. When his father, king of Denmark, dies, he returns home to find evidence of foul play in his father’s death. The Ghost of Hamlet (the dead king) tells Prince Hamlet that his uncle Claudius is the murderer. Throughout the rest of the play, Hamlet seeks to prove Claudius’ guilt before he takes action against Claudius. However, Hamlet is pensive ad extremum, at times even brooding; he constantly overuses his intellect while ignoring his emotions and ignoring what "feels right." His extreme logic causes him to delay his revenge against Claudius until the final scene of the play where he kills Claudius and proves that he has progressed into a truly existential character.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet acts out of pure intellect and processed logic. He suppresses his natural instincts, his emotions, and trusts only in the power of his intelligence. For instance, when Hamlet encounters his father's ghost, he does not believe it is his father—even though he has an emotional reaction upon seeing it. Hamlet says “Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell / Why thy canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death, / Have burst their cerements . . . Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?” (I.iv.46-48,57). Hamlet is so confused by the sight of his father’s ghost that he is unsure of how to act. His intellect tells him that the sight is not possible, however his emotions tell him otherwise. However, he stifles his emotion and retains his doubts about the ghost. Later, Hamlet plans a play where actors re-enact the king's murder in an effort to prove the validity of what the ghost has told him.
Although Hamlet appears to be the epitome of an anti-existentialist from the outset of the story, Hamlet's logic slowly begins to unravel scene by scene, like a blood-soaked bandage, with layer after layer revealing snippets of Hamlet's emotion and feeling. When Hamlet utters the famous lines " To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles " he is contemplating the thought of suicide and wishing that God had not made suicide a sin (III.i.58-61). Hamlet's anxiety, uncertainty, and tensions cause him to doubt the power of reason alone to solve his problems. Hamlet begins to realize that reason is impotent to deal with the depths of human life—one of the central assertions of existentialism (Bigelow, paragraph 6). Perhaps this is why Hamlet feigns madness; he realizes that he lacks the emotions to avenge his father's death. Indeed, Hamlet does go temporarily insane in Act I, scene ii, and it is during this time when he is able to act out of pure sensation, with no thoughts about the consequences of what he says or does (e.g. when he undeservingly criticizes Ophelia). However, in uniting his emotions and reason, Hamlet is careful to avoid the temptation to commit suicide because if one commits suicide to escape life's pain, then one is damned to eternal suffering in hell. To Hamlet (and most other people of the 1600s), suicide is morally wrong. By making the decision to stay alive and fight Claudius' corruption, Hamlet demonstrates existential qualities. However, this is not the only scene where Hamlet acts existentially.
In Act IV, Hamlet encounters alienation and nothingness when he meets a Norwegian captain under the command of Fortinbras. When Hamlet asks the captain about the cause and purpose of the conflict, he is shocked to learn that the countries' armies will go to war over "a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name" (IV.iv.98-99). After Hamlet recovers from the shock of the captain's honesty, he is dumbstruck by the thought that Fortinbras would sacrifice the lives of thousands of men for an admittedly inferior "patch of land." At this point in the play, Hamlet is still struggling with his own inaction, unable to kill Claudius even though he knows of his guilt. Hamlet has a good reason to kill Claudius, yet he fails to do it. How can Fortinbras sacrifice so much for such a futile purpose? In this scene, Hamlet realizes the brutality of humanity and first ponders the idea that no one is safe—another central pillar of existentialism.
From this point on, Hamlet declares that he will have bloody thoughts. "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (IV.iv.9.56). Hamlet is impressed by the forcefulness of characters like Fortinbras and Laertes, who turn thought into action quickly (Phillips). Laertes, who, like Hamlet, has a father to avenge, does not hesitate for a moment when seeking vengeance on his father's murderer. As Hamlet decides to strive for this personal quality, he begins to act increasingly existential and decreasingly reflective.
When Hamlet finally does achieve his father’s vengeance, he was not spurred to it on his own, but by watching his mother and Ophelia die in front of his own eyes. Furthermore, as Hamlet realized that he had only two minutes to survive, he really had nothing to lose; this is when he made his move to stab and poison Claudius.
Prince Hamlet is introduced as a reflective, slow-to-act character. While he stays true to this characterization for almost the entire play, he does undergo a transformation by the end of the play. By the end, Hamlet decides that he is no longer going to deprive himself of the revenge he so badly desires against Claudius, so he kills him. At this point, Hamlet is existential. He is the only character who fights back against Claudius’s usurpation of the throne, and he accepts the consequences of his actions (i.e. death) without a flinch. This final existential act is what qualifies Hamlet as an existential character in an existential drama at a time when existentialism did not exist in literature.
Bigelow, Gordon E. “A Primer of Existentialism.” The Practical Stylist with Readings. N.p.: n.p., n.d.
“Existentialism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated . 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/existentialism>.
Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on Hamlet. 4 Mar. 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet/>.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Character Analysis Essay - "Hamlet"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/character-analysis-hamlet/>.
There's a persistent myth about the SAT Essay: the idea that you can't prepare content because you don't see the prompt until the day of the test. This is a myth because, in order to be standardized, the test has to require the same complexity of argument in every SAT essay question: yes or no, this or that, what causes what.
And since all these arguments are very simple, almost every SAT essay argument can be boiled down to one of the 6 we list here. In addition to that, though, we also explain how to argue each one, and give you sample support for both sides of every argument. Read on for the inside scoop on this important aspect of the SAT.
SAT Essay prompts are unlike any other writing assignment. The questions are extremely general, asking things like "is the world changing for the better," but they only ever require a very simplistic thesis statement about a complex idea. There are, for example, many ways in which the world is and is not changing for the better. The most "accurate" answer would have to be "yes AND no," but that's the opposite of what you should say on the SAT.
Because on the SAT Essay, simplicity and clarity is the name of the game. You are expected to make a broad, definitive statement about what people 'should' do or whether something is possible. You don't have to believe it, you just have to present a few examples (between one and three) that can show why your statement is correct. In this way, the SAT Essay is easier than most students think.
All of the essay questions in this article are taken from real SATs or College Board prep materials. We've categorized them not by their content--for example, "success" or "personality"--but rather by their reasoning. This is because the logic of the question, not its content, is what determines the best argument on which to build your essay.
For each type of SAT essay question below, we give you 3 sample prompts similar to what you'll run into, and a breakdown of how to argue either side of any SAT essay question of that type. You'll get detailed SAT essay examples that guide you through how to construct an argument.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 1: Discuss what people should do
This type of SAT essay question lends itself to many different kinds of examples. Anything that involves people and their choices is fair game. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
- be valued according to their capabilities rather than their achievements?
- weight all opinions equally, or place more weight on informed opinions?
- always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people should always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones," or "no, people should not always value new things, ideas, or values over older ones."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if you argue "Yes, people should value new things" as your thesis, you can give evidence of a time when people valued new things and it turned out well, or of a time when people didn't value innovation and it turned out poorly.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-world or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes for ideas). To support the Yes thesis with evidence of when people valued new things with success, we could talk about Civil Rights in the United States, the Industrial Revolution, FDR's new deal, or any other example dealign with positive innovation. We could also discuss evidence where refusal to accept new things turned out poorly, like fear of vaccinations and Galileo being excommunicated for his (true) scientific beliefs.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 2: Discuss which of two things is better
These questions can be fodder for 12-scoring essays because they can be answered so simply: this thing is better than that thing. Then you just have to think of 1-3 examples in which that thing worked and/or in which the other thing didn't work. See the diagram below for more information on how this can be done.
Is it better...
- to take an idealistic approach or a practical approach?
- to do fulfilling or high-paying work?
- to use cooperation or competition to achieve success?
Step 1: Pick a side. "It is better to use cooperation to achieve success," or "it is better to use competition to achieve success."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Similar to Prompt Type 1 above, in this case you can use evidence that supports your thesis, or argues against the opposite thesis. For example, if you write that "Cooperation is better to achieve success," you can use evidence on a time when cooperation led to success, or when competition led to failure.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (blue boxes). Following our "cooperation is better" thesis, we can talk about when people cooperated to great success - like the Civil Rights movement, or Abraham Lincoln's cabinet during the Civil War. We could also discuss how competition is inferior through examples like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, or the North Korea vs South Korea standoff.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 3: Support or refute counterintuitive statements
These can be the toughest SAT essay prompts--if you don't know how to tackle them. The easiest way to really knock this essay type out of the park is to say yes, it is possible, and then think of an example. The other side--no, it isn't possible--is harder to logically prove, but it can be done. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is it possible for….
- deception to have good results?
- working to reach an objective to be valuable even if the objective is not reached?
- any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, it is possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," or "no, it is not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Unlike the two prompt types above, this one is more simplistic - just find evidence that can support your thesis in a straightforward way. If you write "No, it's not possible for any obstacle to be turned into something beneficial," you just need to find evidence for when obstacles exist but don't lead to anything helpful.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support the No thesis, we could use the example of how gender discrimination against women and income inequality has caused far more harm than the good it has caused.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 4: Cause and effect
These can be logically complicated, depending on which side you choose. If you say x is the result of y, then you just have to think of 1-3 examples that illustrate it. If you choose the other side, though, then you have a harder logical task in front of you--your examples have to fit a much narrower definition to make sense. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
Is __ the result of __?
- Is a successful community the result of individuals sacrificing their personal goals?
- Is accomplishment the result of freedom to do things one's own way?
- Is learning the result of experiencing difficulties?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," or "no, learning is not the result of experiencing difficulties."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). For example, if our thesis is "Yes, learning is the result of experiencing difficulties," we can either argue with evidence of a time when learning IS the result of difficulty, or when a lack of difficulty led to an absence of learning. Both types of evidence support your thesis.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). For our Yes thesis, we could talk about how the difficulty of unmanageable healthcare costs in the USA led to learning and the Affordable Care Act. We could also use the other type of evidence and talk about how Jay Gatsby's lack of difficulty in having immense wealth led to poor learning about what really makes him happy.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 5: Generalize about the state of the world
These kinds of SAT essay prompts are so open-ended that they lend themselves to all kinds of examples and interpretations. But for this same reason, they can be overwhelming and confusing. See the diagram below for more information on how this works.
What is the modern world like?
- Is the world more in need of creativity now more than ever?
- Is the world actually harder to understand due to the abundance of information now available?
- Is the world changing in a positive way?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, the world is changing in a positive way," or "no, the world is not changing in a positive way."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the Yes thesis. We can use evidence that problems in the past that are being solved today, or innovations today that didn't previously exist.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). To support our Yes thesis, we can find examples of problems that are better now - women's rights, slavery, and reduced violence. We can also discuss recent innovations that dramatically improve quality of life, like the Internet and widespread access to education.
SAT Essay Prompt Type 6: Generalize about people
Much like the "state of the world" questions, these can be supported by almost anything, but can also get away from you if you're not careful. See the diagram below for some ideas of how to manage these prompts.
What are people like?
- Do people underestimate the value of community due to our culture of individualism?
- Are people defined by their occupations?
- Do people learn from the past?
Step 1: Pick a side. "Yes, people learn from the past," or "no, people do not learn from the past."
Step 2: Consider what would logically support your statement (see green boxes for a breakdown of the types of support you should use). Let's consider the No thesis that people don't learn from the past - we would have to find an example of when someone repeated a mistake that they could have avoided from history.
Step 3: Quickly think of 1-3 real-life or literary examples that fit the criteria in Step 2 (see blue boxes). A great example to use for our No thesis is comparing Hitler and Germany to Napoleon. In 1812, Napoleon fought a war on multiple fronts, fighting the Spanish army and the Russian Empire simultaneously. This led to a drastic dilution of focus and led to his defeat. A century later in World War 2, Hitler fought on two fronts as well, facing the Allies in Europe and Russia at the same time. He too was defeated through this mistake.
What do I do now?
Now that you know the basic types of SAT essay prompts and the types of arguments they require, what can you do with this information?
A few different things: one is to practice with these questions, thinking of one or two examples to support at least one answer to each question. We've written a guide to 6 SAT essay examples you can use to answer nearly every prompt.
We show you how to construct an SAT essay, step by step. If you want to get a perfect SAT essay score, read this.
Another is to take a look at our comprehensive SAT essay prompts article, which gives you lots more questions to think about answering and supporting with the arguments above.
Finally, make sure you read our 15 SAT essay tips to know how to get an edge on the essay.
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