Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

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Marilyn Simon writes in The Conversation:

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or do I create myself through the process of “unfolding” itself? Is there a real “myself” underneath the layers of the pre-existing social and biological conditions which constitute my material reality? If so, how do I know it when I see it, if not for the social expectations placed upon me to self-actualize by seeking myself out? “Who’s there?” That is the question. And it is not a simple one. On the contrary, it is an inscrutable question, and even those who claim to have the answer cannot communicate it because we cannot know whether what they’re showing us is the real them or merely a layer that they haven’t fully unfolded.

Though Hamlet himself is often criticized (most frequently by disenchanted high school teachers) as having the “fatal flaw” of indecision and inaction, he is in fact an incredibly dynamic character, constantly shifting in his relationship to his own sense of self. The play begins with Hamlet taking a decidedly modern position on his relationship to himself. It is one that resonates with our current cultural moment of gender identities, defined as “the deep and intimate feeling a person has of themselves.” “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” Hamlet says in his first soliloquy (1.2.129–30). Hamlet is asking for a release from his “solid flesh”—that is, his body—so that he can instead become “dew,” which is something pure, uncorrupted, and ethereal. He feels constrained by his body. Who he is on the inside, his “deep and intimate feeling,” is what he wishes to become. Curiously, the word “solid” in this passage is one of those funny words in Shakespeare that is different in three versions of the play. The earliest versions of this play, those we consider “authorial,” spell this word differently: one is “solid,” another “sallied,” meaning attacked or assailed, and another “sullied,” meaning polluted and defiled. We cannot know, of course, what single meaning Shakespeare intended, or even—a trick of the bard—if he intended all three. The point is that Hamlet does feel constrained, degraded, and assailed by his body. He finds his physicality to be a hindrance to his inwardly held value. His “solid flesh” exists as an arbitrary and unfortunate limit to his innate feeling of himself, his felt essence. The world as it is, by contrast, is a fetid and soiled place. “’Tis an unweeded garden,” he says, “That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135–37).

Hamlet is, as we all know, a prince. Much of what he rejects as “rank” and offensive is his social status, both the privileges and the responsibilities that come with it. (He’s basically a Prince Harry who finds that royalty cramps his style.) Hamlet’s life is predetermined, his role entirely socially constructed. “His greatness weighed,” Laertes says, “his will is not his own, / For he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3.16–17). Once again, I’m struck by the contemporary resonances of Hamlet’s angst. Socially constructed roles, those instilled in us from birth, form us and condition us, curtailing our wills, molding our identities. We are all “subject to our birth” to some degree. And often this subjugation is an affront to our innate and intimate feelings. It restricts us, and makes our wills not our own. Hamlet is entirely on side with our progressive values of rejecting such constraints. He was there before us.

The irony is, though, that Hamlet’s push to be and act “authentically” paralyzes him, and he isn’t able to act at all. Hamlet’s dead father tasks the young prince with avenging his murder, repairing his mother’s virtue, and restoring health to the entire country of Denmark. None of this was chosen by Hamlet, who wants to instead continue his university studies in Germany. For the first half of the play, Hamlet wrestles with the pointlessness of doing anything if nothing is chosen by us. We live assailed by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” under the tyranny of cause and effect. The rage Hamlet feels during the first three acts of the play is not directed towards Claudius (though he does hate his uncle/stepfather), but rather towards Fate, towards the “strumpet fortune” who has her way with us, regardless of our personal feelings. “Our wills and fates do so contrary run,” the play says, “That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own” (3.2.199–201). What we are, what we want to do, what we think and believe are all irrelevant. We live instead in a world where, to be blunt, shit just happens. We are creatures of contingencies. At best, we make it through life by dodging fortune’s slings and arrows. It is the word “still” that strikes me in this passage. It connotes something that occurs continuously, that is both unmoving and ongoing. We might believe ourselves now to be beyond the threshold of such contingencies. Contemporary ethics seems to value the innate feelings of an individual more than a sense of duty or submission to one’s socially constructed or biologically determined role. Hamlet shares our frustrations. He embodies them. At every turn Hamlet rails against his birth, that primal and unchosen event which determines all others. And though there is a large part of him that wants to kill Claudius, Hamlet finds that he can’t. Hamlet’s thoughts instead tend towards killing himself, doing away with his suffering through the ultimate act of self expression by finding his “quietus” with a “bare bodkin.”

Shakespeare’s insight here is astounding. Hamlet wants to be free of the “solid flesh” that encases his dewy essence, but it is his inwardness itself that is the problem. “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” the prince says, “were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.252–54). Limit, the realities of external and unchosen constraints, are ostensibly what troubles Hamlet. Yet here he admits, almost as an afterthought, that the limit exists within him. Or rather, the limitlessness he fantasizes about experiencing is prevented by … what, exactly? His “bad dreams”? But what are those? Is it a dewy purity or a dark abyss that lurks within us? When Hamlet “unfolds himself,” what does he discover? It is one thing to have an intimate sense of who we believe ourselves to be, but are we really who we wish to think we are?

Hamlet insists that he is an authentic, genuine self. “Seems, madam?” he says to Gertrude, who asks him why he always seems to be so despondent, “Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems.’” It isn’t, Hamlet goes on, his clothes, nor the way he looks, nor his behaviour, nor even his own face that “can denote me truly. These indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play; / But I have that within which passeth show— / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.76, 83–86). The problems, of course, for Hamlet are two-fold: on the one hand, whatever it is within us literally “passes show,” it is inexpressible. We all feel as though we have some innate sense of ourselves, of our value, our essence, our soul. But that inner self can always only remain on the inside. All we can do is attempt to show others our innate feelings by how we look, dress, and act, but those superficial things will always be inadequate. And the gap between who we feel ourselves to be and how we show others what we are will become a site of insufficiency, and thus anxiety. How can we ever measure up to the feelings we have on the inside? On the other hand, Hamlet admits that what is inside himself isn’t necessarily what he’d like to find there. What are these “bad dreams”? This, too, is deeply human; we are usually not as good or pure as we would like to believe. Perhaps it is the murderer Claudius, and not Hamlet, who gives full outward expression to his inner feelings.

It is the tension between knowing himself and having to live up to the social expectations that are not reflective of his inner choices which fuels Hamlet’s impotent rage throughout much of the play. In Act Four, however,  . , ,

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Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2021 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Psychology

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