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Metaphysical Questions in Hamlet

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Throughout the play, Hamlet asks metaphysical questions that probe the nature of human existence, death, and the unknown. In this lesson, we will explore several types of questions he asks, including existential, ontological, and meta-fictive.

Alas, Horatio!

You might immediately recognize this image of the man holding the skull. It sums up the essential questions of life and death. In his exchange with his friend, Horatio, Hamlet conveys his truest remark in the whole play:

'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'


Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet., 1899
hamlet skull

He's a contemplative, depressed man with a philosophical mind. He raises perplexing questions so deep that all the renditions and revivals that have been produced since the play's first performance in 1600 have yet to get to the bottom of his existential dilemma.

Hamlet expresses such a deep yearning for truth that some Shakespeare scholars think of him as a uniquely fictional character who transcends his literary work. They say the character is bigger than his story.

All the questions raised in Hamlet relate in one way or another to metaphysics, a broad category of philosophy related to the basic principles being, existence, identity, and the nature of the world. Other branches of philosophy include phenomenology (experience), epistemology (knowledge), ethics (how to be right and good), and aesthetics (beauty).

This lesson explores three aspects of Hamlet's philosophy: existentialism, ontology, and the nature of dramatic narratives.

Existentialist Angst

'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,
And, by opposing, end them?'

Hamlet expresses his thoughts about existence most poignantly in this memorable monologue. He contemplates the difference between life and death (being and not being). This is the point at which Hamlet shows off his passion for existentialism, a branch of philosophy that asks questions about the nature of life and death, and a person's purpose on earth.

Hamlet debates with himself the pros and cons of continuing to live while suffering or whether to end his life in order to escape. However, he fails to come to a conclusion because of the unknowable nature of death. He considers ending his life in order to escape. On the other hand, he also questions the unknown nature of death.

'To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.'

The problem is that nobody knows what happens after death. In all likelihood, it could be much worse than living. Existential philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre understands the world as a confused and disorderly place in which a person must struggle to find his way. They believe that people do not have any essential characteristics but rather develop their unique identities in the course of their lifetime.

What Is Human Nature?

In a conversation with his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet contemplates human nature. What does it mean to be a living person, distinct from animals? Is man a noble creature, or is he simply destined to die?

'What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in 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? man delights not me.'

Here, Hamlet explores another aspect of philosophy called ontology, the study of the being and essence of things. Discussions of human nature often settle around issues of ontology. Apart from existentialism, which investigate questions of identity and what it means to be human in the world, ontology probes the characteristics of things and objects. Some central questions for ontology include:

  • Am I more alive than a plant or animal?
  • What are the fundamental properties that make an object real?

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