Points to Ponder

1. Hamlet has been called the first representation of modern man on stage. Why might this be so?

If the modern age is characterized by skepticism and doubt, then it might be suggested that Hamlet is the stage’s first representative of modern man. Hamlet is one for whom reality is dubious and uncertain. Schooled abroad in a college known for a revolutionary and radical professor, Hamlet has absorbed a doctrine that is anything but settled, refined, traditional, or stable. A firm grasp of the old world’s perspective is what Hamlet lacks; his vision is overwhelmed by doubt, unbelief, disgust, and distrust. His very love letter to Ophelia is obsessed with doubt. Part of the reason he fails to avenge his father straightaway is that he has doubts about whether the ghost is good or evil.

Modern philosophy is also a philosophy of doubt. Beginning with the skepticism of Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and continuing on with the work of Kant, the thoughtful analyses of the world in modern times is best characterized by a reluctance to assert anything definitively. Hamlet’s problem is that he is unable to say why he can see the majestic wonders of nature yet cannot enjoy or admire them. He is disconnected, in other words, from reality.

This disconnect may be said to characterize modern man. It is in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and in Eliot’s Waste Land. It defines the age. Before the fracturing of the old world with the Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution, science was scholastic rather than empirical; universals were acknowledged rather than mistrusted. The fracture occurred at about the time Shakespeare took to the stage. For a man who reflected the time in which he lived, it is not surprising to find the first representation of modern man in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet was born, after all, at around the same time the idea of the modern man came into existence.

2. Some critics maintain that Hamlet is only feigning madness....

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Essays About Hamlet