Existentialism In Shakespeare Actions Speak Louder Than Soliloquies

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Actions Speak Louder than Soliloquies: Existentialism in Hamlet
In the 1600s, existentialism did not yet exist in name, but the ideas behind the movement were circulating during William Shakespeare’s time. Existentialism as we define it now focuses on “existence before essence,” the idea that humans exist and then write their own narratives, not the other way around (Crowell). One of the most influential leaders of the existentialist movement was Jean-Paul Sartre; his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” explains many of the principal concepts of the movement and defends his theory against its critics (Sartre). Many of the conflicts that Sartre and other existentialist philosophers discuss manifest themselves in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. By subtly
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Existentialists believe that people must act as if everyone is watching them. In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents this responsibility as the idea of nobility. In one of his most famous soliloquies, Hamlet praises man for the “noble” creature he is, for the “infinite” and godlike abilities he has (2.2.285–88). Similarly, Sartre shares this optimistic attitude towards mankind because it has the potential to change and do good at any time, as previously discussed. Hamlet embodies this existentialist principle when he refrains from killing a praying Claudius because he wants to be remembered as a noble hero, not a murderer who preys on the defenseless. Shakespeare highlights Hamlet’s decision by bringing to mind the story of Pyrrhus, the valiant but cruel hero of the Trojan horse story. In the player’s recitation of the legend, Pyrrhus hesitates to murder his unarmed enemy Priam, but remembers the horrible deeds Priam did and decides to kill him anyway (2.2.431–60). Shakespeare contrasts Hamlet with Pyrrhus because while both men have the opportunity to accomplish their goals by killing villainous but defenseless men, only Pyrrhus executes. Hamlet instead waits in an attempt to do his bloody duty in a noble

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