Tuesday, October 08, 2013

And So He Goes To ... The Undiscovered Country?

So I'm writing up a piece on Hamlet, and I'm talking about Hamlet's opportunity to kill Claudius and his decision and reason for not doing so ("And so he goes to heaven, and so am I revenged...")

This happens in Act 3, Scene 3.

And then I realized something.  In Act 3, Scene 1 we got his famous "To be, or not to be....." speech. Isn't the primary theme of that one that we have absolutely no idea what happens to us after we die? The whole "what dreams may come" thing, the "undiscovered country" and all that?  Those unknowns, he's just successfully argued, are the things that should "give us pause."

So two scenes later he sees a quick trip to heaven as a reward that Claudius doesn't deserve, and it is his desire to keep this reward from Claudius that gives him pause. I realize that part of the former has more to do with suicide, but even if that was the table (if the Almighty had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter), he's hardly painting a rosy picture of what to expect on the other side. 

Can we reconcile these two ideas, or is this just one of several times where Hamlet knows what he wants, and then justifies it to himself by talking through it? He's personally afraid to die, so we get "to be or not to be."  He doesn't want to run the risk of sending Claudius to his eternal reward, however, so we get "and so he goes to heaven."

(Reading this back, the first and more famous speech ends up sounding a bit like sour grapes, doesn't it?  "Life's a real pain, but I don't really get an option of doing anything about it, so you know what? I bet it's probably not so great. After all what do we really know, you know?")




7 comments:

Nick said...

Yup. They don't call it the problem play for nothing.

Duane Morin said...

Wait ... Hamlet is a problem play?

Kendra said...

To Hamlet, death by suicide is a sin: he will go to hell. But if he kills a man who is praying, that man is engaged in a sacred act: that man goes, therefore, to heaven. That's the difference.

Duane Morin said...

So Kendra you're saying that this "undiscovered country" that Hamlet's talking about has more to do with hell rather than heaven? All his reservations are tied directly to the "if I were to off myself right now" premise? I never really thought about the difference. It's as if he's saying "Well, sure we all know that heaven is awesome, but that other place...that's the scary place, I have no idea what to expect out of that place, and that's what makes me a coward."


Nick said...

In "Hamlet," Shakespeare's reference to an "undiscovered country" is further evidence that playwrights of that period had begun to explore the concept of death in ways that differed from the Christian doctrine of medieval times.

Kendra said...

Pretty much. And Nick is right in that Shakespeare is showing how ideas and concepts about death were changing. Hamlet won't kill himself because he doesn't know what will happen to his soul in hell, whereas if he kills Claudius while he's a prayer (or so Hamlet thinks--we know after the scene that Claudius isn't praying), C will go to heaven, which as everyone knows is a nice place.

JM said...

"Wait ... Hamlet is a problem play?"

It wasn't until modern, lazy, dime-novel thinking made it one.