Shakespeare Asks: Not to Be—What’s It Like?
William Shakespeare is a poet for our time. Although he completed his written works over 400 years ago, he still speaks directly to us today. Audiences are ever drawn to and mesmerized by his best theatrical works. Why is this so? Hamlet—Shakespeare’s most-quoted and -performed play, believed by many to be his perfect play—gives us the perfect answer.
With Hamlet, Shakespeare brilliantly dramatized many of life’s most important questions through the characters he created. Shakespeare’s poetic genius transforms Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia into mirrors in which we see our own reflections. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people are still searching for the answers to these eternal questions: Who am I? What am I? Is there a purpose for human life? Why do humans suffer? Why is there evil? Is there a spirit world running parallel to our own? Is there a God? Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet struggle to answer these questions.
World of Difficulty
Hamlet opens with one of the most dramatic and terrifying scenes in all of Western literature. Everyone is on edge. Just eight lines into the scene, one of the Elsinore castle guards states: “‘Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.” How mysterious. Yet we soon learn why this soldier is so disturbed.
Nothing is as it should be. The capable and stable old king Hamlet recently died. His brother assumed his throne and married the dead king’s wife. Old Hamlet has been dead only two months, yet sounds of wild parties irreverently fall from the new king’s apartment. Political chaos lurks in the shadows. Though not told why, the soldiers observe that military arms are being manufactured day and night, seven days a week.
On top of all this, a spirit haunts the castle grounds. Who can save Denmark from its wretched woes?
Not young Hamlet. The brilliant young prince, back in Denmark from the University of Wittenberg for his father’s funeral, is seen moping around the castle grounds, physically pale and emotionally lifeless. He dresses only in black.
Hamlet’s world is deeply troubled. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that he is not the only person trapped in mind-bending trials and burdens. Everyone has lost his way.
Surprisingly Modern Scenario
Early 20th-century critics believed Hamlet to be a bad play. Many considered it an “artistic failure.” They felt Shakespeare missed the boat with the lead character. Critics did not like it that the prince delays to avenge his father’s murder. The critics wanted action. They believed Shakespeare should have given Hamlet more motive to kill Claudius. They saw no reason for Hamlet’s feigned insanity when facing his uncle. Others faulted Shakespeare for making Hamlet into a kind of professor-type intellectual—all talk and no action.
It is easy to see that those critics miss the greatness of Shakespeare’s play.
Hamlet reveals Shakespeare’s genius in capturing human nature in action. This is why the play is so timeless. Every character that walks onto the stage reveals something about our human situation. A little extra study of the play reveals it has a surprisingly modern script.
Shakespeare teaches us something profound in Hamlet. He wants us to face the reality that every human being is potentially a Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius or Laertes. Human life has its burdens, tests, trials and, unfortunately, real tragedies. Most people have trouble accepting this fact. How we respond to our trials—even our tragedies—is what makes the difference.
Bearing a Thousand Natural Shocks
Hamlet is so rich with lessons it would take hundreds of articles to mine them all. Yet there is one overarching question Shakespeare ponders in the play that can be easily overlooked. He created young Hamlet as the deep-thinking character he is to force us to examine the question: What will human beings do in the next life?
The character Hamlet may well be Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Here is a short synopsis of Hamlet’s horrible situation. His safe, contemplative student life is shattered by his father’s untimely death and his mother’s quick marriage. Yet when the spirit resembling his father reveals to him that his Uncle Claudius murdered his father in order to seize the throne and marry his mother, Gertrude, he is pushed to the outer edge of sanity. What’s more, the spirit demands Hamlet seek revenge on his behalf. With this request, the spirit plunges Hamlet into a whirlpool of mind-numbing problems with serious religious implications that would definitely impact one’s afterlife.
Hamlet exclaims to his friends: “The time is out of joint. / O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” By this point in the play Shakespeare has the audience hooked. He wants us to observe as Hamlet works things out. He gives his character a penetrating mind fit to search out life’s most mysterious questions.
When wrestling with such burdensome problems, Hamlet begins to think suicide is his best option. He muses in Shakespeare’s most famous poetry: “To be, or not to be … to die, to sleep, / No more, and by a sleep to say we end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.” Hamlet is heartsick and shocked over what has happened within his family. Yet he is not convinced that suicide would truly solve his problems. Why not? Humans have used suicide to escape life’s problems for millennia, and many still do. Yet suicide has never been a viable solution.
The Unknown X in Our Sum
Hamlet continues, “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn [frontier] / No traveler returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others we know not of ….” Hamlet isn’t a weak procrastinator—he needs to know what happens after death. He calls death “the undiscovered country.” No one has ever returned to tell what goes on in the afterlife. It is this unknown that causes Hamlet to delay taking action. Because he has no concrete facts on the afterlife, he realizes that suicide could actually add to his problems—the “others we know not of.”
I believe that the writer C.S. Lewis wrote the best essay explaining Hamlet’s unique character. “If I wanted to make one more addition to the gallery of Hamlet’s portraits I should trace his hesitation to the fear of death; not to a physical fear of dying, but a fear of being dead. … Any serious attention to the state of being dead, unless it is limited by some definite religious or anti-religious doctrine, must, I suppose, paralyze the will by introducing infinite uncertainties and rendering all motives inadequate. Being dead is the unknown x in our sum” (Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?). This is deep insight into Shakespeare’s mind. By the end of Hamlet, eight people are dead—including the title character. What does Shakespeare want from us? Certainly he wants us to reflect on death, the afterlife and the meaning of human life.
Yet isn’t it our confusion about life, death and eternity that leads us to reason this way? Is there a God-ordained purpose for our trials and even our tragedies? Is there any connection between the trials of this life and eternal life?
Modern Confusion About the Afterlife
I don’t believe Shakespeare was a theologian or a converted Christian. But he had a knack for digging up and bringing to the surface the major questions buried within human minds. We should appreciate him for challenging us to think more deeply.
Shakespeare knew there was major religious confusion about the afterlife in his time. He lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation. People challenged the Roman Catholic doctrines on heaven, hell and purgatory, which are the main themes in Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Of course, Protestants developed theories of their own. Shakespeare used Hamlet to get people to think about what they believed. In Act i, Scene 5, the spirit tells Hamlet that he has come from purgatory to talk with him. Yet in his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet tells the audience that no one has returned from “the undiscovered country.” As far as Shakespeare was concerned, no one has come back from the dead to explain what goes on in the afterlife. Why would he say that? Shakespeare is being very honest with us: He didn’t know the answer. This same religious confusion exists today.
At my father’s funeral, a very religious relative (an Irish Catholic) asked me: “Where is your father right now? Is he floating right above us, or is he somewhere else?” I was shocked at her questions. According to Catholic doctrine, my father was likely in purgatory experiencing what Hamlet’s father was supposedly experiencing: “And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” Yet this relative of mine did not believe what she had been taught. Surrounded by Irish Catholic relatives, I dared not say what the Bible says about life after death. There was no need for a brawl at such a sad emotional time.
The point is, we can know what life will be like in the “undiscovered country”—yet it is not what the vast majority believes.
Herbert W. Armstrong, the most important theologian of the 20th century, fully explained the truth about the “afterlife” in one of his most important books, The Incredible Human Potential.
“Why this mystery about life after death?” he asked his readers. “Why so many beliefs of so many different religions? How can we know? Can we believe God?” A deep thinker, Mr. Armstrong also had a knack for asking the right thought-provoking questions.
Can we know for certain about an afterlife and what it will be like? Yes, but only if we look to and believe the correct source. The only reliable authority on the afterlife is the Holy Bible! But who believes the Bible?
Believe Your Bible—Not Any Man
“I had left church and Sunday school when I was 18. But I had been brought up in an established and respectable Christian denomination,” Mr. Armstrong continued. He had pursued a life in business and had grown disinterested in all religion. After he suffered a series of business failures and financial setbacks, his wife turned to religion—including study of the Bible. She began to observe the Saturday Sabbath commanded by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).
Mr. Armstrong became disturbed with his wife’s decision. He thought she had become a religious fanatic. Why? He believed that the Bible said, “Thou shalt keep Sunday.” His wife asked him if he had read that in the Bible. “No, but I know it’s there, because all these Christian churches get their religion from the Bible, and they all keep Sunday,” he explained. She challenged him to find that statement in the Bible. If he could, she would go back to keeping Sunday. He could not find it. This led him to question all his religious instruction.
“I became intrigued,” wrote Mr. Armstrong. “I had heard the preacher say, ‘The Bible says, when we all get to heaven ….’ I chanced to read where Jesus said, ‘No man hath ascended up to heaven.’ And after reading a few more plain biblical statements, I began to believe that even the churches todaydo not believe what Jesus said!”
He was shocked to learn that Christian churches do not believe what Jesus taught concerning the afterlife. When people die, they do not go to heaven or hell. That is what the Bible clearly states from Genesis to Revelation!
The Purpose for Human Life
By studying the Bible and believing what it actually says, Mr. Armstrong had his mind “swept clean” of all previous teaching, suppositions and ideas about things relating to God.” Every man, woman and child on Earth needs to have the same kind of sweeping out of erroneous religious belief.
“What does the Bible say about life after death?” asked Mr. Armstrong. “Did anyone ever die and then actually experience a life after death—and who could prove it and explain to us what that life was like?” Doesn’t that sound similar to what Shakespeare asks in Hamlet?Absolutely! What is the answer?
“The answer is yes,” Mr. Armstrong concluded confidently. “Jesus Christ Himself died and was dead. But He rose from the dead and was seen by many—including His disciples, who had been with Him for 3½ years before He died, and 40 days after His resurrection. And they went about loudly proclaiming that they were eyewitnesses of His life after death.”
Mr. Armstrong continued in this wonderful book to prove that all mankind is going to enter the afterlife by a resurrection from the dead. He provides a thorough explanation of scripture after scripture on this subject. Even more, he proves that by a resurrection, mankind will be given the opportunity to be “born again” into the Kingdom of God (John 3:1-8). Man’s destiny is to rule the universe alongside Jesus Christ. This is breathtaking knowledge few understand (Hebrews 2:6-11).
What is the purpose for human life? God put mankind on Earth to prepare us to receive that glorious opportunity. “The purpose of the Christian life is to train future kings to rule with and under Christ,” wrote Mr. Armstrong. “God’s purpose in creating man is to reproduce Himself—with such perfect spiritual character as only God possesses—who will not and therefore cannot ever sin! (1 John 3:9).”
Preparing for such an exalted opportunity is not an easy process—it is full of tests, trials and sometimes tragedies. There is great purpose and meaning behind the sorrows of this human life. God allows us to experience problems generally caused by our sins, failures and personal weaknesses—and by these same things in those close to us—in order to mold and shape us to be just like Him. Our struggle in this life is worth all the effort when we let God lead us through. There is a much better life for all mankind just over the horizon. We should want to know all we can about it. Be sure to request a free copy of The Incredible Human Potential.
Be bold enough to seize the opportunity this life offers us. When a trial, test or tragedy knocks us down, get up and work through it with God’s help. Remember, He is getting us ready to explore the undiscovered country!