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Cao, Khan, Lo, Vu 1

Charles Cao, Nafi Khan, Solomon Lo, Dylan Vu

Mrs. Mann

AP English Literature - Block 2

15 February 2019

Life is Meaningless Without Action

According to Joseph Campbell, an author on the archetypal hero, “life has no meaning.

Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you

are the answer.” Likewise, William Shakespeare’s tragedy ​Hamlet ​details Prince Hamlet of

Denmark and his struggle to put his life’s meaning—avenging his father—into action. However,

through Hamlet’s soliloquies about death and the deaths of several characters, Shakespeare

advises against searching for purpose, believing that it is better to act without thinking because

there is no intrinsic meaning to life.

Hamlet wavers on when to kill Claudius, portraying the choice of inaction or action in

life. After his father’s death, Hamlet questions what drives him to live, lamenting how life is

“weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” (1.2.133-134). This disregard for life allows him to ignore

the eerie circumstances of the ghost’s existence, so Hamlet boldly confronts his father’s ghost.

Because Hamlet views life as insignificant, he is able to resolve himself to take action and meet

the ghost. From the ghost, Hamlet receives the mission to kill Claudius, but keeps delaying it in a

search for a better opportunity. Conveying how “conscience” makes people “lose the name of

action,” Hamlet comments on his own idleness and how he must not contemplate more if he

needs to kill Claudius (3.1.91-96). However, when he gets the opportunity to kill Claudius, he

again fails to act. In contrast to Hamlet’s inaction, Fortinbras attacks without thought even with
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the “imminent death of twenty thousand men” while Hamlet cannot muster the resolve to kill

Claudius (4.4.63). Fortinbras throws away countless lives in a battle over an insignificant piece

of land, highlighting the difference between Hamlet, currently idle, and Fortinbras, a man of

unwavering action. Shakespeare’s depiction of Hamlet’s respect for Fortinbras indicates that

people should take action rather than passively contemplating the meaning of their lives.

Throughout the play, Hamlet’s outlook on death changes he progresses in his mission.

Initially, Hamlet heavily grieves for his father’s death, where he states that black clothes, heavy

sighs, weeping, downcast eyes, “Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief / ...can denote

me truly” (1.2.76-80) Through this exposition, Hamlet expresses his intense grief due to the fact

that his father was unjustly killed, and can no longer be the righteous ruler of Denmark, since

this position is now relinquished to Claudius, his younger brother. However, compared to

Hamlet, Claudius has a much more lackadaisical attitude towards death. When Claudius sees

Hamlet grieving due to the death of his father, he remarks, “Why should we in our peevish

opposition / Take it to heart?” (1.2.104-105). While Hamlet sees death as the landmark before

entering heaven or hell, Claudius sees death as simply a part of nature “whose common theme /

is death of fathers,” something that is relatively minor and undeserving of Hamlet’s extended

grief (1.2.107). Through this scene, Claudius’ attitude highlights Hamlet’s extreme outlook

towards death, exposing how Hamlet sees the death of his father as a very significant event.

Hamlet forgoes his first opportunity to kill Claudius, deciding to bide his time, citing how “he is

a-praying” and if he kills him “he goes to heaven… / Oh this is hire and salary, not revenge”

(3.3.74-75, 80). Hamlet believes that this doesn’t adequately satisfy his father’s wishes, stating

how “A villain kills my father, and for that, / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To
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heaven” (3.3.77-79). Because Hamlet’s father was killed in his sleep, before he had time to

confess and therefore sending him to hell, Hamlet believes that the only adequate revenge is to

ensure that Claudius is sent to hell too, which causes him to choose to continue living and bide

his time. Hamlet believes that his drive for revenge adds meaning to his life, since this is a

desperate attempt to counter how the malicious actions in Claudius’ life and the noble actions in

King Hamlet’s life are both treated equally due to the meaningless of life.

Hamlet reforms his view after he kills Polonius, where he does not express much remorse

or surprise (3.4.38-40). In comparison to the start of the play, the death of someone Hamlet

knows relatively leaves him unaffected. There is no extreme remorse or regret. Then, after being

questioned by Claudius regarding the whereabouts of Polonius’ body, Hamlet brushes him off,

stating “we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable

service—two dishes but to one table” (4.3.24-27). Regardless of whether the person was a “king”

or a “beggar,” their fate is the same—food for worms. Through this nihilistic outlook on life,

Shakespeare implies that no matter what an individual was in their life or what they did, it

doesn’t matter in the end. And in the graveyard, Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and asks, “Where

be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set

the table on a roar?” (5.1.196-198). Hamlet echoes his view of death again, but this time he

directly connects it to someone he once knew. And now, Hamlet’s words are akin to taunts,

mocking Yorick’s meaninglessness in death.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father gives him the familial duty to claim justice. The late King

Hamlet’s ghost assigns him two tasks: kill Claudius, but spare Gertrude (1.5.88). Hamlet takes

on this task as the sole meaning to his life. Yet when Hamlet gets the chance to kill Claudius, he
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decides to delay on the basis that it wouldn’t be just if Claudius died cleansed of his sins while

his father died with his sins full-blown (3.3.85). However, adding this unnecessary burden only

ends up subverting Hamlet’s original duty. In the end, before Hamlet finally kills Claudius,

Gertrude dies as well. By overcomplicating his father’s original command with vain philosophy

rather than taking it at face value, Hamlet fails his father’s last wish to keep Gertrude alive.

Shakespeare mocks Hamlet’s attempt to make his murder of the king a meaningful act of justice

rather than a straightforward act of revenge. In addition to familial duty, the Danes also

supposedly respect religious duty. Yet when Ophelia commits suicide, the royalty gives her a

Christian burial, compelling the priest to go against the laws of their religion (5.1.233). This

contradiction continues a theme with suicide throughout Shakespeare’s works, where “theology

is squarely at odds with dramatic truth,” as is explored in Ralph Berry’s article “The Issue of

Suicide.” Since the rich are able to easily sidestep the sin of suicide, Shakespeare rejects the idea

that religion provides a meaning for life.

Throughout William Shakespeare's play ​Hamlet,​ Shakespeare’s depiction of Hamlet

shows how life itself is insignificant. Pondering decisions is useless, and people should take bold

actions with no thought to the consequences. Similar to nihilism, Shakespeare considers life to

have no purpose, so people can choose whether to have passive lives or rather lives of action,

deriving fulfilment from a meaningless existence.

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Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. ​The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark​. New York: The Folger

Shakespeare Library, 1992. Print.

Berry, Ralph. “The Issue of Suicide.” ​New Straits Times​, 26 May 1999. Print.

  Novice Developing  Apprentice Proficient  Advanced Exemplary 

1--------------------------------2  3--------------------------------4  5--------------------------------6 

Response to  The essay discusses a topic in  The essay discusses an  The essay thoroughly discusses 
Topic   Hamlet​, using the play itself and at  important topic in ​Hamlet​, using  an important topic in ​Hamlet​, 
  least one outside source to  the play itself and at least one  using the play itself and at least 
explore Shakespeare’s  outside source to explore  one outside source to explore 
development of the topic and  Shakespeare’s development of  Shakespeare’s development of the 
build an argument about the  the topic and build an argument  topic and build an argument 
topic’s significance in the play as a  about the topic’s significance in  about the topic’s significance in 
whole that is mostly clear.   the play as a whole that is  the play as a whole that is 
focused and clearly stated.   insightful, focused, and clearly 
stated. ​5 

Organization  An introduction attempts to  An clear introduction establishes  An engaging, effective 

SUMMATIVE  establish context and lead into the  context and leads into the thesis.  introduction establishes context 
thesis. Body paragraphs have  Body paragraphs have clear topic  and leads smoothly into the 
clear focus, though some may be  sentences and most have  thesis. Body paragraphs have 
unrelated chunks of information.  transitions, and paragraphs are  topic sentences and fluid 
The conclusion attempts to restate  sequenced in a logical order. The  transitions, and paragraphs are 
the thesis.  conclusion restates the thesis  sequenced in an effective, logical 
and gives a sense of completion.  order. The conclusion concisely 
4  restates the thesis, gives a sense 
of completion, and explains the 
“so what?” of the chosen topic. 

Support  Using the primary text (​Hamlet​)  Using the primary text (​Hamlet​)  Using the primary text (​Hamlet​) 
  and at least one credible outside  and at least one credible outside  and at least one credible outside 
SUMMATIVE  source gathered from research,  source gathered from research,  source gathered from research, 
the essay supports claims with  the essay supports claims with  the essay supports claims with 
direct quotations and paraphrases.  direct quotations and  relevant direct quotations and 
The writers manage the  paraphrases. The writers  paraphrases. The writers manage 
information by: often analyzing  manage the information by: often  the information effectively by: 
information for the reader,  analyzing information for the  analyzing information for the 
integrating direct quotations into  reader, integrating direct  reader, smoothly integrating 
paragraphs, and attempting to  quotations into paragraphs, and  direct quotations into paragraphs, 
return paragraphs to the task.  attempting to return paragraphs  and concluding paragraphs with 
Ultimately, the chosen support  to the task. Ultimately, the  the group’s synthesis. Ultimately, 
and evidence lead to a mostly  chosen support and evidence  the support chosen by the group 
persuasive argument.  lead to a mostly persuasive  leads to a persuasive argument.​ 5 
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Citations &  Some source material is given the  Most source material is given the  All source material is given the 
Works Cited  proper credit within the essay,  proper credit within the essay,  proper credit within the essay, 
Pg.  using parenthetical citations,  using parenthetical citations,  using correctly formatted 
though there may be some major  though there may be lapses. The  parenthetical citations. The 
lapses. The Works Cited Page  Works Cited Page mostly  Works Cited Page matches the 
FORMATIVE  mostly matches the sources used  matches the sources used in the  sources used in the essay and is 
in the essay and is formatted  essay and is formatted correctly  formatted correctly in MLA 8th 
correctly in MLA 8th edition style.  in MLA 8th edition style. Minor  edition style, including: 
Major errors may be present.  errors may be present. ​4  alphabetized entries, hanging 
indent for 2​nd​/3​rd​ lines, double 
spacing, and entries that are 
formatted and punctuated 
according to MLA 8th ed. style 

Style &  The essay features mostly clear  The essay features clear,  The essay features rich, precise 
Conventions  language to convey ideas and  well-chosen language to convey  language to convey ideas and 
  employs occasional variety in  ideas and employs some variety  employs sophisticated, varied 
sentence structures. Sometimes a  in sentence structures. The  sentence structures to achieve the 
reader is able to tell that multiple  “voice” in the essay is mostly  desired rhetorical effect. The 
writers were involved in the  consistent, despite it being  “voice” in the essay stays 
essay’s creation. The essay  written by multiple people. The  consistent, despite it being 
contains repeated errors in  essay contains some errors in  written by multiple people. The 
spelling and grammar, and they  spelling and grammar, but they  essay is free from spelling and 
sometimes obscure meaning.  do not obscure meaning.  grammar errors. Excellent 
command of the English 
language. ​5