Hamlet, protagonist of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name, is one of the most ambiguous and enigmatic characters of the history of literature. He is a thinker, and extremely philosophical, meditative and suspicious, indeed, he is always pondering about question with no answer. His monologues are very contemporary, because they are about psychological struggles that are still unresolved. His character is strongly influenced by philosophy and, particularly, by Greek philosophy. We can understand that Hamlet was interested in Greek culture by his numerous references to Greek mythology, and by the main topics of his soliloquies: the conflicts between right and wrong, thought and action, life and death, and the importance of the mind and thoughts of an individual. They all refer to important philosophical concepts of Greek philosophy, such as relativism, skepticism and humanism, which are rooted in ancient Greek philosophers’ thoughts and studies.
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About the references to Greek mythology, we can observe citations about many characters belonging to myths. “Hyperion”, “Satyr”, “Niobe”, “Hercules” (Act I, Scene II, 140-153), where Hyperion is a Titan or a byname of Helios, God of the sun; a Satyr is a lecherous creature, half-man and half-goat; Niobe was the Queen ofÂ Thebes, who wept for her dead children even when she was turned to stone; and Hercules is a mythical Greek hero, notorious for his strength. “Nemean lion” (Act I, Scene IV, 83), which was a vicious monster who lived at Nemea. “Priam”, “Hecuba” (Act II, Scene II, 422-459), where Priam was the King of Troy during the Trojan War, and Hecuba was his wife. From this analysis, we can observe that not only was he interested in Greek mythology, but also on Greek literature, indeed, he probably read Homeric poems, Iliad and The Odyssey.
Another evidence that Greek philosophy influenced Hamlet is that he often refers to Relativism. For example, when he says to Rosencrantz: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, Scene II, 240), he is referring to the Sophist theory that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons1. Another example is the most iconic monologue of the tragedy: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”. Hamlet is struggling whether is more noble to kill himself or to continue living though the problems he is facing. We can consider this as a form of moral relativism because, from Hamlet’s perspective, even something collectively thought as so morally incorrect like suicide can become correct, noble. According to Protagoras, a pre-sophist philosopher, “The human being is the measure of all things, of those that are, that they are, and of those that are not, that they are not.” By this, Protagoras apparently meant that each individual person is the measure of how things are to that person: things are or are not, to me, according as they appear to me to be or not be.
Briefly stated, moral relativism is the view that moral judgments, beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, not only vary greatly across time and contexts, but that their correctness is dependent on or relative to individual or cultural perspectives and frameworks.2
We can also consider the same monologue as an example of skepticism, because Hamlet is fond of pointing out questions that cannot be answered because they concern supernatural and metaphysical matters. Hamlet’s monologue “What a piece of work is a man! / How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how / express and admirable! in action how like an angel! / in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the / world!” is an evidence of another philosophical trend: Humanism. Even if the word “Humanism” was invented by Latins (Humanitas), we can observe Humanist thoughts in Sophist philosophers, Socrates and Plato. In that period, indeed, the subject of the philosophical speculation changed from transcendental topics, like Gods or the origin of the universe, to the human being. They became interested in human mind and experiences, and related topics such as ethic and ideas.
To understand Hamlet’s tragedy deeply, first we have to understand its historic, religious and philosophical context. From the philosophical point of view, I found evidence of many philosophical trends’ influences, to both Hamlet’s character and Shakespeare, but I can state that most of them are related to the most important Greek philosophical trends.
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