I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, 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, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet, II.ii.318-334)
Today, one of my students told me that, since starting my class, he cannot look at the world the same way anymore. He said he cannot look at life without analyzing it and questioning it. He said he envies other people for their ignorance, because ignorance is bliss. The class laughed.
This student became an unwitting Hamlet in class today. “Man delights not me,” he was saying. Man, “noble in reason… infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable… and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Man is great, and man is horrible, and knowing that, how can I ever be happy?
Had I been in a witty mood, I might have replied, “…’tis true; tis true ’tis pity,/And pity ’tis ’tis true” (II.ii.105-106), but I wasn’t in the mood to play at words, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This was far too important to dismiss with the words of a wordy, old man.
“Oh no,” I replied instead. “Ignorance is not bliss. Those who go through life ignorant to the despair of others, to the absolute worst of human experience, of human nature, can never truly know happiness. You, well, you know happiness. You know what true happiness means. You know how hard it is to obtain it, and how hard you have to work to keep it. And, for that, you will be happier than anyone ignorant to the highs and lows of existence. Just by trying to reach the ultimate happiness, you’ll be happier than those who are not even aware of what that happiness is. This earthly life is not Dante’s descent into Hell, through Puragory, and into Paradise. This life is a constant struggle for happiness, and only those who truly know what happiness is can obtain it. That is literature. That is life.”
My class applauded this speech, and one remarked that it seemed I had been saving those words for quite some time. Maybe I have, though I’ve been unaware of it. More likely, this has been the affirmation of my existence that has been playing itself in my mind since I decided to devote my life to the teaching of literature. These students just happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear it – or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective.
“To be or not to be?” (III.i.64); to exist or not to exist? This line is often taken as Hamlet’s noting of his own existential crisis. But I disagree. In that soliloquy, Hamlet decides to exist, and discovers why most people decide the same. He says we fear the afterlife, and he says we respect those who choose life but not those who choose death and, therefore, most people decide to stay on this Earth. This is not Hamlet’s existential crisis; it is once we make that decision to exist, despite the depths to which human nature can take us, that the true existential crisis begins. We ask ourselves, like Hamlet does, what is our purpose on this Earth? Knowing what we know, how can we ever truly be happy?
For this, we turn to literature. Where else can one live outside of his or her life for a little while, living as someone else, experiencing someone else’s happiness and despair? Where else can one discover what true happiness and true despair are?
Image Credit: Sebastian Dooris