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Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or do I create myself through the process of “unfolding” itself? Is there a real “myself” underneath the layers of the pre-existing social and biological conditions which constitute my material reality? If so, how do I know it when I see it, if not for the social expectations placed upon me to self-actualize by seeking myself out? “Who’s there?” That is the question. And it is not a simple one. On the contrary, it is an inscrutable question, and even those who claim to have the answer cannot communicate it because we cannot know whether what they’re showing us is the real them or merely a layer that they haven’t fully unfolded.

Though Hamlet himself is often criticized (most frequently by disenchanted high school teachers) as having the “fatal flaw” of indecision and inaction, he is in fact an incredibly dynamic character, constantly shifting in his relationship to his own sense of self. The play begins with Hamlet taking a decidedly modern position on his relationship to himself. It is one that resonates with our current cultural moment of gender identities, defined as “the deep and intimate feeling a person has of themselves.” “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” Hamlet says in his first soliloquy (1.2.129–30). Hamlet is asking for a release from his “solid flesh”—that is, his body—so that he can instead become “dew,” which is something pure, uncorrupted, and ethereal. He feels constrained by his body. Who he is on the inside, his “deep and intimate feeling,” is what he wishes to become. Curiously, the word “solid” in this passage is one of those funny words in Shakespeare that is different in three versions of the play. The earliest versions of this play, those we consider “authorial,” spell this word differently: one is “solid,” another “sallied,” meaning attacked or assailed, and another “sullied,” meaning polluted and defiled. We cannot know, of course, what single meaning Shakespeare intended, or even—a trick of the bard—if he intended all three. The point is that Hamlet does feel constrained, degraded, and assailed by his body. He finds his physicality to be a hindrance to his inwardly held value. His “solid flesh” exists as an arbitrary and unfortunate limit to his innate feeling of himself, his felt essence. The world as it is, by contrast, is a fetid and soiled place. “’Tis an unweeded garden,” he says, “That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135–37).

Hamlet is, as we all know, a prince. Much of what he rejects as “rank” and offensive is his social status, both the privileges and the responsibilities that come with it. (He’s basically a Prince Harry who finds that royalty cramps his style.) Hamlet’s life is predetermined, his role entirely socially constructed. “His greatness weighed,” Laertes says, “his will is not his own, / For he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3.16–17). Once again, I’m struck by the contemporary resonances of Hamlet’s angst. Socially constructed roles, those instilled in us from birth, form us and condition us, curtailing our wills, molding our identities. We are all “subject to our birth” to some degree. And often this subjugation is an affront to our innate and intimate feelings. It restricts us, and makes our wills not our own. Hamlet is entirely on side with our progressive values of rejecting such constraints. He was there before us.

The irony is, though, that Hamlet’s push to be and act “authentically” paralyzes him, and he isn’t able to act at all. Hamlet’s dead father tasks the young prince with avenging his murder, repairing his mother’s virtue, and restoring health to the entire country of Denmark. None of this was chosen by Hamlet, who wants to instead continue his university studies in Germany. For the first half of the play, Hamlet wrestles with the pointlessness of doing anything if nothing is chosen by us. We live assailed by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” under the tyranny of cause and effect. The rage Hamlet feels during the first three acts of the play is not directed towards Claudius (though he does hate his uncle/stepfather), but rather towards Fate, towards the “strumpet fortune” who has her way with us, regardless of our personal feelings. “Our wills and fates do so contrary run,” the play says, “That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own” (3.2.199–201). What we are, what we want to do, what we think and believe are all irrelevant. We live instead in a world where, to be blunt, shit just happens. We are creatures of contingencies. At best, we make it through life by dodging fortune’s slings and arrows. It is the word “still” that strikes me in this passage. It connotes something that occurs continuously, that is both unmoving and ongoing. We might believe ourselves now to be beyond the threshold of such contingencies. Contemporary ethics seems to value the innate feelings of an individual more than a sense of duty or submission to one’s socially constructed or biologically determined role. Hamlet shares our frustrations. He embodies them. At every turn Hamlet rails against his birth, that primal and unchosen event which determines all others. And though there is a large part of him that wants to kill Claudius, Hamlet finds that he can’t. Hamlet’s thoughts instead tend towards killing himself, doing away with his suffering through the ultimate act of self expression by finding his “quietus” with a “bare bodkin.”

Shakespeare’s insight here is astounding. Hamlet wants to be free of the “solid flesh” that encases his dewy essence, but it is his inwardness itself that is the problem. “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” the prince says, “were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.252–54). Limit, the realities of external and unchosen constraints, are ostensibly what troubles Hamlet. Yet here he admits, almost as an afterthought, that the limit exists within him. Or rather, the limitlessness he fantasizes about experiencing is prevented by … what, exactly? His “bad dreams”? But what are those? Is it a dewy purity or a dark abyss that lurks within us? When Hamlet “unfolds himself,” what does he discover? It is one thing to have an intimate sense of who we believe ourselves to be, but are we really who we wish to think we are?

Hamlet insists that he is an authentic, genuine self. “Seems, madam?” he says to Gertrude, who asks him why he always seems to be so despondent, “Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems.’” It isn’t, Hamlet goes on, his clothes, nor the way he looks, nor his behaviour, nor even his own face that “can denote me truly. These indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play; / But I have that within which passeth show— / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.76, 83–86). The problems, of course, for Hamlet are two-fold: on the one hand, whatever it is within us literally “passes show,” it is inexpressible. We all feel as though we have some innate sense of ourselves, of our value, our essence, our soul. But that inner self can always only remain on the inside. All we can do is attempt to show others our innate feelings by how we look, dress, and act, but those superficial things will always be inadequate. And the gap between who we feel ourselves to be and how we show others what we are will become a site of insufficiency, and thus anxiety. How can we ever measure up to the feelings we have on the inside? On the other hand, Hamlet admits that what is inside himself isn’t necessarily what he’d like to find there. What are these “bad dreams”? This, too, is deeply human; we are usually not as good or pure as we would like to believe. Perhaps it is the murderer Claudius, and not Hamlet, who gives full outward expression to his inner feelings.

It is the tension between knowing himself and having to live up to the social expectations that are not reflective of his inner choices which fuels Hamlet’s impotent rage throughout much of the play. In Act Four, however, Hamlet’s anger and frustrated urgency very quickly turn to apathy, and his anxiety is replaced by cynicism. The prince has seemed to have found a solution to the intractable problem of reconciling his felt self with the external world around him: he surrenders to the idea that there is no internal self worth caring about. “We fat all creatures else to fat us,” Hamlet states, “and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end” (4.3.22–25). All we are, in the end, is food for worms. The human animal is nothing more than recycled atoms. There is a certain kind of nihilistic solace in Hamlet’s vulgar materiality. Since all we are is matter, nothing matters. There is a comfort in this despair, for it at least allows Hamlet to resolve the divide between what passes show and what we can show.

This is cold comfort, though, and one that almost all of us reject. It is one thing to argue philosophically that we’re nothing more than dust particles which momentarily found it convenient to form a human body, and another thing to feel this apathy when confronted by the physical reality of a beloved’s death. When Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick in the palm of his hand (“I knew him, Horatio”), he cannot countenance the fact that the human is reducible to the material. On this most of us would agree, even if we’re not metaphysically inclined. I am a body, but a part of that body houses the human spirit. My human spirit. The allure of materialism is that it allows Hamlet to reconcile himself to reality without suffering any cognitive dissonance, save for the undeniable and unavoidable singularity of every individual. We may find ourselves, then, right back where we started. If the irreducible part of us is found on the inside, and the only way we can express that inner part to others is materially, on the outside, then, in the end, it is right to affirm each other’s irreducible spirits with our earnest, serious, even reverential validation.

In that case, what is irreducible, what makes my 10-year-old daughter, for instance, uniquely and wonderfully her, is how she self-identifies. Her human spirit is discovered in the process of exploring her own inwardness through the act of self-creation. The body that she is in is her, but I know—we all know—that if the unthinkable were ever to happen, if the life-spark which animates her body were to cease, I would want to cling the to husk of her physical form for only so long before, like Hamlet, I would find it to be a source of revulsion. “My gorge rises at it,” the prince says of poor Yorick (5.1.179). If it is that inner-self which defines her, how can I fail to help her resolve the gap between her felt nature and her material body should they diverge? If anxiety comes from that unfillable space of the in-between, between Hamlet’s solid flesh and his dewy essence, how can any loving adult insist that an individual needs to live within the unchosen confines of material limits, whose very nature is to rot, corrupt, and revolt us? Serious-minded individuals are absolutely right to treat this with the most serious-mindedness.

Of course, there is something very silly about being a serious-minded individual. Just as there is something very wise about being an individual who doesn’t take everything seriously. An adult who doesn’t understand the value of playfulness comes off as rather limited in intelligence rather than as a sophisticated thinker. If Act One begins with the question “Who’s there?” Act Five gives us the answer: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1. 247–48). By saying “the Dane,” Hamlet both asserts his rightful position as king and also emphatically states that who he is is the king. Hamlet eliminates the gap between his dewy essence and the rank, unweeded garden of this world not by succumbing to materialistic nihilism, but by playing his unchosen and largely pre-scripted role with imaginative enthusiasm, the kind a child brings to her games when she adopts the sincerity of the true actor and throws herself into her inner world with seriousness that can only come through play. A serious-minded individual may be one who, like Hamlet, takes his role seriously, all the while knowing that it’s somehow not real. We imagine ourselves into ourselves, and we often become who we pretend to be.

In the final scene of Hamlet, just moments before the fatal duel with Laertes, Hamlet engages in an extended conversation with the courtier Osric. It’s one of the strangest exchanges of the play, for it seems to be entirely unnecessary. After all, Osric’s only purpose is to move the plot along; he plays no significant role. But Shakespeare never does things without a purpose, and since he is wiser than most of us, it’s worth asking what that purpose is. The exchange between Osric and Hamlet largely centres around a hat that the courtier takes off while he addresses Hamlet. This is done out of good manners; Osric is of course aware that Hamlet is the prince. As such, there are certain formalities one of lesser rank must observe in his presence. Hamlet, too, of course, knows this. His arbitrary social rank is the very thing that he tried to reject throughout the first three Acts of the play, so it’s odd that in this exchange it is the very markers of social propriety which are the things Hamlet both makes fun of and acquiesces to. Hamlet is being a bit of a jerk to Osric, it’s true, but he’s doing so to demonstrate the inescapable nature of social rank and to show its artificiality. Osric, for his part, makes it clear that he finds a kind of social comfort in his outward behaviour; his manners and his deference are the things that reassure him in his dealings with others. This conversation is a bit of a game for him, too, for he must maintain decorum while Hamlet jests. But the point is that they both know they’re playing the same social game—like a fencing match. Maintaining the form is what prevents tragedy. It is because Laertes violates the decorum of the match that Hamlet and Laertes both end up dead. (That, and because Claudius is a ruthless, immoral, manipulative, and murderous villain.)

Hamlet is a tragedy and not a mere misfortune precisely because in the final Act the prince both becomes someone who very much wants to live and because it is in Act Five that Hamlet assumes the mantle of duty he was born into, and discovers that he can wear it lightly. This lightness occurs through Hamlet’s newfound sense of purpose. The difference between Hamlet in Acts One through Four and Hamlet in Act Five is simple, yet somewhat embarrassing to our modern sensibilities. Hamlet finds religion. He moves from a position of fatalism to one of faith. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10–11). In contrast to the chaos of fate and fortune, the irrational forces of dumb luck and unthinking cause and effect, divinity is purposeful. The only way for Hamlet to inwardly accept who he is outwardly is for him to believe that his unchosen identity—his solid flesh, his social role, and the necessity of playing his part—was given with a purpose. It is this faith in an external, objective reality which allows him, for the first time in the play, to act freely, without anxiety. Instead of the agony of indecision in “To be or not to be,” the prince now simply says, “Let be” (5.2.170). To play a part is not a diminishment of Hamlet’s inner integrity, but an enrichment of it. He moves from adolescence to adult maturity precisely by recognizing the artificiality—the constructedness—of his social role, and then playing it anyway, with heart and soul, because that was the role he was literally born to play.

There is something deeply human about wanting to reject natural limits and social positions. Hamlet shows us this. But there is, perhaps, something more meaningfully human about reconciling ourselves to them. Hamlet finds a way out of his suffocating inwardness by turning to the idea that a benevolent and rational providence has created him for a purpose. This fills Hamlet with meaning, and even though his purpose, it turns out, is to die unpleasantly and prematurely, Hamlet is not overcome with despair nor with anxiety when he does. The prince’s final words settle the matter of succession. He accepts his position as king, for a brief moment, because it is meaningful to him. Modern times have seen the replacement of Christianity’s idea of objective truth with relativism and subjective feeling. The subjective feelings of self-identity have in large part filled the gap left by religion by making each individual’s dewy essence into an absolute deity. No longer created for a purpose, we now are free to self-create our own. Meaning and purpose must be self-generated, which makes it both a necessary and an anxiety-producing task. How does one live up to oneself if that self is self-created? Self-making is often a shallow exercise; this is why external social validation plays such a central role in it. We are not alone sufficient to affirm ourselves. Our relationship to ourselves is often too tenuous, too insecure for true independence. This is why there is very little room for playfulness; there is simply too much riding on our self-identity to treat it lightly. Instead, we demand a kind of Calvinistic certainty about our own identity, and anyone who fails to hold the same faith in us as us is denounced as a heretic.

The question-and-response that opens Shakespeare’s play is more resonant than ever. There is no doubt that the question “Who’s there?” needs to be answered compassionately and thoughtfully. For some, the personal anguish caused by the divide between their internal feelings and external realities is literally a matter of life and death. But it serves us well to remember that we all have roles to play, all of the time, and that very often it is surrender to those roles that allow us to experience freedom, joy, and our inner world as a source of wonder.


Dr. Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book entitled Positionalities: On Sex and Self-Identity.