William Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Hamlet: Prince of Denmark’ remains one of the most celebrated, influential texts in world history, holding continuing relevance and significance throughout history due to its detailed, multi-faceted elucidation and exploration of many core facets of human existence; such as revenge, loyalty, truth, mortality, and power. As he alludes to in Act 3, Scene 2, Shakespeare uses the play to “hold, as ‘twere’, the mirror up to nature”, and display a paradigm and example of the complexity of humanity. Above all, however, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ exemplifies the complexity and uncertainity surrounding the extent to which humans can exercise free will upon their own lives. Through this, Shakespeare explores the perpetual contest between fate and free will, depicting the universal struggle between human tendancy to accept one’s ultimate fate and the natural desire to control this destiny through personal choices, while also depicting the conflict between free will and evil inherent in the human existence. As the Player King suggests: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run that our devices still are overthrown; Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own” (III, II, 192-194)
Shakespeare explores this complex issue through the perpetual contest between fate and free will, demonstrating the indomitability and impotency of human will to control a preordained fate or divine destiny. This issue is deliberately left ambiguous and uncertain by Shakespeare so as to reinforce the complexity and intricacy surrounding the issue. From the opening scenes of the play, Shakespeare points to and foreshadows the clash between fate and free will that feature in the remainder of the play, through the complexity surrounding whether the characters can impose any will over Denmark’s tragic fate. In Act 1, Scene 1, Horatio cries out to the Ghost of Hamlet’s father: “If thou art privy to they country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid, oh, speak!” suggesting Denmark’s fate is not inevitable but rather can be influenced by human action and choice. However, slightly earlier Horatio himself had spoken with confidence of the ghost’s appearance being an omen of terrible things to come, posing similarities with the Roman Empire shortly before the assassination of Julius Caesar: “A little ere the mightiest Julius fell, the graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets as stars with trains of fire and dews of blood”. Alluding to a significant moment in history – a famous political assassination which draws comparisons to the murder of Hamlet’s father – Shakespeare not only introduces the supernatural component of his tragedy, but also lays foundation and a precedent for the “carnal, bloody, unnatural acts” that will feature in the remainder of the play.
The complex relationship and struggle between fate and free is exemplified within the character of Hamlet, who struggles to balance exercising his own free will over the external forces and fates which govern his life; whether it be the Ghost of his father, the inevitability of death, or a divine force. Within the play, the Ghost can be viewed as a personification of fate, in his appearing to Hamlet and his directing of him towards acts of vengeance against Claudius. In Act 1, Scene 5, Hamlet suggests it is his fate to follow the ghost, and later, avenge his father’s death through the rhyming couplet which concludes Act 1, giving it emphasis: “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” Despite this, the play sees Hamlet choosing to ignore his fate, and exercising free will, through his failure and refusal to act upon his father’s wishes. Inaction is as much, in this case more, of a choice than action. Even though Hamlet eventually ‘accepts’ his fate and murders Claudius, this may be because he has the “cause and will and strength and means to”, as he had explained in the final soliloquy of Act 4, Scene 4. Hamlet’s internal struggle to exercise his own free will also strongly involves the complexity surrounding his own mortality, and his coming to terms with the inevitability of death, as encapsulated during Act 3, Scene 3: “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns puzzles the will”. While during this soliloquy Hamlet had expressed fear concerning his future death and questioned his cowardice, “thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” (III, I, 84-86) his development in character is revealed through his final acceptance of his mortality in Act 5: “Alexander died, Alexander buried, Alexander returneth into dust”. The conclusion of the play is crucial to Shakespeare’s exploration of free will and its opposition to fate, as even though Hamlet is among the deceased in Act 5, Scene 2, his death results from this acceptance of his own death, and his personal choice to duel with Laertes, and through his depiction of an ultimately changed, Shakespeare suggests that one is not completely bound by external forces and ‘fate’. Ironically, while Hamlet displays a resolute faith in divine will: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends. Rough-hew them how we will” (V, II, 10-11), he paradoxically exercises his own free will in doing so. Richard Mallette points out in ‘From Gyves to Graces: Hamlet and Free Will’ that: “Hamlet’s embrace of the mystery of his mortality has mysteriously liberated his will”. Through this transcendental moment, among others, Shakespeare further reinforces the complexity and uncertainty surrounding human will, and its struggle to overcome external forces and fate.
The complexity and intricacy surrounding the extent to which one can exercise free will is further explored in ‘Hamlet: Prince of Denmark’ through Shakespeare’s proposition concerning the inevitable existence of illness or malevolence in the human condition, and man’s struggle to overcome the influence of this on the future course of our lives. Through paralleling characterisation, Shakespeare proposes that each character has an excess of their own unique tragic flaw, or “vicious mole of nature”, as Hamlet puts it, which in many cases defines their persona, and is ultimately responsible for their eventual death in the play’s closing scenes. In his lengthy speech in Act 1, Scene 4, “the stamp of one defect…to his own scandal” (Lines 31-49), Hamlet comments that this flaw can totally ruin one’s reputation and come to rule their lives. However; suggests this ‘defect’ does not result from personal choices and decisions, but rather is cast upon them, either due to “nature’s livery or fortune’s star”. Alternatively, Gertrude’s ‘hamartia’, as the ancient philosopher Aristotle historically termed it, is undoubtedly her lust, suggested by the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Act 1, Scene 5: “So lust, though to a radiant angel linked, will sate itself in a celestial bed and prey on garbage”. Polonius, ‘defect’ is evidently his excessive concern and obsession with his own social status and standing in the Royal Court; exemplified in Act 1, Scene 3 in which the motives behind Polonius’ advice to Ophelia concern his own fear of humiliation rather than care for his daughter, expressed through the amusing double-meaning of the line “tender yourself more dearly, or…you’ll tender me a fool”. As many of these characters ultimately lose their lives in direct consequence to the excess of their ‘defect’ in the bloodbath of Act V, Scene 2 further reinforces that man’s struggle and ultimate failure to impose free will on this external force leads to dangerous, fatal circumstances. In the opinion of A.C. Bradley, “these defects or imperfections are certainly, in the wide sense of the word, evil, and they contribute decisively to the conflict and catastrophe”. Correspondingly, Shakespeare also points out how one’s ‘fate’ is also formed by the evil and malevolence of others. For instance, in Act 5, Scene 2 the surviving Horatio seemingly points towards the characters malevolent and misguided choices, rather than a divine force, as the cause of the bloody events of the play: “How these things came about…of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause”. While Shakespeare does not come to a definitive conclusion which explains the origins of the inevitable evil in the human condition, whether it be as a result of a divine force or not, he suggests that man is constantly in conflict with this force to exercise free will within life.
While Shakespeare’s tragedy: ‘Hamlet: Prince of Denmark’ explores a variety of far-reaching, significant aspects of human existence, the complexity of free will and its opposition to fate is evidently one of central and crucial concerns of the text. In ‘The Conflict in Hamlet’ (1971) Shakespearian critic Michael Taylor contends that “the main conflict is between man as fate’s victim and man as the master of his destiny”.