Author: Thuy Le Minh Nguyen

A Phenomenology of Sadness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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“To be or not to be” might be the most well-known quote of Hamlet describing the contemplation about existence. Just in few words, this quote shows the hesitation, the insecurity, and even the complexity in emotions of the one saying it, the prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Seen as the most psychological and even philosophical play of Shakespeare’s[2], Hamlet reflects vividly and authentically the world of emotions, especially sadness. In this blog, I would like to have a brief review of the article “ ‘Oh That This Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt’: A Phenomenology of Sadness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet” by J. Keeping and how he addresses the phenomenology of sadness described in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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First, before going further to the article, I believe it is necessary to have some general knowledge about Hamlet as well as the subject material, sadness. For whom might not know this play at all or just have some ideas such as: “Hamlet is about a prince contemplating a scheme to revenge”, I can assure this play can do much more than that. The reason for my guarantee is because once one reads the play, he or she will be impressed with the variety in the emotion world, especially Hamlet’s, or at least its engaging plot. I still remember the first time I read Hamlet and am still able to reminisce that moment so vividly after more than a decade. As an eight or ten years old girl, I just read it as how I read many other dramatic novels. Despite not being aware of any implication or philosophical lesson, I still relatively enjoyed it. Now, after years since the first time, Hamlet is still one of my favorites although the way I feel it has varied significantly. To me, Shakespeare’s Hamlet becomes much deeper, darker, and most importantly much sadder.

 

 

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According to Keeping, sadness is less straightforward than other feelings. In fact, he believes sadness is a “part of a spectrum of emotion words with associated meanings: unhappiness, grief, gloom, melancholy, sorrow, depression, despair” (2). Therefore, when one feels sad, it is rarely only about pure sadness. Besides, the way people consider this feeling is also quietly arbitrary. For some, sadness and depression share the same rank and come at the same time while for others, depression can be much stronger than sadness. “Emotions are dynamic, meaning that they cannot be relied upon to sit still for study: often they will pass or even transform into other emotions” claimed Keeping. To him, “emotions are dynamic” because of their transformation. They can change from change one to another. Therefore, that is why literary works, as Keeping mentioning in this article, need to be considered. Literary works in general and Shakespeare’s in specific can be “public object” and “intersubjectively accessible” give us a chance to enter the complicated world of emotion.

So why we should consider Shakespeare’s interpretation of sadness? The answer lies on his ability of sketching human’s emotion. Since “literary works are autobiographical”, each of them reflects very authentically writer’s experience as well as ideology . Shakespeare plays utterly succeed in depicting human world, both inside and outside. Moreover, Shakespeare’s play is not only for any particular period; they do reach the universal extent.

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When it comes to the first soliloquy of Hamlet found in Act I, Scene 2, the desire of Hamlet about ending his life comes out greatly in the first sentence. To Keeping,  “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” begins the soliloquy, and rarely do we hear sadness expressed so vividly in so few words. This line is too often read as a longing for oblivion, a poetically expressed desire for suicide” ( Keeping, 2008). It is obvious to catch that the root of Hamlet’s broken heart lays on the death of his father. However, if we consider the whole soliloquy, Hamlet mentions constantly his mother’s disloyalty and the inferiority of the one she married. His sadness in this soliloquy is a combination of despair, disappointment, and even frustration. He cannot believe in what is happening in his own house when he is back.

Moving to the rest of the soliloquy, Hamlet keeps expressing his despair and his instability in emotion. For example, when Hamlet cries: “Heaven and earth, must I remember?”, reader can see the despair, but right after this one is a couple of other sentences which are full of anger: “O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer!” Because of the unbearable circumstance, Hamlet’s emotions are extremely unstable. Sadness causes anger and also diminishment in Hamlet. “It seems that in sadness we sink, we shrink, we are diminished. More specifically, we shrink into ourselves. Sadness is a diminishment, but it is also a retreat from the world”[6]

To conclude, as Ophelia said in Act 4, scene 5, “we know what we are, but know not what we may be”. What we may be can be affected by many factors and one of them is the alteration of our feelings. They are dynamic, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet will always be an evidence for that.


 

[1] Quotefancy, 10 September 2021.

https://quotefancy.com/quote/53296/William-Shakespeare-To-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-question

[2] J. Keeping, “‘ Oh That This Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt'”: A Phenomenology of Sadness in SHakespeare’s Hamlet”, ProQuest, 10 September 2021.

centralauth.uco.edu/cas/login?service=https%3A%2F%2Fuconnect.uco.edu%2Fc%2Fportal%2Flogin

[3] WallpaperCave, 10 September 2021. https://wallpapercave.com/hamlet-wallpapers

[4] Hanaan Haddad, “Emotional regulation: Emotions as indicators and not dictators”, RWA Psychology, 10 September 2021.

Emotional regulation: Emotions as indicators and not dictators

[5] The Center at West Park, “Hamlet by William Shakespeare”, 10 September 2021.

https://www.centeratwestpark.org/events/2019/3/28/hamlet-by-william-shakespeare-9xl8p-b3a6j-aew4w-da39w-x5kn8

[6] J. Keeping, “ ‘Oh That this Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt’”: A Phenomenology of Sadness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, ProQuest, 10 September 2021.

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