wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Paul Cantor


One might formulate what distinguishes Hamlet from a classical hero in many ways, but one can begin from this basic point: his cosmos is not that of Achilles. The Greek hero lives in a universe with finite horizons: he knows that he is mortal and that death offers at most an existence as a bloodless shade, an existence to which life on earth even as a slave is preferable (as Achilles's shade reveals in the Odyssey). His singleminded determination as a warrior is related to his sense of his mortality. Because he knows that his fate is to die young, he realises that he has only a brief period of time to win glory for himself. Indeed, the only meaningful form of immortality his world offers him is the survival of his name through fame.

Hamlet, by contrast, living in the modern Christian world, believes that his soul is immortal (I.iv.65-8). This may seem like an obvious point, but it has wide-ranging implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's play. In fact, it is remarkable how many of the complications of Hamlet's situation can be traced to the impact his belief in an afterlife has on his thinking. From the very beginning he is preoccupied with the afterlife because from the very beginning he is preoccupied with suicide. Suicide is the issue on which Shakespeare demonstrates most clearly his awareness of the distinction between ancient, pagan heroes and modern, Christian ones. From our perspective, suicide is a surprisingly unproblematic notion for Shakespeare's Romans. Their ethic demands suicide from them when dishonour and disgrace are the alternative. Because they view it as a noble deed, they do not hesitate to commit suicide when the time comes. This is true even in the case of Brutus, a character often compared to Hamlet as a thoughtful, meditative man, who has difficulty making up his mind. But Brutus approaches his suicide with a firm resolve. Whatever his temperamental affinities with Hamlet may be, he has a diametrically opposed attitude towards suicide. This difference is not to be explained in terms of what we would today call contrasting 'personalities', but rather in terms of the contrasting regimes under which Brutus and Hamlet live. Brutus's regime virtually mandates suicide for a noble man under certain circumstances, whereas Hamlet's forbids it under any circumstances.

The first words we hear Hamlet speaking alone reveal him running up against the Christian prohibition of suicide:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. (I.ii.129-32)
These opening lines supply the keynote of Hamlet's character: throughout the play he shows a distinctive concern with the everlasting as opposed to the merely temporal. This orientation means that he cannot view action from the perspective of a classical hero. Unlike Achilles, he must consider whether his actions will lead him to be saved or damned. The fact that an eternity is at stake in his deeds gives him good reason to pause and consider their consequences. But the complications introduced into Hamlet's thinking by his belief in an afterlife run deeper than this. His Christianity opens a window on eternity, but it is a dark window. The most striking fact about the afterlife for Hamlet is that he cannot know with certainty what it will be like. His cosmos is far more mysterious than Achilles's. His belief in the immortality of the soul vastly raises the stakes involved in heroic action but, given the uncertainties surrounding life after death, it simultaneously makes it more difficult to calculate the consequences of such action.

This is the main burden of Hamlet's most famous speech, the 'To be, or not to be' soliloquy. He reveals that he would have no difficulty in embracing suicide if he were a pagan, that is, if he believed that death is effectively the end of life. But he is troubled by visions of what lies beyond the finite horizons to which the ancient world was limited:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.(III.i.65-7)
'The dread of something after death' grips Hamlet all the more powerfully because he realises that we must take on faith any claims about 'the undiscovr'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns' (III.i.77-9). He dwells on how belief in an afterlife alters the terms of heroic action and threatens to redirect and even stifle heroic impulses:
thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (III.i.83-7)
Notice that, contrary to the Schlegel-Coleridge thesis, Hamlet does not claim here that thinking as such undermines heroic resolve, but only thinking about a particular subject, namely the afterlife.

Hamlet's other-worldly perspective would complicate his view of any heroic action, but it makes the task of revenge particularly complex. Paradoxically, even while forbidding revenge, Christianity offers a pattern of revenge more sinister than anything imagined in classical antiquity. The statement 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord' is in a strange way ambiguous. Though it ostensibly denies man the right to revenge, it simultaneously offers a kind of divine sanction to vengeance by providing a divine model of it. The God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, and the God of the New, while offering forgiveness to sinners, raises the stakes involved in revenge by damning unrepentant sinners for all eternity. Hamlet's concern for the salvation of his soul makes him more thoughtful and hesitant than a classical hero, but it also means that if he is to take revenge on Claudius, it must be revenge on his immortal soul.