The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0612 Thursday, 2 July 1998.
Date: Wednesday, 1 Jul 1998 11:01:40 +0000
Subject: Stoic Hamlet
Hamlet's to-be-or-not-to-be-ism evokes an issue very important in
Elizabethan moral thought: whether a man ought to devote his life to
contemplation or engage in active political and social affairs The
monks favored the former and their opponents, following the Stoics,
favored the latter. Erasmus thought writing was sufficiently
participatory. His friend Thomas More didn't, with what results we
I felt very strongly that Branagh was trying to turn the "How all
occasions" soliloquy into an epiphany. His Hamlet gets very excited
here, The Stoics in the Jacobean audience (and I maintain they were all
Stoics unless Puritans, and what would Puritans be doing in a theatre?)
would say, "at last Hamlet has got it."
In the Stoic view, Prospero, because he devoted his life to books
instead of Milan, was a very bad ruler, deserving what he got, as P
seems to recognize in his repentant final state. In his philosophizing,
Hamlet anticipates Prospero. His job is Denmark, and if there's
something rotten there, his job is to root it out. "The time is out of
joint, O cursed spite that I was born to set it right."
Revenge is another sidetrack decried by the Stoics. H should have
killed Claudius, praying or not.
So that's the Stoic point of view of the proceedings. Possibly
Shakespeare is protesting that the Stoic approach is too
crude-Fortinbras making a fuss about the ninth part of a hair and all
that-but there are so many references to the Stoic emphasis on the
active life all through the play, that I'm sure Shakespeare has the
issue uppermost in his mind. If H had taken arms soon enough and shown
some mettle, Fortinbras probably would have gone home peacefully?