Through the application of reason, humans can come to understand all facets of the universe and their role within it. This belief held during the Elizabethan era defined humanity’s place in society, the world, and the hierarchy of creatures on earth and in the heavens, for man alone possessed the ability to reason. In the Great Chain of Being, humans bridged the earthly with the celestial by embodying a mixture of mind and body. In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the character of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, to explore the Renaissance belief in humankind’s unique and unlimited ability to discover the truths of the world through reason. As a passionate young man with a quick wit and strong desire to understand his place in society, Hamlet struggles to find authenticity while trapped in a Medieval world based on corruption and deceit. While his society expects him to passively fill his role as prince and behave in a traditionally manly way, he actively fights against expectations by refusing to repress his emotions or act on impulse. By feigning madness and using rational thought, he uncovers buried truths in his superficial community. Despite the nature of his society which attempts to stifle his expression of emotion, Hamlet retains his grasp on reality, revealing his superior intelligence within a false world of fools.
With his father’s death and mother’s remarriage, Hamlet’s idealistic view of life shatters as he realizes that he alone experiences true emotions and understands the evil reality of life. Once an idealist and Renaissance man with an unbounded delight and faith in everything good and beautiful, Hamlet loses his faith in the inherent goodness of society (Bradley 101). Disgust at his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle Claudius in the wake of his father’s death consumes Hamlet. When he speaks to the ghost of his dead father, the former king, the discovery of his mother’s lust and the fact that the kingdom is in the hands of an unworthy man  shatter his picture of the world, the state, and the individual (Spencer 264). As the only person who knows of his father’s murder, Hamlet directly confronts the evil lurking beneath the surface of his society that no one else acknowledges. Holding the belief that man’s godlike reason sets him apart from all other creatures, Hamlet feels tremendous shock at his mother’s and Claudius’ actions which violate the laws of reason (4.4.40). He alone sees the reality of evil in their actions as they destroy the accepted natural order of good and of the supremacy of reason, sinking man to the level of animals, his specific function gone (Spencer 267). Hamlet’s reality further shatters as he realizes the superficiality of his family’s emotions. In contrast to the mere appearance of mourning surrounding him, Hamlet know[s] not “seems” (1.2.79). Hamlet alone feels emotions on a deeper level showing his superior intelligence in a world where society places value only on outward appearance.
Under the guise of madness, Hamlet attempts to find truth in a society filled with lies and deceit, revealing him as the only character with the intelligence and willpower to challenge evil. Surrounded by riddles on all sides that everyone else ignores, a necessity in Hamlet’s soul drives him to penetrate below the surface and to question what others [take] for granted (Bradley 102). Plagued by questions about Ophelia’s behavior, his mother’s actions, and the verity of the ghost’s words, Hamlet chooses to act insane to secretly investigate the truth and confront the lies of the people closest to him. When Hamlet confronts his mother, revealing both his sanity and truths she wants to ignore, she begs Hamlet to speak no more (3.4.99). As a woman who most desires comfort and happiness, [t]he Queen is terrified of words like all other characters in the play (Ghose 67). Unlike Hamlet, she would rather go peacefully about life oblivious to her husband’s murder and the corruption of her actions than face the truth and deal with the consequences. Hamlet, however, knows that her and the entire royal household’s denial of any wrongdoing will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen (3.4.168-170). He knows that the current order will eventually crumble because false appearances and beliefs cannot alter the reality which remains beneath the lies of their society. In his relationship with Ophelia, Hamlet similarly finds it too gets absorbed into the public pattern (Eagleton 56). Like everyone else in his life, she makes an inauthentic choice when she chooses to obey her father and ignore Hamlet. Because of his heightened morality, Hamlet refuses to accept anything less than absolute sincerity and candid expression of emotion in his society.
As he contemplates committing murder, Hamlet becomes intensely aware of mortality, making him the only character who understands the fleeting quality of life. While Hamlet never forgets the quest for vengeance laid out for him by his father’s ghost, he initially becomes lost in inaction and thought. His insistence on not being a puppet leads […] to a delight in resisting any kind of definition, leaving him without a clear identity (Eagleton 56). No longer the beloved prince of Denmark, Hamlet has no way to clearly define his place in society except for his mission to kill Claudius, his father’s murderer. Unsure of his ability to complete this task, his constant feeling becomes one of disgust at life and everything in it (Bradley 106). With thoughts of murder running through his head, Hamlet becomes obsessed with death and the inevitability of it and begins to wonder if life merits the pain and suffering it causes. While the rest of society plots and schemes, Hamlet turns introspective and attempts to reconcile the difference between the temporary appearance of life, of action, of laughter, and the lasting reality of death (Spencer 275). Hamlet comes to the important conclusion that society consists of illusions. He explains that in the end, everyone dies whether a king or a pauper and that a king may go a / progress through the guts of a beggar (4.3.34-35). By understanding the illusion of power and status, Hamlet grasps a deeper understanding of the world than his peers who waste their time in pursuit of its fleeting glory.
In his search for authenticity, Hamlet’s superior intellect allows him to realize truths which no other characters understand, giving him the ability to cope with his loss of faith in society and himself. As Hamlet falls deeper into his assumed identity of madness, his thoughts become clearer and his words more profound. He declares, We are arrant knaves / all (3.1.139-140). Hamlet comes to the humbling understanding that no one lives without fault or has full control in this world, himself included. No other character copes with this same information. When [s]omething in [Ophelia’s] mind tells her that there are tricks in the world, and these are […] deceptions to do with her understanding of the world itself, Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide (Ghose 68). Without Hamlet’s keen intellect and ability to rationalize the world she lives in, she cannot cope with her new understanding of the world. Similarly, Laertes becomes the incompetent [victim] of a belief in action, when he discovers evil in his world and rushes to exact vengeance for his father’s murder and ends up causing his own death (Spencer 277). Without Hamlet’s mental control and ability to resist impulse, Laertes unwittingly rushes into death. Only Hamlet accepts death graciously because he discovers the truth that [t]here’s a divinity that shapes our ends (5.2.11). Hamlet’s knowledge that no one has control over what happens in the end leaves him more at peace than any other character when he meets his death.
In a deceptive society that values appearance over all else, Hamlet successfully fights to understand the underlying reality of the world in which he lives, highlighting his superior intelligence. Although the unique ability to reason and let thoughts rather than senses control their actions defines human beings, a person must maintain a balance between his or her thoughts and senses to function in a world where reality does not always govern life. Surrounded by people who base their thoughts and actions on appearances, Hamlet does not belong and cannot survive because he understands life only in its most real sense. Absorbed in his contemplations, he knows the world only as it should behave and not how it truly functions outside the workings of his mind. Divided from his peers by existing on a higher level of consciousness, Hamlet’s intelligence causes his downfall because it makes him unable to conform within a false world of fools. A person cannot exist in society by living through the reality of thought alone because rational thought never fully encompass the entirety of the irrational universe.