Johnson calls Hamlet the darkest chapter in his book. “Don Quixote,” he says, “with his roots deep in instinct and faith, is the man of courage who redeems anything that befalls him. In Hamlet, we find a man of tragedy, he who makes chaos and failure of everything he touches.”
The opposite of Don Quixote in nearly every respect, Johnson says Hamlet is the “most profound example in all of literature of the divided man.”
To understand Hamlet, Johnson explains, is to gain insight into the emptiness and loneliness of modern existential life. As a three-dimensional man, Hamlet has neither roots in the instinctive world nor is his head yet in the heavens where he might gain enlightenment.
Modern man, in general, is at a point where he must heal the paradox of masculine and feminine,doing and being.
As Lao-tse said, “He who understand the masculine and keeps to the feminine shall become the whole world’s channel. Eternal virtue shall not part from him and he shall return to the state of an infant.”
Johnson says that Hamlet only touches this design state before making division and tragedy, rather than paradox and synthesis, of it. Because time and again, in refusing to act and make a choice, Hamlet loses the value of both.
Hamlet’s troubles begin with the murder of his father by his uncle who then marries Hamlet’s mother. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him to take revenge and thus begins the internal debate–to kill the uncle and take his rightful place as king or decide that enough blood has been shed and be at peace with what has happened.
Instead he does as Emily Dickinson put it,”wavered for us all.” Vacillation in one of the characteristics of the three-dimensional man.
“A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward,” Hamlet thinks. He can see that together the four parts make for wholeness, but only three parts function for him. He cannot listen to his internal wisdom.
“There is no peace in such a man,” Johnson says. “He knows too much to be simple, but not enough to be whole.”
Because Hamlet’s need to act and his abhorrence of violence are in conflict, he descends into depression and madness, and out of this comes the most famous soliloquy in literature:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh in heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream–ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Johnson explains that this is the despair that causes conflict in every three-dimensional man–while he cannot live, he dare not die. He then begins to torture everyone around him, especially those who love him, and he makes life unbearable for himself.
As Tolstoy wrote, “He was suffering the anguish men suffer when they persist in undertaking a task impossible for them–not from inherent difficulties, but from its incompatibility with their own nature.”
When challenged about what he is doing, Hamlet cries, “Words, words, words.” It is the cry of the three-dimensional man who is so caught up in words he cannot act.
Literary critic R.H. Blyth describes it this way: “This ‘words, words, words’ has a deeply tragic meaning in the play. It is, in fact, the secret of Hamlet’s character, the cause of the tragedy. Hamlet is the Zen-less man, whose energy, like a mouse in a wheel, goes round and round inside him and issues, not in action, but in talking.”
As Johnson says, “It is a characteristic of complex man, caught between functioning by instinct and acting by enlightenment, that he often destroys everything feminine within his grasp. . . . All feminine elements wither in the face of the three-dimensional consciousness.”
Next Week: The Poisoned Rapier