Finding Pleasure in Tragedy: Possible in Shakespeare’s Hamlet?
Nothing screams ‘feel the positive in the negative’ more than Shakespeare does in many of his intensely morbid plays as he crushes our souls. Yet, the process allows us to feel a backward sense of pleasure, as we release our built up emotional tension. This feeling isn’t phatic to us modern day readers, but rather imperative in a world in which hurdles are constantly being catapulted towards our wellbeing; be it hate crimes, isolation, overwhelming global tragedies...etc. No, I am not alluding to finding pleasure in these things. Rather, it is better to allow oneself to feel happiness through the small (even miniscule) positive moments that give us emotional release (albeit cheesy and annoying). However, is it possible to derive this feeling from Hamlet; or, (the more pertinent question) is the play too much of a haunting depiction of human greed?
According to Aristotle's dictum, a tragedy should arouse in the readers or spectators the feelings of pity and terror. From this, we, as audience members, achieve a feeling of catharsis, which makes tragedy enjoyable. For if we didn’t feel a purge of emotions we wouldn’t absorb ourselves in such melancholic plays, movies (aka, Me Before You), music and literature. In Hamlet, Shakespeare presents us with various key moments in which we experience, as Nietzsche says, “tragic joy”. Key parts of the play that highlight this include the first appearance of the apparition as well as the presentation of death with the skull of Yorick. Shakespeare presents this through his innovative use of language, structure and focus on key characters.
The feeling of terror is one that strikes a strange sense of delight in us as audiences. This first occurs when the Ghost appears, but is first talked of by Marcellus as he states “this dreaded sight, twice seen of us”. The ambiguity, highlighted when the “apparition” finally comes on stage, yet does not talk to anyone, makes us feel uneasy as we are unsure as to how morbid and “rank” past events that have kept him in purgatory are. Moreover, Horatio, who was skeptical about the existence of ghosts, trembles and looks pale. This is evident in Brangah’s film adaptation of Hamlet where the fear and morbidity is exemplified through the use of special effects like smoke and dark blue lighting, creating an even more terrifying sight. In the same way that the Bible demands sympathy for Abel and criticizes Cain for the fratricide, Shakespeare takes favor for the murdered brother. It is apparent in the way in which Claudius’s crimes are described as he states “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,/With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts”. The word “witchcraft” suggests that Claudius has sustained great control over the Queen and through this has seduced her. As an opening this would have shocked a 17th century audience deeply as it was generally accepted that English monarchs ruled by Divine Right as God himself appointed them to rule the land. This would have instilled a greater sense of excitement, and hence enjoyment in the audience as they know, similar to all tragedies, something big is going to happen. Hamlet finds pleasure in this tragedy as he now knows the true cause for the death of his father, therefore, giving him a task to avenge him, even though Christianity negated the Hebraic notion of "an eye for an eye", this sin is unforgivable.
Death continues to haunt us as readers/ audience members in Act 5, Scene 1 where the thin line between life and death is challenged. Here, Hamlet takes Yorick’s skull and fond memories of the court jester flood his mind as he exclaims “He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.” The tone here is lighthearted and innocent, yet is plagued with the dark veil of death. This is a key moment where Hamlet, on one hand, finds happiness by finding his dear friend again, yet at the same time realizes the inexorable rot of the human body. This change in tone when Hamlet then brings us back to the future/ current time, highlights how quickly things can change, especially in his situation. Through this Shakespeare may be hinting to us that we should “seize the day” and “quam minimum credula postero” as we never know what can happen. Additionally, the close proximity Shakespeare places between the skull and Hamlet as described in the stage directions as he “ (takes the skull)” creates an unbearable sight as life and death are directly juxtaposed and the thin line between them challenged. Although Hamlet is talking about the great memories he had and all the fun, the setting is so dark and grime that we cannot think and take ourselves to that land of blissful ignorance, but instead are bombarded by the intense morbidity physically presented. Shakespeare deeply intertwines tragedy and pleasure in this scene as even though Hamlet is thinking back to positive times in his childhood, the setting in which he does this is gruesome.
Death, the prevalent theme, acts as a vessel in which as audience members we achieve pleasure (not Necrophilia, bare with me). Although unexpected, Shakespeare shows us that it is possible to find and achieve happiness even in the darkest of disasters through various symbols, like the skull and appearances of the dreaded ghost. Shakespeare’s ability to stir up these seemingly juxtaposing emotions is what makes this play a timeless piece; and a good reminder to 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may' (Herrick)!