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A common interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, based on the widely read Folio edition of the text, is that the titular character is motivated by darkness, exhibiting depression and suicidal tendencies. The young prince often refers to suicide, and his soliloquies contain language that indicates that thoughts of death and suicide heavily impact his mentality. However, despite his contemplation, Hamlet ultimately decides against taking his own life. To fully understand Hamlet’s motivations, one must analyze his lines across different editions of the play, and it is from this analysis that an interesting conclusion begins to unfold. In the First Quarto edition, Hamlet, though he utters many similar lines concerned with death and the afterlife, is not the same dark, depressed character as the Folio text would suggest.
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Seemingly small differences in lines show a significant variance between the two versions—there exists a stark contrast in Hamlet’s motivations and way of thinking between the First Quarto and Folio editions of the text. In the First Quarto, Hamlet is motivated by an optimistic sense of religious belief, driven by his hope for a better future, while in the Folio text, his unwillingness to actually commit suicide stems from his uncertainty and fear of the afterlife. The optimistic version of Hamlet is motivated by the hope of heaven, while the pessimist is forced to endure life due to dread of the unknown that awaits upon his death. Using this difference in character, one can extrapolate very different interpretations of Hamlet’s interaction with the ghost of his father and the subsequent attempts to exact vengeance upon King Claudius.
In the First Quarto, Hamlet views the afterlife as a positive source of hope, while in the Folio edition, he dreads what follows life for fear that it will be worse. This is shown by a significant textual variance that occurs within the lines of Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. These lines heavily feature Hamlet’s ideas of suicide and his interpretation of life after death. In the Folio edition, the young prince’s view of the afterlife is most clearly displayed when he speaks of his “dread of something after death” (Shakespeare, F1, 3.1.78). In the corresponding line in the First Quarto, Hamlet instead speaks of his “hope of something after death” (Q1, 7.132). The difference of a single word shows two versions of the character, who each decide against suicide for different reasons.
The First Quarto version of the character seems to have a more optimistic view of a religious afterlife. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “hope” is defined not only as the desire for something, but also the expectation (“Hope.”). Hamlet in the First Quarto believes that, as long as he does not commit suicide, his life has thus far been good or righteous enough to attain eternity in heaven. Thus, his primary motivation for electing not to take his own life is not fear, but hope.
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In the Folio version, however, he speaks of his dread of the afterlife. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “dread” is the fear and apprehension of future events, which shows that Hamlet is scared of entering the afterlife, as it will happen in the future and is therefore unknown (“Dread.”). In this version of the play, Hamlet appears less religiously motivated, due to the fact that he seems unsure of what awaits in the afterlife, but he is still frightened by the possibility of suffering after death, and apprehensive about what the future could hold. He is a pessimistic character, speaking of his dread of hell or suffering; he only rejects the option of suicide due to his fear of further suffering. This difference shows that in the First Quarto, Hamlet is fundamentally an optimist, naturally inclined to display a positive idea of the afterlife, while in the Folio text his interpretation is negative. The difference in word choice is a window into Hamlet’s character at its core—the contrast between a pessimistic and an optimistic Hamlet directly leads to two very distinct understandings of the character’s mentality.
In the Folio version of Hamlet, the prince fears the afterlife primarily because it is unknown to him; in the First Quarto, however, his belief in a Christian afterlife and heaven alleviates his concerns. In both the First Quarto and the Folio editions of the play, Hamlet describes the afterlife as an “undiscovered country,” (Shakespeare, F1, 3.1.79). However, the connotations of this line are different in each version. The Folio version of the line directly follows the previously cited line discussing Hamlet’s “dread” of the afterlife (3.1.78). This displays not only the fact that Hamlet fears what awaits him after death, but also his complete uncertainty when thinking about the afterlife. This reinforces the idea that Hamlet is skeptical of the traditional Christian afterlife, fearing the unknown that he believes awaits rather than trusting in what Christian doctrine describes. Hamlet is then inclined to make negative assumptions about the uncertainty of the afterlife due to his pessimistic nature.
The placement of the “undiscovered country” line in the First Quarto, however, gives it an entirely different meaning, as the uncertainty becomes a representation of hope rather than one of dread (Q1.7.122). In the First Quarto, Hamlet states that the afterlife is a place where “happy smile and the accursed damned” (7.121-122). He does not claim to know what the afterlife will entail, but he describes a system in which “accursed” people are “damned,” or sent to hell, while “happy” or otherwise good people will “smile” (7.121-122). Thus, he believes in the Christian interpretation of the afterlife, involving a heaven and a hell, despite his uncertainty. As a result, the fact that he is uncertain is not an outlet for him to display his pessimism, and is instead a way for his natural optimism to manifest.
Hamlet clearly exhibits fear of the unknown in both versions, but it is only in the Folio version that this fear translates itself into true dread, while in the First Quarto, his optimism leads to a belief that the unknown is something that can be avoided altogether. In the Folio edition, after his line about dread of the afterlife, Hamlet states that it is this dread that “makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of” (F1, 3.1.81-82). This line states that Hamlet decides against suicide to avoid some unknown suffering. Hamlet, then, believes that the afterlife is simply an unknown to be feared, and seems to expect the possibility that it is worse than the mortal world. This reinforces the fact that the Folio version of the character is a darker one, driven more by thoughts of suicide and fear than by any hope or optimism. What is interesting about this line, however, is the fact that it is also present in the First Quarto edition of the text in a very similar form. Following the line about hope for the afterlife, Hamlet states that people would “rather bear those evils we have / Than fly to others we know not of” (Q1, 7.134-135). In both versions, he describes the afterlife as evils “we know not of” (7.134-135; F1, 3.1.82). The difference in this line between the two versions does not change the meaning in any significant way; therefore, one would expect that this line contradicts the claim that in the First Quarto, Hamlet is not driven by fear but by hope. However, the importance of this line lies in the lines preceding it.
In the First Quarto, Hamlet has already established his optimism by this point in the soliloquy. Thus, the line is not in fact a statement of fear, but simply a recognition of the uncertainty that still exists, even in the optimistic text. Hamlet believes in both versions that suicide would send him to a realm of unknown suffering; though he is more concerned with the uncertainty in the Folio version, it exists in both, and simply plays different roles. Because the First Quarto version of the character is driven by hope and the desire to reach heaven, this line is describing the unknown suffering as hell specifically; he believes in hell, but he is not certain of what one would expect there. The reason that the unknown represents hell in this case is because hell is the part of the afterlife in which the “accursed damned” (7.122). Connecting these two lines shows that when Hamlet describes the unknown to be feared, he is speaking of hell specifically. Hell as a concept is not unknown to him, but, of course, the devil is in the details—he has no way to understand the specifics of hell and therefore must recognize it as an unknown. However, because the unknown refers specifically to hell, Hamlet is able to maintain his optimistic view of the afterlife and his “joyful hope” of heaven, as heaven is a separate part of the afterlife from hell (7.123).
In the Folio version of the text, these lines pertaining to hope do not appear, and as such one must reach the conclusion that the suffering “we know not of” is in this case the afterlife as a whole (F1, 3.1.82). In the Folio edition, the influence of the Christian concept of the afterlife on Hamlet is much lesser; he is unsure of what comes after death, and as such dreads the possibility of death. The First Quarto version of the character is much more optimistic, and his uncertainty about the afterlife exists within the framework of his belief in the concepts of heaven and hell. He is uncertain about what exactly these might entail, but he believes in the fundamental concept of different versions of the afterlife for the righteous and the damned. His optimism allows him to have a more religious view, as he believes heaven is personally attainable.
This allows two different interpretations of Hamlet’s interaction with the ghost and his subsequent attempts to carry out the ghost’s revenge. Understanding the fundamental difference between the optimistic and pessimistic versions of Hamlet allows for a deeper understanding of the character as a whole. As an optimistic character, Hamlet in the First Quarto believes that he can reach heaven. Therefore, he must believe that his attempts to honor the ghost’s wishes and take revenge upon Claudius are justified religiously. According to Christian doctrine, vengeance alone is not justification enough for murder, especially of the kinslaying variety, a fact evident in the story of Cain and Abel.
This fact leads to the assumption that the optimistic version of Hamlet believes in the hereditary nature of sovereignty and the divine right to rule, as he requires some form of personal justification for his actions to match his religious optimism. Hamlet wishes to kill Claudius, which would in turn assert his own claim to the throne. Because he hopes for heaven in the First Quarto, his planned murder must be justified in some fashion. Thus, the optimistic version of Hamlet leads to an interpretation of the play in which the ghost is a representation of the divinity of sovereignty, as this allows Hamlet a religiously viable justification for murder. The ghost’s role is to influence the mortal Hamlet to place himself on the throne, therefore realizing the ideal of a hereditary sovereignty. This interpretation implies that Hamlet is itself a critique of the concept of divine sovereignty, as Hamlet’s attempts to reinstate the assumed correct order of the kingdom, combined with Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet and therefore strengthen his own sovereignty, lead to complete chaos in the last scenes of the play, in which almost every major character dies due to a series of misguided plots to enforce the concept of sovereignty. Thus, the optimistic version of Hamlet allows significantly different interpretations of major plot events throughout the play.
If Hamlet is a pessimist, however, the play takes on another meaning entirely. In the Folio text, Hamlet’s mind is rife with uncertainty, and his dread of the afterlife plays a significant role in his motivations and therefore his actions. In this case, the planned murder of Claudius has less to do with a concept of divine sovereignty, for Hamlet in this text is not religiously motivated in the same way he is in the First Quarto; rather than focusing on hope and positive aspects, he gravitates exclusively toward negative possibilities. The ghost in this interpretation is not necessarily a representation of any divine right to rule, but rather a manifestation of Hamlet’s personal desire for revenge.
Reading the play with the understanding that Hamlet is a pessimist allows the reader to understand why it is so important to Hamlet that Claudius only be killed before he absolves himself of his sins. Hamlet fears the afterlife due to the fact that he does not know what it entails, and he wishes to send Claudius to this uncertain fate. Hamlet’s idea of the most effective form of revenge is to send Claudius to the place that he himself dreads, as he fears it is a fate worse than any suffering one could endure during a mortal life. Despite his lack of religious motivation, his uncertainty about the afterlife combined with his pessimistic viewpoint leads him to assume the worst. However, when Claudius is praying and therefore absolving himself of sin, he is not experiencing the same uncertainty as Hamlet feels toward the concept of the afterlife. The uncertainty of the afterlife is a vital part of the suffering Hamlet has endured, as it has led to his refusal to take his own life. It then follows that in Hamlet’s mind, revenge would involve forcing Claudius to endure the same uncertainty and suffering as he himself does. This is shown in the final scene, when Hamlet first injures Claudius, then forces him to drink his own poison. In doing this, Hamlet enforces his own fear of death by forcing the king to end his own life before he has the chance to absolve himself of any sin. The Folio edition of Hamlet is a depressed, suicidal character who lashes out at the man responsible for his father’s death. His actions are not motivated by complex systems of sovereignty or any divine influence, but rather by his own grief and hatred.
The difference between hope and dread in the “to be or not to be” soliloquy shows that Hamlet is a religiously-driven optimist in the First Quarto version and an uncertain pessimist in the Folio. This is important to the text of Hamlet because it significantly changes the reader’s interpretation of Hamlet’s motivations throughout the play—in the First Quarto, he is driven primarily by a belief that his life will lead him to heaven, and thus all of his actions must be justifiable to himself. By contrast, in the Folio edition, his pessimism means that his actions do not have to be justifiable from a religious standpoint, and instead simply follow his own grief and desire for vengeance. The First Quarto version of Hamlet depicts a protagonist who is religious and believes in a religious afterlife, while the Folio version of the character is instead overwhelmed by uncertainty and dread. Perhaps, then, the difference between the two texts proves to be an unintentional commentary on life without a strong belief system; those who have nothing but doubt are lost, left with only dread and fear, without a source of comfort, while those who believe strongly in something are more inclined to positivity and optimism.
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