The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensees about a very interesting way to believe in the Christian God. Pascal argues that people have to choose how to act: whether to believe in God or not. However, Pascal arrives at the conclusion that belief in the Christian God is the rational course of action, even if there is no evidence that He exists. Pascal’s claim is that it is better to believe that God exists because the expected value of believing that God exists is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief (Pascal 154).
Analogously, Shakespeare’s Hamlet addresses a problem concerning whether and how to act. Though Hamlet is often analyzed as a play about indecisiveness and, hence, Hamlet’s failure to act adequately, another potential perspective is that the play shows the reader the many uncertainties that individuals experience during their lives and how many unknown variables are taken for granted when people act or when they judge other people’s actions. Throughout the play, Hamlet pursues the truth of his father’s murder to take revenge justly against the murderer.
Therefore, Hamlet’s inability to act is due not to his indecisiveness but to his desire to discover the truth as a rational human being so as to confirm the validity of the ghost’s message and the ghost’s true identity. Hamlet’s rationality can be understood when he utters the most famous line of the play, “To be or not to be: that is the question” (3. 1. 56). Hamlet’s statement marks the central theme of the play, the difficulty of attaining certainty, and gives the reader an insight into Hamlet’s psychological dilemma.
However, before Hamlet poses the character-defining “to be or not to be” question, the ghost of his deceased father appears and informs him that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (1. 5. 39-40). Hamlet, then, swears to avenge his father’s death by killing his uncle, Claudius. Nevertheless, Hamlet has a predicament: he is unable to act because he is unsure of the veracity of the ghost’s words and even the validity of the ghost’s identity. Hamlet is a man who thinks before acting; hence, he needs more evidence.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is unable to come to an absolute decision of avenging his father’s death. Moreover, Shakespeare constantly emphasizes Hamlet’s predicament: can he act or does he need further knowledge about the truth? Hamlet shows his concern about not knowing the truth in the following passage: I know my course. The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (2. 2. 537-544) Furthermore, Hamlet’s inability to act can be compared to Pascal’s wager because Hamlet also has an unavoidable decision to make and if Hamlet is to decide without knowing the truth, Hamlet has to gamble. However, Hamlet’s wager is riskier than that of Pascal. The argument is as follows: it is possible for Hamlet to kill or to not kill Claudius and it is possible that the ghost was or was not Hamlet’s deceased father.
If Hamlet kills Claudius and the ghost was really Hamlet’s deceased father, Hamlet made the right choice. However, if Hamlet kills Claudius and the ghost was not Hamlet’s late father, then Hamlet made the wrong choice. The same goes for the contrary argument in which Hamlet does not kill Claudius. Pascal argues that the rational decision should be that which maximizes expectations (Pascal 155), but both of Hamlet’s choices have the same expectation, therefore making Hamlet’s bet far riskier than that of Pascal.
Accordingly, this topic brings us to the central theme of the play: the difficulty in attaining certainty. What makes Hamlet certain that the ghost is really his father’s spirit and that Claudius is his father’s murderer? Only by making Claudius confess his sin is Hamlet able to know that Claudius is the real murderer. Hence, the rational decision to make is to search for the truth and trick Claudius into confessing because by doing this, Hamlet would guarantee himself of acting correctly.
Therefore, Shakespeare presents a rational human being in search of the truth to make the right decision rather to make an uncertain mistake. Consequently, Hamlet devices a scheme to make Claudius implicitly confess to the murder. Hamlet plans to reenact the assassination in order to watch carefully Claudius’s reaction, which will allow Hamlet the opportunity to know the truth about Claudius’s role in the murder (2. 2. 542-544). Hamlet’s plan reveals his rationality as opposed to his insanity, which was part of his clever idea.
This plan enables Hamlet to reveal Claudius’s true actions so as to rightfully avenge his father’s death. Hamlet’s plan further corroborates the fact that Hamlet is an individual who acts through reason and not through reckless charges of insubordination. During the play, the question of how to act is influenced not only by rational thoughts, such as the need for certainty, but also by psychological and ethical factors. Hamlet contemplates the idea of action in many ways, such as the way in which he searches for the truth to rightfully avenge his father’s death.
However, the other characters clearly think less about acting and decision-making than Hamlet does and are, for that reason, less concerned about the possibility of acting correctly. They just act as they feel is suitable. Nevertheless, they prove that Hamlet is correct, because all of their actions fail. For example, Claudius attains the crown through rash procedures, but his conscience tortures him (3. 3. 35-40). Therefore, Shakespeare’s play contains situations of decision-making under uncertainty, where the penalties of error are extraordinary and where the decisions are unavoidable, just like with Pascal’s wager.
Turning critical analysis to the structure of situations of uncertainty that regular people face might help not only to understand this specific play but also to understand rational decision-making as a whole. Moreover, far from presenting an indecisive individual to the reader, the play portrays the complications of decision-making, highlighted by the fact that those complications must be faced by a person better prepared than others for decision-making.
Hamlet is able to make a rational decision in a situation of uncertainty; making him an individual capable of formulating logical decisions, as opposed to Claudius and other characters in the play, who after recklessly perpetrating their actions are haunted by their conscience. Works Cited Pascal, Blaise. Pensees and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 152-158. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, ed. A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.