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A Desire for Certainty and Room for Doubt in Hamlet

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It is said that there is no such thing as absolute certainty, yet the search for certainty in everyday life remains within most. The human brain strives to achieve certainty, eliminating any possibility of uncertainty. Certainty is the adamant belief that something is the case; reliably true. Being certain signifies that one is assured, without a sense of ambiguity. It is often difficult to attain certainty as many factors can have an influence on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and truths, such as psychological manipulation. Psychological manipulation alters the behaviour or perception of others through deceitful and unreliable means. This type of social influence can take many forms, including guilt, pressure, gaslighting, and more. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and George Orwell’s 1984, the impossibility of certainty, due to psychological manipulation, each protagonist faces inevitably causes their demise. In the play Hamlet, protagonist Hamlet battles uncertainty as he attempts to decide whether or not he should pursue revenge. The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood struggles with her identity and cannot decide what kind of women she is to be in a society with distinct gender roles. Winston Smith, in 1984, is doubtful of his society and becomes uncertain with who and what he can trust surrounding him. Evident in each work, uncertainty plays an important role in the inevitable outcome of each character.

To begin, Hamlet battles uncertainty as to whether or not he should pursue revenge. The appearance of Old Hamlet’s ghost strikes up a great deal of uncertainty among everyone who has seen it, but especially the ghost’s son, Prince Hamlet. To start, Hamlet is not certain if what he sees before him is in fact a ghost or an image of his imagination as even his best friend and scholar Horatio believes it may be his imagination playing tricks with him. Not knowing what he has seen, Hamlet alludes that the figure “[m]ay be the devil, and the devil hath power/T’assume a pleasing shape. Yea and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy” (Shakespeare, II, ii, 561-563). Hamlet further investigates the figure, adding the possibility of a evil figure into question. Hamlet explains that the ghost before him could be the devil, as it has the power to take the same form as his late father to provoke him to do as it wishes. The demon has taken advantage of Hamlet’s weakness, as he is still mourning the loss of his father. Hamlet concludes that this ghostly figure is in fact the spirit of his dead father. Unfortunately, this does not resolve his feelings of uncertainty, as Hamlet now does not know if he should believe what the ghost has said to him. Once Hamlet has the chance to fully process the encounter with his father, he indicates skepticism, revealing, “[a]buses 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” (Shakespeare, II, ii, 565-567). The ghost confesses to Hamlet that his death was a murder, as the new King, Hamlet’s uncle did the killing. This is a very different story to the one originally told about King Hamlet’s death, therefore confusing Hamlet as he tries to decide what is the truth. Not only does the ghost tell Hamlet about his death, but he gives Hamlet plans for revenge. Hamlet questions each part of the speech, prying for an explanation. Although Hamlet has his suspicions that Claudius may be guilty, King Claudius has not shown any obvious signs proving this theory that he murdered King Hamlet. Hamlet begins to doubt what the ghost explained to him. Before prematurely acting based off what his ghostly father has told him, Hamlet decides to execute his own plan, a mousetrap of sorts, to ensure that what the ghost told him is the truth. Once, Hamlet confirms that his uncle did indeed murder his father, he proceeds with his father’s plan of revenge and prepares to kill Claudius. His plan is stopped short when Hamlet can not overcome his uncertainty surrounding the morality of his future actions. Hamlet is close to fulfilling his mission, but can not complete it, as he exclaims, “[a]nd so am I revenged. – That would be scanned… No. / Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent” (Shakespeare, III, iii, 76-89). Hamlet has the chance to kill Claudius, but retreats when he sees that his uncle is praying. Hamlet knows that he could easily murder his uncle in this moment as Claudius would not see it coming, but decides against executing him, as he is unsure if this will reflect badly on him. Hamlet believes that if he kills Claudius when he is praying, Claudius will go to heaven, which is not the revenge he hoped for, and instead seems like he is doing his uncle a favour. He questions whether it is true revenge if he kills Claudius as he is confessing to his sins. Hamlet decides to wait for another time to murder him, so there are no risks as to King Claudius’ fate. Hamlet’s indecisiveness continues throughout the rest of the play, as he cannot commit to the revenge plan to kill King Claudius.

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The impossibility of certainty that Hamlet experiences causes many issues for him, eventually leading to his death. Hamlet’s uncertainty with the ghost and whether or not to follow through with what the ghost has said leads to him madness. When Hamlet starts to experience uncertainty, he changes into a new person as author of The World of Hamlet, Maynard Mack explains that, “because he now sees everywhere, but especially in his own nature, the general taint, taking from life its meaning, […] turning reason into madness” (Mack 60). Hamlet’s uncertainty brings him to feel more pessimistic and dark about life, as he becomes mad. Whether Hamlet’s madness is legitimate or not, this madness becomes apparent to everyone around him. Hamlet’s family and friends begin to notice he is acting stranger than usually and believe that he is truly going mad. Those who surround Hamlet are wary of his actions and treat him differently, always wanting to keep an eye on him. This destroys many of Hamlet’s relationships with others, including his romantic relationship with Ophelia, and his friendships with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet’s obsession for certainty and the madness that goes along with it, starts a chain reaction of deaths, ending with his own.

Although Hamlet’s uncertainty can be explained by many factors, arguably the most influential factor is psychological manipulation. Hamlet experiences psychological manipulation throughout the play from a variety of characters, but the most impactful is that of the ghost. Old King Hamlet’s ghost uses manipulation in the form of guilt and pressure, which leads Hamlet to become very uncertain in his thoughts and actions. Daniel Diana explains in his paper about Shakespeare’s ghosts that “the ghost equates Hamlet’s love for his father with avenging his murder” (Diana 7). The spirit of Hamlet’s father guilts his son into killing his uncle by telling him that it is the only way to show how much Hamlet loved him. This pressures Hamlet into a murder, which he is clearly unsure of pursuing. Hamlet wants to show his respect for his father by carrying out his wishes and avenging his death, but is instead faced with more uncertainty.

Additionally, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar struggles with her future and how her role as a woman will play out in a strict society she does not feel welcome in. As a young woman growing up, Esther attempts to figure out her identity as most young girls do. As a young woman in the 1950’s, this proves to be difficult for her. Esther describes that way she feels about her future, as she expresses, “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose” (Plath 81). Esther indicates her confusion with her future and her place in the world with the symbol of the fig tree, showing that Esther is paralyzed by her uncertainty. She cannot choose a fig, just as she cannot seem to figure out her future. Esther is a very bright and methodical young woman; always looking ahead to her future, to become a writer as she has wanted all her life. When Esther does not get into the writing class she wished to take, she gets her first glimpse of a future, where she is not a writer. Esther feels doubtful of her future, as she questions whether she is good enough to be a writer. This leads her to think about her life choices and how her future will turn out. She becomes uneasy about her future and does not know what path to take. Another factor of Esther’s uncertainty is her role as a woman. Esther is confused about the role she will assume as a women in the 1950’s, where the role of a woman is mostly secondary to men. Esther shows that she has trouble being certain about her role as a woman, adding “I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more […] Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did” (Plath 31). There are many females in Esther’s life that have an influence on how she may view herself as a woman; each has a different view on the role of a woman. Esther feels pressure from women like Mrs. Willard, Buddy’s mother, and especially her own mother. Even though she has positive female role models like Dr. Nolan and Doreen who don’t necessarily comply to the distinct role of women, the overwhelming pressure makes it impossible for her to feel certain and assured in everything she does. Esther feels that she must be like her mother and be the woman Mrs. Willard would want to have as a daughter-in-law. Esther does not know how to act as she is not happy with the way women are perceived in her society. She feels conflicted about what kind of woman to be, therefore making her uncertain in her everyday behaviour.

Esther’s uncertainty is very different from both Hamlet and Winston, as she is searching for a personal truth, one that is only discovered once she reaches the bottom; the downfall of her mental health. Esther deals with many inner conflicts, which only adds to her feeling of ambivalence. Esther greatest conflict being figuring out who she is, creates a considerable inner conflict. In his article Alienation and Renewal in The Bell Jar, Steven Gould Axelrod speaks on this conflict and the effects it brings Esther, “[t]his inner division ultimately leads to a fissuring of her identity, a diversion from normal functioning to mental derangement” (Axelrod 135). Although Esther tries to conform to the role most women abide by, she is drawn from this lifestyle, and essentially drawn from herself. This causes Esther to become depressed, which buries her in her mental illness.

Comparable to Hamlet, a great deal of Esther’s uncertainty derives from the psychological manipulation of pressure. This pressure is mostly put there by society, but also her mother. Esther’s mother wants her daughter to be like her and to have the same role in life as she does, meaning assuming the role of a typical 1950’s woman. It is clear that society and culture in the story have a major impact on Esther’s uncertainty, as Mary Evans explains in A Discussion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “[t]he outward self which is expected (of Esther) […], organised in ways appropriate to the culture, is equally rigorously organised in terms of the language and the manners” (Evans 76). As Esther looks around at the females in her life, she feels pressure to conform to this role, which creates uncertainty. Esther questions herself because she is not like other women, and thus explains where her uncertainty originates.

Finally, throughout the novel 1984, Winston Smith is uncertain about what and who he can trust around him. The inhabitants of Oceania, including Winston believe what Big Brother tells them is the truth, therefore they are unaware of the real truth, which leads into Winston’s strong sense of uncertainty throughout the novel. Winston is unsure whether he is living in a world full of lies or truth. Winston has suspicions that what he sees around him may not be as truthful as the citizens of the supercontinent think. When he investigates more deeply into his suspicions to find that he may be correct, Winston is hit with uncertainty. Winston reveals how unaware of the truth he is as he states, “[t]o begin with [I do] not know with any certainty that this [is] 1984” (Orwell 9). Winston and the rest of the citizens of Oceania are so greatly influenced by Big Brother that even the year they are living in is not a known fact. The Party has fabricated every piece of Winston’s life, he does not know any different than to believe what he sees around him as this is what he knows to be the truth. Winston’s memory of the past is distorted, as the Party has controlled evidence of the past and present. Winston knows that some of the information the Party has told them is false, however he does not know where this logic comes from and questions the reliability of his mind, as well as the reliability of the Party. Winston fights the feelings of doubt he has within him, to hopefully help uncover the past and the present. It is evident that throughout the novel, Winston has trouble trusting people around him. Winston especially struggles with his relationship with O’Brien. Winston receives mixed signals from O’Brien, confusing him as he explains, “[m]omentarily [I] caught O’Brien’s eye… And then the flash of intelligence [is] gone, and O’Brien’s face [is] as inscrutable as everybody else’s” (Orwell 19). From the beginning of the novel, Winston is intrigued by the mysteriousness of O’Brien. Winston believes that this may be because O’Brien feels the same way about the Party as he does. When Winston sees O’Brien during the Two Minutes Hate, Winston feels convinced O’Brien is on his side. However, O’Brien’s face changes to match everyone else around and suddenly Winston is not so sure. Throughout the novel, Winston consistently doubts his relationship with O’Brien because he is so unsure where O’Brien stands. Contrary to Esther’s, uncertainty, which mainly revolves around herself, Winston’s uncertainty revolves around those surrounding him. Winston demonstrates his degree of uncertainty with his wariness towards the Party, as well as his comrades.

Winston’s sense of uncertainty causes him to act differently than the other citizens of Oceania, as he seems to be the only one who is not brainwashed by the Party. Rather than live the same life he has been living for the first part of his life, he is pushed to strive for the life he wants. Marcus Smith, author of The Wall of Blackness addresses the situation Winston is put in, “1984 […] deals with the inexorable conflict between an ultra-rational, totalitarian social ideal and the irrational neurotic reactions of an individual human being” (Smith 423). Once Winston begins to catch on to the Party’s lies, he becomes uncertain which causes him to be irrational as Marcus Smith puts it. Because Winston does not know what to do, he comes to be more obsessive about the Party, which pushes him to make rash decisions that he may not have fully thought through. He becomes someone who takes many risks, as he and Julia test the limits of the Party and eventually are captured by Big Brother. Hamlet differs from Winston as he chooses not to act, which prolongs his uncertainty, whereas Winston decides determine the truth to resolve his uncertainty. Hamlet’s inability to act, prolonging his uncertainty, is what leads to his downfall, while Winston’s ability to act is what leads to his downfall. Winston’s uncertainty drives him to embody a new person who acts passionately against the Party to the point where he is apprehended.

The main cause of Winston’s sense of uncertainty is unquestionably the psychological manipulation of the Party. Although Winston does not face pressure, his uncertainty, like Esther’s, derives from the society he lives in. The Party manipulates the truth and everything that Winston thinks he knows. The fundamental concept within the manipulation is doublethink, which Harold Bloom expresses “destroys the event of memory and the verifiability of history by arresting language and consciousness in an endless, “frozen” present” (Bloom 182). The manipulation of the Party replaces memories and history with unconsciousness and a brain that is frozen in time. Because Winston is subjected to this manipulation for so long, he faces uncertainty when he begins to remember past events. Winston hold two contradictory thoughts in his mind at once, causing him to have doubt about the truthfulness behind everything.

In conclusion, the impossibility of certainty each protagonist faces certainly causes their downfall, as show with Hamlet, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Esther Greenwood, in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Winston Smith, in George Orwell’s 1984. Hamlet battles uncertainty as he attempts to decide whether or not he should pursue revenge, ending in his death. Esther Greenwood struggles with her identity and cannot decide what kind of women she is to be in a society with distinct gender roles, leading to her depression and opening a path to her mental illness. Winston Smith, doubtful of his society, becomes uncertain with who and what he can trust surrounding him, which contributes to his “renewal” by Big Brother. Ironic that uncertainty can certainly be the leading cause of one’s demise.

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