Balance of actions and contemplation: The Lesson of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello

A partial transcript of my episode 14 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the show.

“…Speaking of thoughts, I was expressing earlier some thoughts about how information overload is a real thing in the contemporary world that creates anxiety but also that anxiety can prompt us to empowerment. Specifically, the type of anxiety I am speaking of is free-floating anxiety, generalized anxiety having no apparent connection to any specific object, situation, or idea.

I see it as the emergence of concerns and fears about things that we didn’t know existed within ourselves but existed, and had been repressed and were perhaps a root problem of unhappiness or frustration.

In fact, in 1947, Talcott Parsons wrote that free-floating anxiety essentially originates from large reservoirs of repressed aggression that exist but cannot be directly expressed. Pardon my ignorance, but the way I see it, this is further proof of the fact that free-floating anxiety is essentially a huge psychological bundle of potential energy.

Now, by the same degree, I also believe that not everyone has the strength, power or will to use this potential energy to their advantage. Further proof is shown by the way in which free floating anxiety is present in so many art works. For example, film noir was a movement that was almost entirely constructed out of the anxieties related to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationalities that particularly defined the World War II era.

We also see it in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and this is the example I will use to describe my thesis. Now, Hamlet is one of the most famous plays ever written but for those who are not familiar with it — and there is no shame in that because I’m sure you know things I don’t know — the story of Hamlet revolves around the ghost of the King of Denmark, who tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.

Significantly, Hamlet feigns madness but rather than acting upon the free floating anxiety caused by the ghost of his father’s revelation, aka the information overload, he spends much of his time contemplating death rather than acting upon his plans to seek revenge. Thus, Hamlet is a tragedy and famously, almost everyone ends up dead.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that the opposite occurs in Othello. While Hamlet is an intellectual, more a man of words than deeds, Othello is a Moorish nobleman but also a military man whose success in battle is a natural instinct. Thus, he acts without thinking. So, being far more given to action than deep thought and free-floating anxiety, he kills his wife Desdemona upon slight suspicion and realizing his mistake, he takes his own life.

In the case of Othello, the information was supplied by a false friend. But in Hamlet, the exchange of information is more explicitly important. The poison with which Hamlet’s father — the King of Denmark — is killed is ear poison. And when I was a kid, I thought it was unusual. But there’s a reason for that. In fact, the major motif in Hamlet is the idea that words cannot be trusted and can corrupt an individual’s thinking or actions as they enter through the ears. So, it’s also an exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge.

And the lesson of Hamlet but also Othello, by both ending in tragedy, is that true knowledge and righteous acts are achieved through a balance of contemplation and action.”

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