The beauty of Shakespeare’s works is that they can interpreted in many different ways. One of my favourite is to think of his biggest plays as representing the three stages of life- youth, adulthood and old-age:
- Hamlet/youth. The young prince Hamlet is plagued by uncertainty, existentialist doubt (“to be or not to be”) and relativistic morality (“there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”). He rages over how to avenge his father’s death and the injustices of life. Eventually he does claim his father’s murderer’s life (his uncle Claudius), but loses his mother (Gertrude) and in the end his own life as well.
- Macbeth/adulthood. The general Macbeth upon winning a battle gets his ambitions inflated upon hearing from three witches that he will be king. He then engages in a blood-soaked journey to achieve this. Yet, even on achieving high rank he his plagued by insecurity (“dressed in borrowed robes”) and guilt. In the end, he realises that “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” won’t bring relief, instead “life’s a walking shadow…signifying nothing”.
- King Lear/old age. The elderly King Lear wants to maintain his title and status, but not the responsibility of running his kingdom so wishes to pass this to his daughters. He asks the three of them “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (rather than “which of you doth love us most,”), so prefers sweet words and flattery than the truth. Indeed, Cordelia who doesn’t overstate her love gets castigated by him and loses her share of the kingdom. In the end, the other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, push their father to madness. Cordelia saves him, but is executed and King Lear is left holding her in his arms.
The three plays, then, show the dark side of each stage of our lives, the uncertainty and inability to act of youth, the unchecked ambition of adulthood, and the the desire for status and flattery of old age. All the time we try to live up to some external notion of being, we end up losing out on that we love the most.