I Can’t Decide What to Call This Essay
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
As part of a series on bibliotherapy, I’d like to kick things off with what I’d recommend for the over thinker who struggles with decision making. If we limit ourselves to British classics (as I am), the choice (sorry) is obvious: Hamlet.
As a fellow over thinker, I get how Hamlet feels, and based upon research done by social psychologist Sheena Iyengar, you may too. In her book The Art of Choosing, Iyengar describes her famous jam experiment that she conducted in 2000 with Mark Lepper. The two set up a table with 24 fancy jams in an upscale grocery store and offered $1 off coupons to any customers who wanted to sample. The display was popular, but not many customers used the coupons to purchase jam. Another day, the table held only six jams, and customers were 10 times more likely to use that coupon and treat themselves to some jam. Iyengar and Lepper concluded that when given too many choices, people gave up entirely, deciding on no jam at all.
Iyengar argues that more than 10 choices is enough to make us anxious.
To make things worse, a recent Washington Post article points to how making decisions has become even more complex and demanding during the pandemic. Automatic decisions that required no thought now take on an extra burden of needing more information at a time when information is changing rapidly. This leads to decision fatigue, which makes us more impulsive and lacking in self-control.
That brings us to Hamlet, whose famous “To be” lament seems limited to only two, though what a choice to be making.
However, this famous dramatic monologue, containing what is surely the most quoted Shakespeare line of all, doesn’t even address Hamlet’s actual choice. His contemplation about the purpose of existence arises out of the inability to decide what to do about his uncle having killed his father in order to take the throne, marrying Hamlet’s mom in the process.
Hamlet learns of Claudius’s betrayal from his father’s ghost who orders Hamlet to avenge his death. That’s the first problem. Is the ghost really his dad? Or is it a demon sent to tempt Hamlet into committing murder in order to send his soul to hell? How can he find the truth?
Does his mom know? And why did she marry Claudius? Does she really love him? Is it lust? Is she trying to protect Hamlet and his succession to the throne? Does she know what Claudius did?
And what’s going on with Ophelia, the lovely daughter of Claudius’s chief advisor? There was some attraction there, and they exchanged letters, but now she won’t have anything to do with him.
Hamlet tries putting on a play to trick Claudius into betraying his guilt. When he finds Claudius praying and confessing his sin, he has his answer, but, wait, if he kills Claudius now, then will his uncle go to heaven because he’s properly confessed? That isn’t fair to his dad who’s wandering around as a ghost having not received absolution.
Clearly, Hamlet would not have been a five-act play if Hamlet’s moral dilemma hadn’t been so strong and, more importantly, if Hamlet hadn’t required to know the truth absolutely and to perform his task so exactly.
During all of this internal conflict for Hamlet brought on by “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” young Prince Fortinbras is rallying his army to recapture the land lost by his father to Denmark.
When Hamlet hears of Fortinbras leading his army into battle, he has another dramatic monologue:
I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
to do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Fortinbras’s example as someone ready to avenge his father, risking the lives of thousands, “Even for an eggshell”, serves to shame Hamlet who asks: “How stand I then,/That have a father killed, a mother stained”? Perhaps the answer is decision fatigue.
Because this is a Shakespearean tragedy, the body count is high at the end, with Fortinbras, the active, decisive leader, arriving as the royal court has self-destructed, all of Denmark—literally and figuratively—at his feet. Shakespeare rewards the prince who acts rather than ruminates.
If decision fatigue is setting in, read Hamlet. (I phrased that as a command to save you the choice). There, you will empathize with a prince caught by his inability to decide. We can learn from Prince Hamlet that we have to make decisions even when we can’t know all of the information. Save energy for big decisions, avoid decision fatigue, know that you can’t always know the full truth, and don’t allow your decision making “to lose the name of action.”