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  • To Be, or Not to Be in Bad Faith:The Tragedy of Hamlet’s Superficial Reading of Sartre’s Waiter
  • Oliver George Downing

William Shakespeare’s “outstanding interest in human motivation . . . suggests that all the action in his tragedies is meant to be explainable in terms of some prominent motive.”1 This does not mean that Shakespeare simply plays out his characters’ deterministic responses such as the need for revenge inevitably leading to tragedy; the prominent motive is never a universal essence applicable to humans. Rather, a prominent motive or project, unique to every character, can be identified as exerting force upon the development of a play.

Hamlet’s delay in killing Claudius confirms this, suggesting a more complex psychological process than is dismissible as that of a simple tragedy driven by a deterministic human need to seek revenge. When compared with a comedy such as As You Like It, the eminent characters appear to share their prominent motivation, yet display a clear difference in the application of it. Hamlet, for example, labors under a misconceived reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith. This causes him to wallow in anguish, promotes inaction, and eventually results in tragedy. Rosalind, in contrast, performs the role of an existentialist hero by immediately taking action when it is required, helping herself and others to make the best out of their situations and achieve what they desire to achieve in good faith. Thus Rosalind avoids the existential anguish characteristic of Hamlet and transforms her play into a comedy. The root of this difference is evident in an obscure ontological dispute [End Page 254] concerning Sartre’s concept of bad faith and the motivation of one of his examples, the waiter.

Colin Wilson writes, “Sartre is one of those writers [who is] difficult to criticise because the critic can’t quite get to grips with exactly what is being asserted.”2 As such, at times Sartre’s writing may require a little more interpretation than is conducive to a comprehensive and focused application of his ideas. This can mean undue attention may be placed on the context into which his ideas are introduced. Sartre’s illustrative example of the waiter is introduced in “Conducts of Bad Faith.”3 This context instills a prejudice in the reader against reading the waiter as being in good faith, despite the apparent understanding that philosophical texts need to include contextual and contrasting examples to fully examine their content. Consequently, a traditional reading of Sartre’s waiter as being in bad faith has arisen despite Sartre never indicating this to be the case; though a tendency toward simplification of Sartre’s philosophy and conflation with Heidegger’s perspective on authenticity must also be noted as being a significant factor in the production of this reading.4

Therefore, considering the complexity of Sartre’s phenomenological outlook, even the briefest explanation of the ontological structure is unhelpful and well beyond the scope of this article. The validity of Sartre’s ontology and account of bad faith is therefore presumed to be valid for the purpose of this article. Such abstention from direct criticism is not an attempt to avoid criticism of Sartre’s ontology and the comment on this point serves only to state explicitly that for the purpose of the argument this article is functioning firmly within Sartre’s philosophical system, and as such does not require a comprehensive critique. Indeed any criticism against Sartre could be easily directed at this article. However, where interpretation is required, some elements of Sartre’s philosophy do require elaboration.

Bad faith5 is a “lie to oneself within the unity of a single consciousness” (BN, pp. 649–50) about the nature of one’s own consciousness. In bad faith the “for-itself” attempts to “cease being what it is not and not what it is, and become what it is” (SGP, p. 40). By exploiting reflexive consciousness, a for-itself seeks to be self-identical, “even though it would not be capable of reflection if this self-identity was realized” (SGP, p. 40). The for-itself’s project provides evidence of its failure in the form of its ability to reflect...


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pp. 254-265
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