Students are asking: What invests me with value as an individual? What absolutes limit my freedom?

Prince Hamlet, returning to the Danish court at Elsinore Castle with his student life fresh in mind, found a situation so ugly, so darkly threatening to his selfhood, that he was plunged into a protracted melancholy. The discussion that follows suggests how Hamlet’s protest against what he found at the court is paralleled by the present student generation’s protest against what it increasingly finds on the campus and in society at large.

Shortly after he has discovered the mess at court, Prince Hamlet makes a grim lament:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that the goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The Paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust [II. ii. 304 ff.]?

This gloomy tirade brings to mind the dour Preacher of Ecclesiastes; but that witness’s fatalism and ennui seem the end products of a self-indulgent life rather than the pessimism of a disgruntled student. More to the point, Hamlet’s words might be those of a precocious undergraduate in the mid-twentieth century who has left home for the university only to find there such widespread denial of the value ...

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