"There is nothing either good or bad..."
Updated: Apr 29
..but thinking makes it so"
Is Denmark a prison? Is the whole world a prison? To Shakespeare's Hamlet, the answer is yes and yes. In this blog post I explore my favourite Shakespeare quote and two useful ways I apply it to real-life situations.
Putting the quotation in context
In Act 2 Scene II of Shakespeare's most existentialist play, the eponymous tragic lead character, Prince Hamlet, greets his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been summoned by the King to spy on him. He complains that he considers his home country of Denmark to be a prison.
His friends disagree and Hamlet responds:
"Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
To me it is a prison."
Hamlet (Act II, Scene ii, 247-9)
For anyone put off by the antiquated language, 'Why, then, 'tis none to you' roughly translates to 'Well, then, it isn't (a prison) to you'
How we experience the world is subjective and we can change it
Hamlet acknowledges that his view of Denmark as a prison is more about how he thinks about his situation rather than any of the country's essential characteristics. How you interpret your situation strongly affects how you perceive your reality.
Choosing the filter you apply is an important tool, but one we can misuse
In the scene itself there's also a sense that Hamlet is exposing how this helpful and self-serving idea is being used by his so-called friends to justify spying on him 'for his own benefit'. In this way he's also exposing how, as humans, we're capable of self-serving self-deceit - creating a thought about our actions that makes them acceptable to us rather than shameful.
Why I find this quotation useful
I use this quotation almost like a mantra: "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". Lots of my clients will have heard me say it to them as a reminder that they have the power to change the meaning that they attach to a particular situation. Likewise I use it to remind myself not only that I have this control, but also that the meaning I have already attached to a scenario is my own interpretation.
If it's raining I can either feel grateful that I live in a country with good agricultural weather and look forward to enjoying London's many lush parks or I can wallow in self-pity about the 'bad weather'. From time to time I also reflect on the other meaning and ask myself if I'm choosing a self-serving meaning as a form of responsibility-evading self-deceit for convenient but less-than-ideal behaviour or choices: 'if I eat the last chocolate then I save someone else from battling temptation'
Note: I recently found this 1941 radio recording of Hamlet on Audible featuring Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet, which is widely considered to be the greatest performance of the play. It's well-worth a listen.
If you're interested in learning more about unconscious and unhelpful habits and ways of thinking you may have and ways to change the meaning you attach to situations, please don't hesitate to SEND ME A MESSAGE. Alternatively go ahead and book a 'TASTER SESSION' right now.