Is Nothing Ever Good Or Bad? Really?

If you follow the Shakespeare keyword on Twitter long enough, you’ll see the same lines thrown around repeatedly.  The most popularly “retweeted” quote, by far, is this one: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. It’s the sort of line that you can just picture people seeing come across their chat window, saying “Whoa man, that’s deep”, and feeling the urge to forward it.  I suppose if this were a generation removed it might have looked a little something like this in your email inbox:

Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: OMG SO TRUE! (Fwd: Fwd: MUST READ (Fwd: Fwd: The Power Of Thinking… But really, isn’t it a bit simplistic?  It’s a little like the “there’s no universal right and wrong, that’s why people need God as a moral center” argument.  Are good and bad always subjective?  Is it possible to find something that you think is bad, that people will universally agree with?  (That is, of course, other than the argumentative morons who take the opposite side just because that’s their purpose in life…)

14 thoughts on “Is Nothing Ever Good Or Bad? Really?

  1. This is one of my favorite quotes from my favorite play. I’ve pondered it for years. I think, on the whole, I agree with the generall philosophy that we never really know whether one thing will turn out for the better until much later down the road (I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb about the man and his mule). However, I also think that particular moment in the play is showing some weakness and confusion in Hamlet. Can we make ourselves think that, say, murder is right in a given situation? Possibly. But does that MAKE it right?I’m not ready to believe that.

    1. babyjay521 says:

      I appreciated reading your response.

  2. Willshill says:

    Doing a little digging and came across this topic. I can’t resist a discussion on Hamlet; so I hope you’ll pardon my dragging up something old.

    This is a much shorter explanation for my viewpoint than the one I have that begins with his first appearance-aren’t we the lucky ones? :)-

    I know it’s popular to discuss the quote in terms of good/bad, moralist/relativist, black/white–maybe because the quote has so often been taken out of context. But if we think of who Hamlet is, the statement (like so many of Shakespeare’s statements) is full of facets. Ultimately, I would say it has, principally, very little to do with what’s good or bad (although there is certainly that aspect that could and should be addressed). I think it has to do with what Hamlet’s been discussing with himself–and us–since the play began: Think of the monumental things he has talked about and continues to expound on, even within this very same passage: Nutshell worlds,infinite space, dreams, shadows, real or not; burrowing deeper and deeper every time. Shakespeare’s in a very rare “theatre” of thinking here.

    I’ve often said in discussions on Shakespeare that he was the first Existentialist; and he finds the conduit to really tap into it in Hamlet and Lear.
    He explored that branch of philosophy before it was even defined or had a name.
    There are usually few, if any, willing to discuss the idea.

    It’s much much bigger than good or evil, right or wrong; it’s…EVERYTHING.
    (please excuse the caps)

    ARE WE or AREN’T WE…?
    DETERMINED… BY OUR THINKING? AND IF SO….. WHY?…”HOW?” comes later,as do good or bad, up or down, black or white. We discuss ARE WE in terms of those opposites because they’re all we have as a means of THINKING; of determining anything, really. But they don’t answer the Question for us.

    (I know, I know…whoa, heavy dude!)

    But if Hamlet is anything, he’s a Thinker.
    “…for There IS NOTHING either good or bad, BUT THINKING MAKES IT so”

    Hamlet, Lear’s Fool, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus. Is it worth it–this DREAME we make for ourselves? That’s when we ask, To Be, or not To Be? It goes on and on and on, this questioning, from play beginning to end.

    The Twitter TWITS who will use this gargantuan inquiry into knowledge, wisdom, nature, and existence itself, for a simplistic, selfish rationalization, …well, never mind.

  3. Willshill says:

    A Twitter response to having been directed to anything resembling “thinking”–something that happens for real when “commenting” on something exceeds 140 characters –this, on the very popular Twitter “thinking” quote” — And I quote:
    Ug, I hate when it does that – that was a link to a post on the “nothing either good or bad” topic.

    “oooooh, Bad twitter, bad, bad. I’m soooo inconvenienced.”

    I rest my case.

  4. Willshill says:

    Incessantly, in different approaches, before and after “To Be, or not to be, that is the Question:”, Shakespeare asks another Question,: “What IS To Be?, and further, “How do we KNOW that we really ARE?” All of the other Questions, though incredibly important in themselves, are dwarfed by this one, and, indeed, although they are components, become ancillary to IT in an overall assessment of what is occurring to Shakespeare as he’s writing this play.

  5. Willshill says:

    🙂 Well, I wonder how many of Shakespeare’s quill pens suffered a case of spontaneous combustion while penning this stuff? 🙂

    But it’s vitally important to remember that we, like Shakespeare, only have this mode of perception–the way we’re forced to think about things–added to the given of how much we don’t know, really. So we can’t just dismiss the other questions and talk about this one. But if we only talk about the others, we can become, ironically, “distracted in our focus” and miss the big One.

  6. Dude, I have *no* idea what you just said. Seriously. Not a word.

  7. So there’s really only one question, *the* question, and a twitter response to a blog post about the question just continues to prove the point?

    I think I kinda got that. Though it does conjure up images of old Star Trek episodes where the computer gets itself stuck into an infinite loop and starts smoking…

  8. Willshill says:

    One more thing and then I’ll shut up.
    Exchange the philosopher’s hat for that of director, and practicality and implementation of interpretation enter into the mix.

    Any attempts to assess Shakespeare’s character and thought processes also become attempts to do the same with the character of Hamlet. If we miss what could possibly be going on in Shakespeare’s head, we also miss the import relative to Hamlet’s behavior, thought processes leading to that behavior, influences on choices made leading to his decision-making, qualities of person and character; the gamut of components making up the sum total of the MAN. I think this has had a great deal to do with repeated misinterpretations of his character by actors, directors, and critics; thus affecting reader and audience interpretation over the centuries. Too often we’ve been given the mewling, puking, spoiled rich kid with “emotional behavior problems”. Although his genius is mentioned, too often has he been relegated to be simply “the wordsmith” (which he is in spades-but is that all he is?) Is he more “antic” manipulator than anything else?

    What is Hamlet thinking–what is the true network of thought going on in his head, and how might that connect to choice and behavior at any given time. How paralyzed is he by the labyrinth of his own thoughts? How might HE be that smoking computer you mentioned–and if so, what happens when you try to feed more data to it–bad data–in Hamlet’s case, representative of the huge complexity of his situation, dictated to him by people and events, not of his own choosing? And if he’s evaluating EVERYTHING in terms of what his thought causes him to have to bring to bear on ANY DECISION HE MIGHT MAKE, how then can we simply assess him to be someone who simply “could not make up his mind”?
    Knowhutta mean, Vern?

  9. Willshill, you simply must pick up a copy of “Shakespeare’s Philosophy” by Colin McGinn (list prisce $24.95 harcover). It is an excellent analysis of several of the plays along the lines of the contemporary philosophical thoughts of the day. Great stuff on Hamlet. I have commented on it on this blog before. Trust me, you’ll love it.

  10. Willshill says:

    Thanks Carl–duly noted. Although I must admit, to find this out sort of takes some of the wind out of the sails that were powering the barque I had christened “Thesis”. But I guess, as our Universal Philosopher proves time and again, there truly is “nothing new under the Sun”.

  11. Christian Poddy says:

    There is an answer to this that few have considered but it is the truth. If something is actually the color white but the person that sees it sees it as black then to that person it will be black. But there is such a thing as absolute truth. It is the truth that will make us free. Free of the illusion of the self that we think we are when in fact there is no "thing" which is inherently permanent including our minds, bodies and personalities. Truth is not a thing or an idea but if that truth is only known as a philosophy of the mind then it will indeed be just that, someone's relative philosophy or mental concept. When Hamlet said to the two guards in effect that Denmark was rotten the two answered that in that case the whole world must be so. Hamlet and certainly Shakespeare as well assured them AND US that yes indeed it is and Denmark is a big chunk of it. The guards disagreed because they were worldly people as are most. They were still optimistic. Its kind of like saying " if the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness" when Hamlet said "nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so" Hamlet AND SHAKESPEARE were awake. The guards were snoring. Give Shakespeare a little more credit my friends. He was an enlightened being. I've actually made a video about this on you tube. Cheers.

  12. I find it "simplistic" to think that your reality and your perception are the only ones that matter. To me, this quote is as close as we come to truth. There is no objective truth, there is no good or bad. Bad is what is bad FOR YOU, good is what is good FOR YOU. There are some situations where what is bad for you is actually good for you such as the healthy food you don't want to eat because it doesn't have all the fat, sugar and salt that your taste buds crave. Or where one person is hurt but the society is helped and that person is part of that society so it is a small picture bad, big picture good.

    Now for a more extreme example: Ultimately majority of people would agree that total destruction/annihilation of the planet Earth and every living thing on it would be a "bad" thing. I PERSONALLY prefer for it not to happen. But intellectually and logically speaking, it really doesn't matter if that were to happen and it is not actually "bad". If there is no life, no intelligence to observe and lament, there is no opinion on it, no label of "that was bad" or "that was good". There is no being left to think about it and therefore no label put on it.

    Here is another example, good for one pbeing/group, bad for another. Just to illustrate that good/bad is totally subjective. Shark eats a fish, human eats a cow, fox eats a rabbit (or organism X eats organism Y). Good for the first organism, bad for the second. Humans make organisms extinct and over populate and pollute the planet. Good for some, bad for others. Ultimately, neither good or bad, as Bill was trying to point out.

  13. Matthew Maguire says:

    You are all quite articulate and thoughtful in your comments. I do take a very strong opinion in the opposite direction from Mr.Shakespeare Yours Truly S.Clause

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