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Moral Questions In Hamlet Essay, Research Paper

Moral Questions in Hamlet

Conscience and Responsibility

Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character have always attracted the attention of critics with a strongly moral bent. This is inevitable. The play deals with crime and its punishment, with complex questions of right and wrong, moral decisions, moral responsibility for actions, questions of conscience. Critics and readers must respond accordingly.

Most of the moral issues raised in Hamlet arise from the role imposed on its central character: the role of revenger. To appreciate the full implications of these issues, we have to remember that the play confronts us with two starkly conflicting moralities, two radically opposed views of the task which defines Hamlet’s role in the play: to be the avenger of his father’s death. On the one hand, Shakespeare presents his characters against an obviously Christian background, a background much more distinctively Christian than that of any of the other tragedies. The outlook of the characters has been conditioned by Christian teaching, and the play itself is based on an acceptance of the Catholic teaching on the after-life: the Ghost returns from Purgatory, for example. Marcellus celebrates miracles at Christmas, and the burial of Ophelia is in accordance with prescribed Christian ritual in relation to a woman in her circumstances. Claudius at prayer clearly believes in traditional Christian teaching on sin and repentance: without atoning for his crimes, he knows that he cannot earn forgiveness. Hamlet, like his father, accepts the Christian teaching on adultery, and the Christian prohibition of suicide. The world of Hamlet, then, is a Christian one, and the characters view themselves and the significance of their actions and beliefs against Christian teachings and practices. On the other hand, the totally antiChristian ethic of revenge is proposed as an imperative for Hamlet by the ghost of his father, a saved soul returned from Purgatory. This makes the moral effect of the play extremely confusing and ambiguous. Hamlet embodies two incompatible moral systems, one Christian, the other pagan. If Hamlet accepts the Ghost’s command, takes the law into his own hands and commits regicide, not just murder, by slaying Claudius as an act of vengeance, he is defying one of the great fundamental Christian teachings: that vengeance is an evil thing. His Christian alternative is to refrain from acting against Claudius and to live in patience, leaving vengeance to God. To pursue Claudius will involve the spilling of blood, some of it more or less innocent, and Hamlet’s incorporation in the evil he officially opposes. This process begins when he rashly slays Polonius in mistake for Claudius; this is the turning-point in his moral career.

The extraordinary moral confusion at the heart of the play, the grave moral compromise into which his revenger’s role plunges Hamlet,is dramatically highlighted in the `Prayer Scene’ (3, 3, 36-98). Here Claudius is desperately struggling to settle his account with heaven and repent of his crimes, knowing as a Christian believer, that no forgiveness is possible until he has given up the gains for which he committed the murder: his crown, his ambition and his queen. Hamlet, finding Claudius praying, has a perfect opportunity to kill him. The reason he gives for not doing this has shocked four centuries of commentators. Believing that the King’s prayerful posture means that he is in the state of grace and so ready for heaven, Hamlet refuses to send him there, instead preferring to kill him at some future time when he is engrossed in sinful pursuits, so that `his soul may be as damned as black/as hell whereto it goes’ (3, 3, 94-5). Had Hamlet been a pagan avenger, he could not have advanced this reason for sparing Claudius, but would have been satisfied with bringing the bodily life of Claudius to an end. Hamlet, however, is behaving as he does precisely because he is a Christian, believing that the soul’s state at the point of death will determine its immortal destiny, although his project to send Claudius to eternity when he is sure he will be damned is decidedly un-christian, however it accords with Hamlet’s notions of poetic justice. Hamlet’s savage sentiments here are among the strongest indications in the play that his moral sense is debased by the evil that pervades the play. His callous, dismissive attitude to the dead Polonius is another.

Does Hamlet take the Ghost’s command to revenge as a moral duty, and if he does, is he right to do so? If he does, does the play as a whole insist that we approve of his attitude? In other words, is Shakespeare content to allow his hero to make his own of an anti-Christian ethic of revenge, without testing this against the Christian ethic which should govern the world in which he and the other characters live? As one might expect, there has been a wide range of answers to these questions. Many critics accept without hesitation that the revenge-ethic is the one that governs the moral dimension of the play, that Hamlet accepts it as morally valid for his situation, that given all the circumstances he has a duty to do as the Ghost commands, that he is an agent of justice as well as an avenger. There is a minority view that a ghost from Purgatory who calls for revenge must be a morally ambivalent spirit, that Hamlet, in accepting the command, is yielding to temptation. It is possible to explain these difficulties and the moral confusion surrounding the revenge theme by reminding ourselves that Shakespeare’s contemporaries seemed able to accommodate both Christian and pagan ideas of revenge side by side and find justification for each. It is also possible to argue that the acute moral problems posed by the Ghost’s command have their origin in Shakespeare’s decision to place an essentially pagan story of revenge in a thoroughly Christian setting.

On the whole, one must take it that Shakespeare, for the purposes of the play, accepts the revenge ethic as an appropriate basis for Hamlet’s actions. Hamlet himself is in no doubt about this question, whatever doubts he may entertain about the Ghost’s `honesty’. There is no suggestion in the play that Hamlet entertains doubts about the morality of the act of vengeance: his delay in fulfilling the Ghost’s command, whatever its motivation, is certainly not prompted by moral scruples on this score. He spontaneously accepts as a sacred duty the task of avenging his father, promising to make this his only occupation (`And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain’, 1, 5, 102-3). Even after he has been tardy in fulfilling the command of the Ghost, he continues to see vengeance as a moral duty, reminding himself that he as `cause, and will, and strength and means’ to kill Claudius (4, 4, 45). It is true that his tardiness up to the Play scene can be interpreted in terms of moral uncertainty, but the cause of this uncertainty, if we are to take his own word for it, is his fear that the Ghost may be a devil who has assumed a virtuous shape in order to deceive him. Furthermore, the overall tone of the play persuades us to admire Hamlet and to identify with his concerns, and, by implication, with his acceptance as a duty of the task of vengeance. To argue otherwise would be to see a massive irony in the ending and in Horatio’s parting tribute (`Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’) something few readers or spectators would find acceptable.

Some of Hamlet’s moral choices have provoked hostile responses. L.C. Knights, for example, writes about `the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’. The two are bearing a packet containing sealed orders for Hamlet’s execution in England ( `No leisure bated … my head should be struck off’, 5, 2, 23-5). He alters the commission: the English King is to put Rosencratz and Guildenstern to death, giving them no time to confess their sins or make their peace with God (5, 2, 46-7). In defence of Hamlet’s action here, it might be argued that it is a question of his survival or theirs. But there is another consideration. There is a sense in which Hamlet is at war: his kind of revenge would have been regarded by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as being covered by the rules of warfare. Shakespeare pointedly conveys this idea by the use of military imagery in relation to the practices of Rosencrantz and Guidenstern:

For ’tis the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petar (3, 4, 207-8).


Their defeat Does by their own insinuation grow: ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites (5, 2, 60-2).

Shakespeare goes to considerable lengths to underline Hamlet’s tendency to consider the issues confronting him in moral terms, and to apply strict standards of moral judgment to himself and to everybody around him. In his soliloquies, he pronounces the sternest moral verdicts on himself for his failure to meet the demands of his chosen role (`Yes I/A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak/Like John-a-dreams,unpregnant of my cause’, 2, 2, 554-6). In his most famous soliloquy, he deals with the most fundamental of all questions. Before he can decide whether the better moral choice for a rational, noble creature is to suffer the blows of fate in patience or to struggle against them and perhaps die in the struggle, he must decide whether death is preferable to life (`To be, or not to be’ . . . 3, 1, 56).

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