Hamlet – Shakespeare
“To be or not to be, that is the question” – arguably one of the most famous literary quotes of all time, it raises the question of action against inaction; a dilemma that undoubtedly torments Hamlet. Should Hamlet avenge his father’s death or not given that murderous retribution is morally wrong? Is conscience a factor in Hamlet’s delay for retribution? Is Hamlet scared? Shakespeare was born in 1564 at a time when England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth 1st in a Protestant state.
Shakespeare was most likely brought up in a Catholic family which would have guided his beliefs and attitudes towards life and may have influenced the direction of his work. Hamlet, a popular revenge tragedy, was written a few years after the attack of the Spanish armada, at a time when England was experiencing political and religious instability. I believe that Hamlet is the product of religious suppression and is a subtle expression of Catholic morals in a Protestant run state.
Shakespeare appears to have used religious conflict and political instability as creative triggers for Hamlet and as the play had social relevance at the time it was first produced it was guaranteed a lot of attention. It’s thought that there is a “tantalizing link”  between the death of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s eleven year old son, and the writing of Hamlet five years later.
Freud describes how “in extended grief, mourners cannot separate themselves from the lost object”.  Stephen Greenblatt explains that “it is not implausible that it took years for the trauma of his son’s death fully to erupt in Shakespeare’s work or that it was triggered by an accidental conjunction of names”  As in Stratford during that time the records show that Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable names.
The story of Hamlet, its references to the loss of a father and purgatory can be directly associated with the death of Hamnet. Hamnet died at a time when England was a Protestant state and was not able to have a Catholic burial, therefore, according to the Catholic faith would not be fit to enter the kingdom of heaven; “Shakespeare believed that as his son was denied his last rights he was condemned to everlasting damnation. 
I believe it’s this dilemma that is at the heart of the play; Shakespeare wanted to illustrate the need for people to be concerned with Catholic issues such as purgatory; he believes that the political state of the country had restricted people’s ability to do this. Shakespeare uses soliloquies throughout the play to give us an insight into the conflicting conscience of Hamlet; this allows him to assert strong Catholic values and gives him the opportunity to develop people’s understanding through religious symbolism.
Shakespeare’s use of Catholic symbolism and the parallels between the play and England at that time would suggest Shakespeare was protesting against Protestant rule which would support the notion the Shakespeare was Catholic. The introduction of the ghost is Hamlet’s first point of conflict; upon hearing the Ghost’s conviction Hamlet swears to avenge the death of his father “Now to my word: It is ‘Adieu, adieu’, remember me. I have sworn’t. “[Act 1 Scene 5 – 110 – 113].
It is only on later reflection in Hamlet’s soliloquy [Act 2 Scene 2] that he doubts the credibility of the Ghost “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil, and the devil hath power T’ assume a pleasing shape”[Act 2 Scene 2 – 551 – 553], and by commissioning the actors to perform a re-enactment of the Ghost’s supposed death, is able to test the conscience of the King “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”[Act 2 Scene 2 – 557 – 558].
Hamlet’s initial proclamation of revenge is challenged by his reasoning when he considers the possibility that the ghost is evil; he is concerned that the ghost may be trying to deceive him to damnation. Hamlet at this point is torn between his desire for revenge which urges him to do as the ghost says and to kill Claudius and his conscience or religious background which tells him that ghosts are evil and that murder is wrong. This is an example of Shakespeare trying to assert Catholic morals in the play.
Hamlet observes Claudius throughout the re-enactment of the play; looking for signs of guilt. “… observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt do not itself unkennel in one speech, it is a damned ghost that we have seen, and my imaginations are as foul as Vulcan’s stithy. ” [Act 3 Scene 2 – 68 – 74], He tests the credibility of the ghost’s exposition before he can justly take the life of his uncle. After noticing Claudius’ distress at the play “Give me some light.
Away! “[Act 3 Scene 2 – 244] Hamlet is convinced that the ghost speaks the truth “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand points. [Act 3 Scene 2 – 260 – 261] and therefore in his own mind justified for killing the king. With this revelation Hamlet goes to find the King whom he finds praying at his private chapel. Realising that killing Claudius at this point would send him straight to heaven “A villain kills my father, and for that, I his sole son do this same villain send to heaven. “[Act 3 Scene 3 – 76 – 78] and that this is no sort of justice, Hamlet is again torn between his need for revenge and his conscience.
He is ready to take his revenge but delays in fear of sending his uncle to heaven which would not be the justice he wants. Hamlet decides to wait until Claudius is in the act of committing a sin because only then can he guarantee him being sent to hell. The above paragraphs illustrate points of conflict for Hamlet, showing how he is torn between his desire for revenge and his conscience. Each point gives support to the notion that Hamlet’s conscience is a factor in his delay for retribution and that he considers the religious implications of his actions.
I believe that Hamlet’s delay in response could also be attributed to the fact that murder is out of character and that he is likely to be scared at the prospect of killing someone. When Hamlet mistakably murders Polonius he seems to be immediately remorseful, “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! ” [Act 3 Scene 4], which shows he does not take the act of murder lightly. Also I believe that he is scared; his conscience is telling him murder is morally wrong, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” [Act 3 Scene 1].
Many critics have written about the significance of Hamlet’s delay and to what extent it can be associated to the religious theme running throughout the play. There are many articles written on how Hamlet is a victim of his own self deception; how that Hamlet’s conscience and morality stop him from acting to avenge his father. John Lawlor asserts that Hamlet “never penetrates his inability to be the avenger”, suggesting that he is not able to act on his desire for revenge; that there is something restricting his actions.
Furthermore he notes that to seek revenge is to “forfeit the role of God’s minister … nd … become instead scourge. “, that acting on a desire for revenge is to deviate from the teachings of God and to become cursed or condemned. T. McAlindon supports John’s first assertion stating that “the Prince’s moral, logical, and rhetorical confusion, [and in demonstrating how] ‘unconscious equivocation’ contributes to his undoing. “, he stresses the notion that Hamlet finds himself a victim of self deception and that he attacks himself with varying considerations of “morality, logic and justice”, impairing his ability to act the avenger and therefore contributes to his downfall.
Catherine Belsey supports Lawlor’s second assertion stating that he “sees the ambiguity of his position”; suggesting that he understands the religious implications of his actions and that “Hamlet’s ethics are more subtle than those of the play’s other revengers” as there is ambiguity surrounding the guilt of Claudius whereas there is no questioning the affirmation of Hamlet’s guilt in terms of Laertes, and King Hamlet’s guilt in terms of Fortinbras. In support of John Lawlor’s second assertion John S. Wilks highlighted in his journal that “The Ghost’s command … uns absolutely counter to those teachings, founded as they were in the Old and New Testament. “ which reinforces the notion that the ghost’s command will lead to Hamlet’s damnation.
All of the above critics would agree with the essay statement given that they seem to argue there is a conflict of conscience. However, it is the case that Francis Bacon considers revenge to be “a kind of wild justice”; he explains how “the most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy” . As there is no law to bring Claudius to account, his death is the only sort of justice.
Bacon does not consider Hamlet’s conscience. Furthermore Freud argues that Hamlet’s delay is a result of the Oedipus complex; he goes on to explain that “Hamlet’s melancholy is a neurosis caused by his unresolved incestuous feelings towards his mother” ; that his incestuous feelings are driving his need to defeat Claudius rather than a need for revenge. When grieving people are likely to do things they would otherwise not do, and will question their actions. I will take the view that the ghost is a mere representation of Hamlet’s need for revenge.
Initially Hamlet questions the credibility of the ghost; this could be seen to represent the psychological conflict between what Hamlet knew to be ‘right’ – Christianity, morality and all that entails, with his desire for justice. Each point of conflict furthers Hamlet’s desolation until his final conflict which resulted in everyone dying. John Lawlor suggests that murder is out of character. It is Hamlet’s greatest conflict to overcome, with accepting that it is a suitable form of justice, given that Hamlet believes Claudius murdered his father.
It is perhaps only after Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking he was Claudius, that Hamlet’s guilt overcomes any religious considerations. It is however, I believe the point of the death of all the main characters to be a lesson by Shakespeare to warn of the dangers of denying Catholicism. It is perhaps a message from Shakespeare to all the people of England to protect their religion that he ends with “The sight is dismal, and our affairs from England come too late. ” [Act 5 Scene 2 – 246 – 347] Or rather ‘affairs of England’ come too late for Hamnet.
Although Bacon and Freud both provide compelling arguments, neither seem to overcome the fact that Hamlet does demonstrate a conflict within conscience at several of the points within the play which I have addressed. My in-depth analysis of the text allowed me to identify strong argument in support of the essay statement. It is for this reason and the above paragraph that I agree with the suggestion that Hamlet is torn between his conscience which tells him that murderous retribution is morally wrong, and his emotional need for revenge.
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