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
In his soliloquies, he pronounces the sternest moral verdicts on himself for his failure to meet the demands of his chosen role (Yes IA dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peakLike John-a-dreams,unpregnant of my cause', 2, 2, 554-6). 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'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. Hamlet, like his father, accepts the Christian teaching on adultery, and the Christian prohibition of suicide. In defence of Hamlet's action here, it might be argued that it is a question of his survival or theirs. Some of Hamlet's moral choices have provoked hostile responses. 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. 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). The two are bearing a packet containing sealed orders for Hamlet's execution in England ( No leisure bated . 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. 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. His callous, dismissive attitude to the dead Polonius is another. 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.