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 Purgato...