Shakespeare's HamletMITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
In the cosmic struggle between good and evil, Shakespeare presents the relentless conflict between two philosophies that shape the human condition.
Sensing that "something's rotten in the state of Denmark" and that his uncle's hasty marriage to his mother a month after the funeral hints of foul play, Hamlet's conscience urges him to seek justice and avenge the death of his father. King Hamlet's ghost keeps appearing to exhort the prince to do his moral duty. Hamlet, however, cannot merely trust the voice of the ghost, especially if it is a not an "honest" ghost but a demon from hell. Hamlet cannot wantonly kill Claudius at the slightest opportunity even though such a moment presents itself when the king appears contrite and in prayer. Hamlet cannot do evil to achieve good. He cannot assassinate the king, blindly trust the voice of the ghost, or commit suicide. Hamlet's Catholic conscience will not be violated. Revenge and despair are sins.
These immoral acts of revenge, rash judgment, and "self-slaughter" violate Christian teaching and debase Hamlet. In a quandary of self-examination and introspection Hamlet ponders the moral crisis he suffers. On the one hand, he feels hopeless weak, powerless, and insignificant. "To be honest, as this world goes is to be one man picked out of ten thousand," Hamlet agonizes. He regards himself as the victim of uncontrollable evil forces, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," and his enemies at the court are legion. The king he suspects of treachery, his mother he accuses of weakness and folly, his lover Ophelia betrays him and spies for her father Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are convenient hirelings ready to escort Hamlet to his death. To use the phrases of Montaigne, Hamlet regards himself as impotent as "a feather in the wind" and as insignificant as "a dot made by a fine pencil." He suffers "The whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely" that reduce him to nothing.
As Hamlet discovered on board the ship to England when he acted on his suspicions and opened the secret letters, "Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well/ When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us/ There's a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will — ." Man is not just a passive victim of the formidable forces of evil or a feather in the wind subject to the the slings and arrows of Fortune. Hamlet, even though he is one man in ten thousand in a corrupt world, does God's will and cooperates with divine providence. One noble, heroic man transforms the rottenness in Denmark. As the final events of the play reveal, divine providence governs the world, not Fortune and not man. Hamlet does not do evil to achieve good but acts in good conscience, and God is the arbiter of life and death, not man.
When man acts with moral courage and seeks justice rather than revenge and when he suffers injustices rather than inflicting evil, he sees the hand of God. Because Hamlet miraculously escaped from death on the ship, he fearlessly returns to Denmark and boldly accepts Claudius's proposal for the fencing match, despite Horatio's warning of possible treachery ("You will lose, my lord"). In his hatred of evil and in his trust in Divine Providence, Hamlet does not fear death as he enters the fencing match: "We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be not now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." At the end of the play Hamlet is no longer reacting to events, passively suffering misfortunes, or submitting to despair but acting against them like the valiant prince he is — man created in God's image, not man as God or man as nothing but the true Christian image of man Hamlet describes in his famous words: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel."
Mitchell A. Kalpakgian. "Shakespeare's Hamlet." Crisis Magazine (March 14, 2013).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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