William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ is a timeless play which remains relevant across all generations due to its engagement with universal concepts of what constitutes a ‘man’ and rational thought over rash action. Within the medieval context, to be subservient to one’s patriarch in vengeance was a noble cause. However, prince Hamlet struggles with his avenger role as his moral conscience forbids him from the misguided act which is corruptive and a mere ‘trick of fame’. Thus, I view him as an embodiment of Renaissance Humanist values of rational thought conflicting with medieval ideologies where honour was revered. Although Hamlet is self-deprecating due to his failure to uphold his filial duty, I believe Hamlet’s decision to refuse his avenger role was the most ethical response. This is apparent upon juxtaposing him to his foils, Laertes and Fortinbras, whose failure to reach the same level of enlightenment corrupted their nobility. Shakespeare’s creation of such a complex and wondrous character allows the play to achieve textual integrity and makes it a highly appreciated and endearing text. (Redo textual integrity part)
Hamlet initially establishes that we are compelled to be loyal to our filial duty through three heirs; Laertes, Fortinbras and Hamlet. The love to one’s parents is mutually foremost valued by audiences across all receptions and thus all three possess equal commitment to revenge. Laertes is lent his resolution through the grief of losing his father and sister. In Claudius’s statement, ‘No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize; Revenge should have no bounds.’(A4S7) His righteous tone perfectly highlights the medieval perception that revenge is needed to uphold filial piety and noble code of honour. Furthermore, Fortinbras’ role as a warrior prince leading an army to Denmark in a quest to seek honour is captured in Hamlet’s admirative remark, ‘led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d.’ Hamlet’s admiration lets us realise that vengeance is of divine and restorative nature. This is reinforced when even Hamlet makes a passionate promise to his father’s apparition in the extended metaphor, ‘wipe all trivial fond records … that youth had copied there … thy commandment alone shall live.’ Hamlet makes an oath to forgo all his memories and simply commit to his mind his father’s vengeance. Yet, we are inevitably filled with a sense of apprehension at how Hamlet will lose his identity and innocence by engaging in revenge. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had explained that, ‘Hamlet is obliged to act on the spur of the moment,’ which to me is an affirmation that his father’s visit has in fact constrained Hamlet’s free will and choice. In this way, we learn how each of the three characters must uphold their filial duty to prove their honour and nobility, although it may come at a cost.
The costs are highlighted through the actions of Laertes and Fortinbras which ironically results in their corruption and loss of independent and ethical judgment. Laertes is completely manipulated by Claudius to become a tool for killing Hamlet.In the lines, ‘What would you undertake to show yourself your father’s son in deed…?’ ‘To cut his throat I’ the church,’ (A4S7) the bloodthirsty conviction by Laertes diminishes his noble character to a murderous fiend as he is willing to commit the sin in a church, which symbolises forgiveness. We are in disdain at how Laertes forfeits his identity and individual agency to satisfy his impulse of vengeance. Yet Hamlet’s conflicting state of mind from not upholding his filial duty leads him to ironically admire what Laertes and Fortinbras represents and in his final soliloquy he muses, ‘imminent death of twenty thousand men … for a fantasy and trick of fame.’ The hyperbole shows his awe at the extent Fortinbras will go for honour which leads him to believe that he is lacking in conviction and courage. However, we as the audience are shocked at Fortinbras’ reckless act of sacrificing twenty thousand lives. His apathy towards the value of human lives forces us to ponder if the concept of revenge is really righteous. Hamlet is inherently different in that he rationally reflects on the true nature of his duty, and in doing so becomes the delayer. Hamlet’s continuous hesitation convinces me that his moral conscience forbids the inherently wrong of revenge. As Catherine Belsey pronounces, ‘[Revenge] is an act of injustice on behalf of justice,’ suggesting to me that no matter the sense of righteousness, revenge is undeniably a sin. Hamlet’s exceptional prudence and honesty to himself gains our utmost respect and is what separates him from his foils whose blind loyalty leads to their corruption.
Hamlet not only has the wisdom to subvert his fate but also didactically teaches us how we should act as humans and this allows the text to transcend the barriers of language and time. He achieves this by showing his awareness that revenge degrades our humanity in the simile, ‘What a piece of work is a man! … in action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a God!’ (A2S2) Hamlet instructs us of the uniqueness of man in that we share with God the infinite faculty for thought. We are reminded that angels, despite their majesty, are mere subjects of God and implies that humans are great for their capacity for critical reflection. This is reinforced in the logos that, ‘[God] gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused,’(A4S4) which further demonstrates how our ability to contemplate is what distinguishes us from beasts. By giving up this ability we are not only undermining our humanity but God’s own wishes. His soliloquy inspires our awe as by doing so, Hamlet answers the question that has plagued humanity since our existence, which is the opening of National Theatre’s Hamlet character guide: ‘What is a man if his chief good … be but to sleep and feed? a beast no more.’ Hamlet knows there is more to a man than to merely eat and sleep and follow one’s destiny and this is our capacity for free thought. Finally, Hamlet highlights the supremacy of thought over action in the irony, ‘Conscience makes cowards of us all … currents turn awry and lose the name of action.’(A3S1) The irony exists in that the more we think, the less we act but in doing so, retain what makes us moral and human.It is even more ironic in that Hamlet is definitely not slow to act, which AC Bradley proves, ‘impossible that the man we see rushing after the ghost … boarding with the pirates … could ever be shrinking in emergency.’ Hamlet is not a coward, rather my perception is that he is self-deprecating due to his guilt of not upholding his oath to his father, which Laertes and Fortinbras does. His subversion of destiny attains our immense respect and even inspires us to take the same stance.