The Good, the Bad, and the Tragic: Morality in Hamlet, The Once and Future King, and Oedipus

We face moral dilemmas every day of our lives—whether it’s giving money to a homeless man or taking a peek at a peer’s chemistry test. Fortunately, the stakes aren’t high. The tragic figures of Hamlet, The Once and Future King, and Oedipus experience moral quandaries, too; only these characters struggle instead with violence, murder, and manipulation. The protagonists strive to navigate these plights within the strict bounds of religion. This all-consuming dogma subjects the protagonists to a tenuous morality. Hamlet, Arthur, and Oedipus rely on the divine to determine right and wrong. Upon their inevitable transgressions against dogmatic belief, the characters excuse their sin instead of recognizing man’s tendency to fault. Through their tragedy, Hamlet, Arthur, and Oedipus discover the redemption within moral responsibility. The authors promote this acknowledgement of humanness above godliness. In Hamlet, The Once and Future King, and Oedipus, the protagonists’ construction of morality drives their tragedy.

White and Sophocles mock humanity’s reliance on the gods to define morality. In The Once and Future King and Oedipus, this reliance confuses the characters’ morality and triggers their undoing. In recognizing Oedipus’ guilt, the Chorus implores the gods to punish him. “Zeus, if king of kings you are, Then let this trespass not go hidden From you and your great eye undying.” (Sophocles 243)This moreso enforces their reliance on a system of punishment and reward. If Oedipus was to go unharmed, this would disturb the morality the townspeople base their lives upon. The Once and Future King mirrors this blind dependence on religion. Lionel’s retelling of Bors’ quest brings our dearest-held moral beliefs into question. The King ponders, “I suppose the moral is…that you must not commit mortal sin, even if twelve lives depend on it. Dogmatically speaking, I believe that is sound” (White 446). White draws the reader’s attention to the ill logic in Arthur’s resolution. Most would argue the loss of twelve lives presents a moral dilemma, but dogma disagrees. In parallel, the Chorus dethrones Oedipus as king once their moral concept of him is thwarted. Their self-evident truths transform based on the authority of dogma. Arthur and the Chorus revert to an ongoing, comfortable moral presence instead: religion. By using two extremes— “mortal sin” versus “twelve lives”—White draws attention to dogma’s all-consuming nature. The Chorus glorifies the gods, naming Zeus “king of kings” and calling upon his “great eye undying.” This signifies the gods’ constant, fear-mongering presence in their lives. The reverence of the divine overpowers moral conscience. In Oedipus and The Once and Future King, blind religious following propels the characters’ tragedy. They find themselves incapable of formulating a moral compass independent of religion, and therefore struggle to define right and wrong. Their constricting dogma makes them more susceptible to the temptations of human nature.

Strict religious standards result in the protagonists’ inevitable transgressions. Instead of admitting fault, Arthur and Oedipus pervert morality to justify their actions. King Arthur reflects on his tenuous justification for his rashness: “Everyone told me what a dreadful sin it was, and how nothing but sorrow would come of it… I wanted to destroy Mordred for his own sake” (White 548). Arthur bears witness to man’s tendency to disturb the morality we consider ingrained within. In parallel, Hamlet corrupts right and wrong to rid himself of guilt. He excuses himself on the basis of Polonius’ character. “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!/I took thee for thy better” (Shakespeare 3.4.32-33). In drawing attention to the most grievous sin—taking another’s life—the authors imply some moral truths hold self-evident. Dogma forces Hamlet and Arthur to compromise their conscience to absolve themselves of sin. Their overpowering fear of religious punishment drives them to excuse amorality. While he classifies Mordred’s conception as “dreadful sin,” Arthur commits a graver sin to avoid the wrath of God. Arthur and Hamlet do not acknowledge their human tendency towards sin. They deny their own humanness in striving to conform to the restrictions of dogma. This further convolutes their perception of right and wrong. White and Shakespeare use irony to draw attention to this point. It is ultimately Arthur’s choice to kill Mordred that brings about “nothing but sorrow,” and Hamlet himself might be characterized as “wretched, rash” as his character devolves. In an effort to reconcile their sins, Arthur and Hamlet succumb to human nature. They justify sin to avoid God’s judgement. Hamlet elevates himself to a godlike level, proclaiming he “took thee for thy better.” He assumes God’s will to evade the burden of sin. In this process, Arthur and Hamlet lose their conscience. This failure to acknowledge wrong to satisfy dogma confuses their moral compass. The protagonists’ tragedies lie in their inability to form moral beliefs. Therein, the authors admire the acknowledgement of humanness, rather than absolute morality.

Accepting responsibility allows the protagonists’ moral redemption. In this way, Hamlet and Oedipus finally define right and wrong. Hamlet recognizes his transgression against Laertes and begs his pardon. He asks, “Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong, / But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman” (Shakespeare 5.2.227-228). While Hamlet knows Laertes will not forgive him, he deems it worthy of proclaiming. This moral responsibility for one’s actions, regardless of the consequences, translates into Oedipus: “Hurry me off from here, Hurry of the monster” (Sophocles 257). Oedipus acts unknowingly, but he admits fault for the rashness which drives his tragedy. The protagonists recognize the wrong in their actions. Shakespeare and Sophocles praise this confluence of humanity and moral thinking when Hamlet and Oedipus admit the limitations of man. The authors find this admission more admirable than absolute morality. Yet Hamlet and Oedipus do not revert to their blind worship of the divine. Instead, they rely on their moral beliefs. In taking the onus for their actions, Hamlet and Oedipus reveal their essential nature. Oedipus favors painful isolation above plaguing his former kingdom. He characterizes himself as a “monster,” proving his acceptance of man’s inherent flaws and rejection of morality. Hamlet, in parallel, displays his kingly character. Asking Laertes’ forgiveness and referring to him as a “gentleman” places Hamlet in an inferior position, but he insists on showing repentance. Hamlet and Oedipus acknowledge their humanity in a moral fashion. This offers them peace within tragedy.

The tragedies of Hamlet, Arthur, and Oedipus hinge on their convoluted concepts of morality. They allow dogma to determine their perception of right and wrong—failing to formulate their own beliefs. An overpowering fear of the divine controls their actions. Upon their eventual sin, the characters justify their faults to avoid dogmatic punishment. In failing to acknowledge man’s tendency to sin, they elevate themselves to godliness. It is only in taking responsibility that the characters redeem their morality. They confess their humanness while maintaining their own moral beliefs. Whether it’s seventeenth century Denmark or ancient Greece, cultural beliefs corrupt our morality. In our socially constructed black and white world, doing the right thing might be easier said than done.

Lancelot: The Psychoanalysis

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Vladimir Nabakov often told stories of men and women destroyed by unknowing forces and desires driving them to madness. The character often gives into their deepest, darkest desires and allows those desires to control their actions. The characters downfalls are love, hate, lust, distrust, and innocence. As he wrote these, Nabokov would often discover parts of himself he did not know existed. Much like Nabakov, T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King during World War II. He saw the world falling to pieces around him and could not figure out why. His characters desperately sought for answers, starting with the purest intentions and falling from grace. While writing, White discovered that he himself had given into his basic desires. It is because his mind has told him to give in to his utmost passions. Lancelot struggles to refrain from his desires and eventually gets too caught up in them to realize his world is in shambles. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, because Lancelot struggles to understand his underlying motives throughout his relationships with Arthur and Guenever, the relationships and Lancelot’s psyche are destroyed.

Lancelot’s love for Arthur and his need for his approval is the driving force to his mind’s destruction of itself. Lancelot idolizes Arthur from their first meeting. After Lancelot meets Arthur as a child, he becomes infatuated with the idea of being exactly like Arthur and serving as one of his knights. White even describes Lancelot as a child watching Arthur and being, “in love with him” (White 311). His admiration for Arthur drives him to become the renowned knight he is. Arthur is additionally a god-like figure to Lancelot. Layaman compares Arthur to Christ arguing when Arthur lives in the human world he atones for others sins and brings a community of saintly people together. Lancelot always feels the need to atone for his beastly appearance comprehending, “he [is] as a ugly as a [monster] in the King’s menagerie” (White 313). The dynamic of their relationship switches when Lancelot comes to court and sees Arthur as more of a father. Being with Arthur in France and being in his righteous presence provides Lancelot with the epitome of what he wishes to become. When Arthur sees Lancelot again for the first time in years, “he… knighted [him] the first day.”(White 326). When Arthur accepts Lancelot and solidifies their father-son relationship, their relationship changes into a psychological war in Lancelot’s mind between what is right and what Lancelot knows he should not do.

As Lancelot and Arthur become closer, an oedipal complex destroys it. The first person to realize, “Lancelot and Guenever were falling in love with each other…[was] King Arthur himself”’ (White 331). As the oedipal complex states, the child fears his love for the mother will be met by emasculation from the father (Sayer 5). After this occurs, Lancelot and Arthur’s friendship comes to a halt as fear of Arthur as the father, penetrates their relationship. This causes a rift in what Lancelot feels is right to do for his friend and his actual desires, or a war between his id and superego. When this struggle becomes more prominent, what his ego should do, becomes clouded. Layaman describes Arthur as a pure and uncorrupted individual and as Lancelot sees this he becomes even more lost. He is unable to compare himself or connect to Arthur anymore. Lancelot acts either upon his basic desires or what society tells him to, not what is a healthy balance between them.

Lancelot’s love for Guenever, or his mother, was met through anger and the desire for castration of Lancelot by Arthur. Without Arthur’s presence Lancelot succumbs to the pressure of his id and his affection for Guenever and his love of bloodshed start to define him (Sayers 6). Lancelot and Arthur’s hostility towards one another comes to an overextension when Arthur is forced by law to pursue Lancelot for his transgressions; but as Lancelot fights Arthur, Lancelot fears for himself and the blood spilled of his comrades through a battle that he does not want to fight. Lancelot even goes as far to murder his supporter and voice of reason at court, Gareth, in a fit of passion. Lancelot continues to decline in morals and is eventually consumed by cruelty. Arthur is too consumed with his battle against his best friend to realize what has happened back in England. Arthur, possessing a withdrawn id and a prominent ego, takes his troops and continues home. Thereafter Arthur dies, murdered by Mordred in battle (412 Malory Modern Library Edition). Lancelot’s fear of emasculation ceases and he realizes his affection for Guenever has killed his best friend. Lancelot realizes “That [his] grief would be incalculable at the passing of Arthur” (Layamon 126). Lancelot quickly attempts to suppress his feelings and his id. Much like Oedipus in mythology, he believes he committed, “…murder [and looks] up. [He sees] the fates circling. They [had] found [him]. [He was convinced] soon their shadows [would] rush cool across [his] shoulders” (McLaughlin 353). He cut out his id completely, absolving and discontinued the path of destruction he had begun. He dedicated the rest of his life to religion and God, siding on the extreme of the superego (443 Malory Modern Library Edition). Lancelot and Arthur’s interwoven paths and love for each other caused them both great pain and eventually cost them both their lives.

Lancelot’s relationship with Guenever causes an inner struggle in Lancelot’s mind and drives him to madness. As he falls in love with her, he struggles with the idea of not being able to work a miracle. Lancelot even “[prays] to God that he would let [him] work a miracle” (White 372). When Lancelot is tricked into sleeping with Elaine, he believes he can no longer work any miracles. His dream is shattered when Lancelot’s superego’s way of suppressing his secret desires to be with Guenever. With this destroyed, his id takes control and he gives into his desire to pursue a relationship with her. With the revelation of succumbing to his desires and his disappointment in not being pure anymore, he seeks comfort in Guenever. At first she, “[confronts the] problem with which [he is] intimately and passionately concerned” (White 375). Lancelot and Guenever’s love grows so strong that they ignore that Guenever is married to Arthur because they are consumed in their passion. Guenever soon after becomes jealous of Lancelot’s past lover Elaine as she has a son which ties her to Lancelot forever. She becomes bitter and vindictive towards Lancelot and his family. Guenever even tells Lancelot, “[she] will have her killed” (White 382). Lancelot’s dreams about his relationship with Guenever and his life purpose of working miracles is destroyed. With Lancelot’s loss of his id and superego’s desires, his ego is lost. His mind ceases to exist completely. Instead of providing Lancelot with the comfort he seeks, she abuses his affection and causes him to retreat to the woods away from court out of madness.

Guenever’s first time isolating Lancelot and his mind driving him to madness is unsuccessful, and Lancelot turns to Elaine and Galahad for help. Lancelot’s subconscious has a period of reorientation and soon he returns to court, leaving his son and Elaine to come back to Guenever. This represents his undying devotion to Guenever even as she abuses his love. Guenever is Lancelot’s “female master” (Walters 49). This means that Lancelot is compliant to Guenever’s wishes. This makes Guenever first to him, and the court and even his own family second. Lancelot’s desires for Guenever have replaced his higher judgement and his higher judgement, so his id has overpowered his ego (Walters 50). Guenever soon realizes that their love is tainted, “[by] seeds of hatred and fear and confusion” (White 384). After, Arthur sends Lancelot away to quest for the grail, religion takes over Lancelot’s superego and he is more resistant than he was before to Guenever. He attempts to discontinue the relationship after he returns to court. After being around her again though he succumbs to her charms and thus his id seizes control of his ego once more. Lancelot’s morals begin to deteriorate once again.

Lancelot’s infatuation with Guenever gives him supernatural gifts more than Christianity can describe. After Lancelot’s love for Guenever grows and consumes him, Lancelot does better in battle, acquiring a wide spread reputation. His bloodlust and love for Guenever control him and his id soon takes over. Although Lancelot tries to maintain the appearance that his superego is intact, his id is controlling his actions. As Lancelot ventures with his son Galahad, he cannot enter the church in which they receive the Holy Grail. In the final battle against Gawain, “The terror coursed through [him] again… [He’s] lived under its shadow so long [that he] grew used to it, could almost forget it. But [he feels] it once again, darkness hovering” (McLaughlin 306). Lancelot always knew that his gift of strength was bad for humanity because all his strength did was kill. In the final battle against Gawain, he gives into his gift and allows himself to kill a man he was once friends with. Gawain is known to have superhuman strength because a fairy put a spell on him when he was young. Gawain’s battle skills are supernatural and provides him with the strength to beat even the most difficult and unlikely opponents. Lancelot beats Gawain without much difficulty and bestows upon Gawain a fatal blow, proving that Lancelot has supernatural powers. Lancelot in killing Gawain satisfies his id’s need for blood. After the battle is won and Lancelot and Guenever face the death they caused, Lancelot decides to retreat back to the church (445 Malory Modern Library Edition). This symbolizes Lancelot wanting to cleanse himself of the supernatural gifts and reinstate his superego. Lancelot is driven, still confused, to the church to help his subconscious come back to a balanced state.

Lancelot eventually fails in his attempt to understand his mind and failing leads to his destruction. Lancelot constantly gives into his basic desires, disregarding the consequences. He manipulates the people around him to believe that he is right. Although he believes what he is doing is the justified, he is misguided by his subconscious. He fails in finding a balance between what is right and what he wants. He refuses to learn from the past and those events are filed into his subconscious, shaping his behavior for the future. From Lancelot, humanity can learn to evaluate their psyche everyday, with intention. Humanity must strive to discern how their id and superego come into play in their day to day lives. They must find a balance between the id and the superego and seek to maintain that balance everyday. Rationalizing and ignoring the problems can lead to an impaired and unhealthy psyche. The impaired psyche can perpetuate problems and repeat the same mistakes. If humans continue to look at their past events and analyze the underlying motives of the action, then they can hope for a better tomorrow. If they fail, they will hurt themselves and the community around them ultimately leading to confusion and ruin.

Wart’s Most Valuable Lesson

Absolute monarchies have carried a negative connotation throughout history and have been the source of many rebellions and wars. However, if an absolute monarch learns to be just and execute his power rationally, then his or her reign can be pleasant and the nation can be at peace. In T.H. White’s the Sword in the Stone, a novel set in medieval England, a great wizard named Merlin sets out to educate Wart, the unknowing future king of England. In a series of adventures and various transformations into various creatures, Wart gains experience and learns lessons that Merlin hopes will guide him towards being a successful king. A king is truly successful when the people he serves are satisfied with his service, especially in this feudal period, when a king’s power was virtually unlimited. The most valuable lesson that Wart learns throughout his adventures comes from his very first transformation into a fish, in which he observes Merlin set the precedent for treatment towards those less fortunate, views the effects of absolute monarchy on both the ruler and the ruled, and learns how to pick his battles. Merlin sets the precedent for Wart, displaying how he should treat someone with a lesser fortune and lower status. When the poor, stammering roach approaches Merlin and Wart, he begs on behalf of his sick mother for medical help, and Merlin comforts him, asking him to lead the way. In contrast to what the normal treatment of the poor during this period of time, wherein they were commonly ignored and left alone, Merlin’s act of kindness is unusual for a man of power and status. Wart expresses this in his view of Merlin. “He like[s] [Merlin] to talk. He [does] not like the grown-ups who [talk] down to him… but the ones who just [go] on talking… leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing…” (p.50) This shows the importance of Merlin sending Wart on these adventures, as well as setting a good example for him through his daily actions. To Wart, Merlin is an admirable adult and a strong role model. Through aiding the underprivileged despite their low status, Merlin presents to Wart a way to conduct his relationship with the people he will rule. Wart is able to view the effects of absolute power on both the ruler and the ruled through his next encounter with the King fish, which contrasts significantly with the poor fish. In this encounter, Merlin introduces Wart to the tyrant fish, a giant pike, who is corrupt, both internally and physically, through the way he abuses his absolute power. The visit results in the King fish attempting to eat Wart, a near-death experience that actually proves to help Wart as much as it could have harmed him. The physical descriptions of this fish’s appearance, using words like “ravaged by… cruelty… pride, selfishness” (p. 59), all are clear symbols of corruption and greed. Almost being eaten by the King fish symbolizes Wart’s potential to become corrupt in the face of absolute power, and Merlin saves him from this fate in both a metaphorical and literal sense. The poor fish stood serves as a parallel to the King fish, showing that although the ruler and the ruled live opposite lives, they are both heading in the same ill-fated direction. Wart learns how to pick his battles in the final moment when the King fish’s jaw nearly comes to a close and he chooses to flee rather than fighting him. “It was only at the very last second that he was able to regain his own will, to pull himself together, recollect his instructions and to escape” (p. 61). It is important for Wart to know that his fleeing is not from a lack of courage and that sometimes it takes more strength and wit to back down that to continue fighting. Rather than using his magic to save Wart right when the King fish is about to attack, Merlin allows him time to make his own careful yet quick decisions and rely on himself first. Learning to make decisions concerning battle was especially important during this time because kings often waged wars that they knew they were unprepared to fight and lost vast numbers of men, all because they felt that they needed to protect their pride and dignity. Wart knows that he cannot win the battle with the King Fish, and rather than exerting his energy to try and beat the Fish and fail, he uses all his strength to give the “heartiest jackknife within him” (p. 61). This tactic ensured Wart’s safety, which is an important lesson because safety of the ruler and his people should always comes before his pride. Wart’s transformation into a fish proves to be his most valuable lesson because it’s his very first transformation, as well as his only transformation with Merlin, making it the most memorable part of his journey. Wart learns to choose his priorities, help those in need, and find the lesson in every event, whether good or bad. With these essentials to success as well as many other transformations to come, Wart learns what it means to be a successful king and how to serve his people.