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.