An Examination of Guilt: The “Poison” of Hamlet and Fifth Business

Guilt, like a disease of the mind, has the power to consume one’s sanity, govern one’s emotions and demolish one’s life. In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare and in the novel Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, guilt dominates the lives of multiple characters by negatively impacting their fates. This unfortunate fact can be seen through how guilt arises from a flaw in the character’s personality, induces a burden on the life of a loved one, and leads to an inevitable death. In both Hamlet and Fifth Business, guilt emerges from a flaw in the character’s persona, leading to that character’s tragic ending.

In Hamlet, the two main characters that exhibit guilty emotions are Claudius and Hamlet. The incident that initiated the conflicts between several characters is the murder of King Hamlet, committed by his own brother Claudius. Claudius’s fatal flaw is his egotistical nature which distorts his state of mind and compels him to put power above all else. This provokes Claudius’s guilt, which quickly starts to possess him as “[His] stronger guilt defeats [his] strong intents”(3.3.40, Shakespeare) of maintaining his position. Moreover, Hamlet suspects that Claudius is the murderer, bringing more attention upon Claudius’s sins. Hence, Claudius’s ambition to maintain his position as King develops from his selfless values which determine his disastrous destiny. As well, Hamlet’s guilt is caused by his hamartia; his inability to avenge his father. Instead of taking action, Hamlet blames himself for delaying his father’s instructions to punish Claudius. Therefore, Hamlet’s tendency to overthink prevents him from taking action and pushes him towards self-condemnation, towards placing his life in danger. Hamlet’s thoughts are immensely warped by his guilt, changing his perspective on life and leading to his downfall.

In Fifth Business, Boy Staunton, much like King Claudius, is a man of authority. He is successful, wealthy, intelligent, and extremely arrogant; however, his imperfections are his blinding ambition and his selfishness. Boy’s strong desire for success ultimately leads to his unconscious guilt and his demise. Guilt is an illusion to Boy. Consciously, guilt is meaningless to him because he holds ambition over the well-being of Leola. Unconsciously, Boy is lost in the shadow of his guilt: he “had no clarity of mind that would ease him of guilt when he deceived Leola—as he did, with variety and regularity among the free-spirited girls he met” (107, Davies). Unlike Hamlet’s and Claudius’s, Boy’s guilt is indeed unconscious. By lying to Leola, he conceals his guilt and concentrates on advancing his power. This approach displays Boy’s self centeredness as the fatal flaw which brings him to ruin. In both pieces of literature, guilt is caused by the indissoluble flaws in the medium of the minds of these characters, flaws that lead down a road of despair and torment. All in all, the characters’ hamartia contributes to their guilt that affects not only them but also those closest to them.

Furthermore, the negative impacts of guilt in both Hamlet and Fifth Business are evident through the actions that are driven by remorse. In different ways, the main characters put the lives of their significant others in jeopardy, and eventually both their lives ends. In Hamlet, Hamlet is greatly affected by his guilt. His happiness is depleted and his clouded thoughts cause ruthless intentions. Due to his overwhelming shame, Hamlet speaks to Ophelia with words like daggers when he tells her, “Get thee to a nunnery, farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (3.1.138-40, Shakespeare). In turn, this attitude has an immediate effect on Ophelia, as her mind descends into a whirlpool of madness. As a result, Hamlet, who cannot cope with his guilt, indirectly kills the woman whom he truly loved, Ophelia. On the contrary, King Claudius utilizes a different approach in dealing with his guilty conscience. He anticipates that his power of manipulation will insure his position and alleviate his guilt. By the time Hamlet discovers Claudius is the murderer during the play, “The Murder of Gonzago,” it becomes apparent to Claudius that Hamlet is convicting him of murder. Since Hamlet is the living persona of Claudius’s impeding guilt, Claudius urgently acts to send Hamlet to England. Claudius plots a plan to eliminate Hamlet and in the process he exploits other characters such as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes and his Queen in order to maintain his throne. Nevertheless, this plan backfires on King Claudius as he poisons his wife, Gertrude. While he cares for Gertrude, his guilt-driven ambition to kill Hamlet and his dignity are more important to him. Like Hamlet, Claudius enables his guilt to control him in unwanted ways. In both situations, Hamlet and Claudius lose their loved one due to their overpowering guilt.

In addition, the burden in Boy’s unconscious brings his partner Leola to mental deterioration. Boy strives for perfection and superiority over others, “he wanted to make her into the perfect wife for a rising young entrepreneur in sugar” by enforcing Leola to meet a certain criteria that she cannot achieve (126, Davies). Furthermore, Boy’s repressed guilt is projected through his attitude towards women. Despite being married, Boy engages in multiple affairs with other women. When Leola discovers this, she is immediately drained of her sanity. Similarly to Ophelia’s, Leola’s health disintegrates and her life diminishes. Remarkably, Boy does not attend Leola’s funeral and quickly remarries, revealing that he does not consciously feel guilty. However, his unconscious guilt continues growing until it tears him apart.

Although all characters suffer the effects of their immoral actions differently, they all lose their lovers and lose themselves descending to their tragic endings. Lastly, those characters who are unable to confront their guilt face their definitive ends. Despite Claudius’s attempts to abolish his sins by praying for forgiveness, his guilt is still evident through his malicious plans. Guilt turns Claudius into a ferocious villain because he indulges in murderous actions instead of retaining his guilt and atoning for his selfless actions. Foremost, King Claudius creates a formula for his own destruction, when he sets up the fencing duel between Hamlet and Laertes. He manipulates Laertes to injure Hamlet with the tip of his deadly sword and as well he prepares a fatal drink. However, his fate takes a turn for the worst when Laertes is fatally poisoned by his own sword. Laertes admits, “The foul practice hath turn’d itself on me. Lo, here I lie, never to rise again. Thy mother’s poison’d. I can no more. The king. The king’s to blame”(5.2.319-22, Shakespeare). This motivates Hamlet to murder the King by using the venomous sword and Claudius’s own poisonous drink which brings him to death. By this time, Hamlet also meets his downfall as a result of his guilt. Hamlet spends the majority of his time contemplating about life and death, therefore he holds back his responsibility to avenge his father. Hamlet, carrying his overwhelming guilt explains to Horatio, “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep…Rashly- and praised to be rashness for it: let us know our indiscretion sometimes serves us well”(5.2.4-8, Shakespeare,). Thus, Hamlet’s guilt from losing Ophelia and failing to punish Claudius is causing him to act impulsively,suggesting that Hamlet cannot differentiate between what is right and wrong. Ultimately, Hamlet makes the wrong decision of dueling Laertes even after his good friend Horatio warned him. This causes Hamlet to meet his predetermined tragedy. Suddenly, Hamlet’s life is consumed by a flesh wound from Laertes’s poisonous sword and by his own enemy, his guilt.

Likewise, Boy suffers a tragic fate. His guilt is a time bomb living inside his mind that calculates his every action. In fact, the more Boy neglects his guilt, the closer he brings himself to his death. Boy does not realize this accumulated guilt is the deadly weapon that exists within him counting down his seconds to live. When Dunstan reveals the stone and confronts Boy with the truth about his past, Boy still denies his actions because his shadow has overpowered him. However, the damage has been done, as Boy only has a few moments remaining to live. By the time he tries to overcome his shadow, his guilt has manifested and even his ambition could not combat the destructive time bomb that is guilt. Hence, Paul Dempster grants Boy’s internal wish by freeing him from his guilt and his shadow, in the act of ending his life. Notably, Boy committed suicide as the deadly bomb exploded inside of him in the aftermath of his guilt, “He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, …by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.”(272, Davies). Boy is found lifeless with a rock in his mouth, representing his inability to swallow this flood of guilt. Therefore, all characters who avoid their guilt succumb to their ultimate catastrophe, death.

Overall, Claudius and Hamlet from Hamlet and Boy from Fifth Business demonstrate how the price of human life is compromised by one’s guilty conscious or unconscious. One’s guilt caused by a fatal flaw, and brings about both heartless actions upon others and self-deterioration. Evidently, guilt can only be neglected for so long before it amplifies and strengthens to the point of no return.

Works Cited Davies, Robertson. Fifth Business. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1970. Print.Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. USA: Bantam Book, 1980. Print.

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