Honor in Hamlet
Many of the Shakespeare’s plays involve the theme of honor. Hamlet is no exception. In this play, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras are subject to the obligation of honoring the death of their fathers. The three sons are facing pressure obligation from different sources, and they protect their honors in different methods. Shakespeare puts his characters in such dynamic tension and outrageous situations in order to make profound observations about the pursuit of honor.
From the beginning of the play, the first sign of hatred and the desire of honor are shown in the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras who is getting ready to conquer Denmark.
His desire of honor is driven by the old Danish King Hamlet who had previously battled with his father in the Norway territory. The loss of battle caused the relinquishment of Norwegian land. Now, being the Norway’s leader, Fortinbras is responsible for taking back what’s belong to his own country. However, Fortinbras is impulsive, and blinded by revenge.
He ignores the fact that Denmark is a well-established kingdom, and he has little power to attack. On Fortinbras, which he, in brief, obeys/Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine,/Makes vow before his uncle never more/To give the assay of arms against your Majesty. (2.3, 68-71) Under the pressure of his uncle, Fortinbras gives up on his avenge,and promises not to attack Denmark. His honor not only relies on the duty of a son to his father, but also depends on the responsibility to his people in the country.
Moreover, the Prince of Norway put his glory and honor in high regard. The conversation between the captain of Fortinbras’s army and Hamlet has led Hamlet to praise Fortinbras: Witness this army of such mass and charge,/Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed,/Makes mouths at the invisible event,/Exposing what is mortal and unsure/To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,/Even for an egg-shell. (4.4, 47-53) Fortinbras is ready to commit himself to restore his own and his father honor, while Hamlet has not achieved anything to avenge his own father. Although Fortinbras is just a minor character in the play, this succinctness may be a symptom of his militaristic nature, showing he is more than a warrior. The play reveals his affinity of honor, and his actions speak for him.
Laertes, so caught up in his rage over the death of his father, cannot see beyond his immediate actions to what might become of him after his own death. His only concern is to avenge Polonius death; any possible consequences must be taken in stride. Laertes believes that his family will be dishonored if he does not kill his father’s murderer: That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard/Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot/Even here between the chaste unsmirch?d brow/Of my true mother (4.5. 130-134). It states that Laertes must naturally grief for his father if he is a true born son; if he doesn’t avenge his father’s death then there’ll be nothing but shame to his and his parents’ honor.
There is always the possibility of being prompted to revenge, not by anarchic hatred, but by loyalty to a code of honor. Laertes, for example, finds no embarrassment at all in claiming to be undecided whether Hamlet’s plea of innocence, though valid in nature, may still be unacceptable to honor: I am satisfied in nature, /Whose motive in this case should stir me most /To my revenge. But in my terms of honour /I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement /Till by some elder masters of known honour /I have a voice and precedent of peace /To keep my name ungor’d.(v.ii.242-248) Hamlet’s apparent madness makes Laertes want to forgive him, but Laertes can’t possibly do so until some council of his elders decides that there’s a way to do so without ruining his name or his honor. By this definition of honor does not inhere in the intrinsic merit either of action or of agent; instead it is a quasi-legal fiction regulated by analogy with the law of property and, to a degree, of commercial credit.
In Shakespearean tragedy, oaths are for characters development and move the action toward its climax. Although Hamlet can, of course, withdraw from his oath of vengeance without a threat to his honor should he discover that the ghost is, in fact, not truthful, when he swears that the ghost’s commandment to seek revenge “all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain / Unmixed with baser matter! Yes, by heaven” (1.5.102-4), the prince is, in effect, stripped of his power to stop the events. He is a man of honor, a noble man, and now that the vow is spoken he has no choice but to carry it through. When he knows that his father is murdered, he is ready to avenge for him. However, sign of protestant is shown when it came to denying the ghost of dead king Hamlet. The evidence of Claudius’s guilt has ensured Hamlet’s will to kill him.
The Mousetrap scene in Hamlet is an example of the knightly and chivalric honorable tradition whereby a man’s honor can be either lost or won by surviving an ordeal designed to determine his guilt. Hamlet was thought to be born with the innate capacity to be honourable, and that whether or not this inborn sense of honour properly manifests itself depends on his upbringing . Honor is deeply implanted in the soul of the Renaissance gentleman. He is not concerned primarily with the opinion of others, but with his own conscience, his own inner integrity. The play, and Claudius’s guilty reaction to it, give Hamlet corroboration for the Ghost’s story. This frees Hamlet to morally kill Claudius. Hamlet goes beyond his station in life when he attempts to determine another human being’s eternal salvation. When he doesn’t kill Claudius he is guilty of hubris , and he will lost the honor of being Prince Denmark.
Prince Hamlet is the only son of the king of Denmark. In Shakespearean period, Hamlet is honor-bound to avenge his father’s death. But, he needs to kill Claudius who is the new king. Hamlet is thus confronted with the taboos of Christian hierarchical order — to exact revenge he must slay a king who is, of course, God’s anointed ruler. Moreover, he cannot be completely sure of his countryman’s support as Claudius is an elected king. Further, Claudius is accepted by the people who have “freely gone” (1.2.15) along with Claudius’s hasty marriage to the king’s widow, and who give “twenty, forty, and hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little” (2.2.366-67).
Perhaps more importantly, Hamlet’s anguish of indecision over whether or not to kill Claudius, particularly after the evidence offered by Claudius’s reaction to the “Mousetrap,”  reflects a changing code of honor in which “the community of honor came to be that which centered on the crown, its structure that of the court and city; its service that of the state, and its mark the nobility of virtue, and the dignities which this conferred.”  Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius throughout the play. While several factors contribute to this delay, it is significant to note that Hamlet exacts revenge for his father’s murder only after Claudius’s treachery has been publicly revealed by both Gertrude and Laertes.
Hamlet’s original oath of vengeance is fulfilled, but in such a way as to allow him to remain honorable in a new code that requires not only honor, but also acknowledgment of the political hierarchy and morality as well. Hamlet, then, stands as a transitional character who has, on the one hand, the medieval code of honor which requires him to kill a king to avenge his father’s murder and, on the other hand, a new code of honor that requires both absolute obedience to the state and adherence to moral virtue. It is in meeting these codes that Hamlet is identified as both a transitional character and a tragic hero.
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