Humanistic Side of Hamlet
Hamlet: A Picture of Renaissance Humanism
The renaissance was an era of great change in philosophical thought and morality. Before the 15th century, monastic scholasticism had dominated European thinking. Monasticism’s emphasis on a black and white system of morality, which relied on a dogmatic and narrow interpretation of Christian theology, created a system that valued rules and regulations over inherent understandings of right and wrong. Yet as Greek and Latin texts began to surface in Italy during the 15th century, a fundamental shift in thinking began to occur. The idea that the human experience should be studied to advance and develop moral understanding began to take form. Yet as the shackles of a rule based morality system began to be overthrown, philosophers and writers were faced with a new danger, moral nihilism. In England, William Shakespeare tackled the evolving social and moral changes introduced by the renaissance in his play, Hamlet. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet character is a personification of the evolution of philosophical humanism into moral nihilism, and this is shown through Hamlet’s initial quest for revenge, his inner search for the truth of his father’s murder, and his eventual hollow revenge over Claudius.
Hamlet’s initial response to his father’s death can be seen as a representation of the Middle age’s scholastic mindset. Hamlet is fully a part of the religious and chivalrous thinking of the time at the beginning of the play. He is devastated by his father’s death. When describing his grief to his mother, Hamlet says, “Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”For they are actions that a man might play. But I have that within which passeth show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (Act 1:V 82-87). His pain is beyond the trappings of grief, his very soul aches for his father’s death. Hamlet wishes nothing more to join his father in the great beyond, but curses that he is forbidden to do so. He says in anguish, “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!” (Act 1: V 129-132). This is important, as at this point Hamlet is a firm believer in the rules based morality of the middle ages. He wishes to commit suicide, but he cannot because it is forbidden by a divine decree.
Hamlet’s rule based morality is further reinforced when he meets the apparition of his dead father. Hamlet takes the command for vengeance to heart, declaring, “And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter” (Act 1: V 103-105). This quest reinvigorates Hamlet, as it gives his suffering a purpose and a reason. His father killed Claudius, and thus Claudius must then be killed in return. This is the most basic assertion of the middle age’s moral precept of an “eye for an eye.” This pre-apparition Hamlet is the representation of the Scholastic rule based morality system. As other facts and realities are brought to light concerning the murder of his father, Hamlet is made to question the black and white morality of the apparition’s commands.
Hamlet’s quest for revenge, which represented the beginning of the humanistic philosopher’s quest for knowledge, would then evolve into an ambiguous inner search for truth that would cast doubt on Hamlet’s previous moral system. One of the major themes that is present through out the play, is the ambiguity that is present in all human affairs. When the apparition later appeared before Hamlet, he questioned himself, “the spirit that I have seen may be a devil” (Act II: V 560). He was unsure if what the spirit said was true, and feared the consequences of carrying out its deadly orders. It is rather unclear through out the play whether Claudius did indeed murder the king, and Hamlet constantly postpones his scheme to gather more and more evidence. He is torn between the burning desire for vengeance and his inner yearning for truth and righteous action. In his soliloquy in Act II, Hamlet mourns, “Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon – He that hath killed my king and whored my mother, Popped in between th’ election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such cozenage – is’t not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned To let this canker of our nature come In further evil? (Act II V. 63-70). Even when Claudius’s midnight prayer establishes his guilt in murdering the previous King of Denmark, the reader is still made to feel apprehensive of Hamlet’s desire for revenge. Claudius proves to be an effectual leader who suffers from guilt in his past misdeeds. He even prays to God hoping that one day he can seek forgiveness.
The reader is thrown into a world of shades of gray, where murders can repent and heroes cause more damage than might otherwise have been wrought. This second portion is in stark contract to the black and white morality presented earlier. When Hamlet applies his critical humanistic thinking, he finds the complexities inherent in moral reasoning and action. Does Claudius’s evil deserve the ultimate pain of death? How can Hamlet truly take action that is meaningful and will achieve a positive end? Hamlet yearns for divine directive, but in the silent humanistic universe, there are no simple black and white answers. These are humanistic questions that delve deep into Hamlet’s character. How can he effectively deal with Claudius and his actions without becoming like him? This philosophical reasoning eventually proves ineffectual, and Hamlet is forced to action.
Hamlet’s humanistic quest for truth eventually leaves the realm of philosophy and enters the arena of moral nihilism when he begins to put his plan into action. The beginning of Hamlet’s descent away from humanism begins with the confrontation between him and his mother. While Hamlet and his mother are in a deeply heated argument, Hamlet hears a cry for help from a tapestry. Without even thinking, Hamlet thrusts his sword into the tapestry, stabbing an eavesdropping Polonius dead. When asked if he knows what he has done by his mother, Hamlet responds, “Nay, I know not. Is it the king?” (Act III. V 24). When she replies that he has done a barbaric thing, Hamlet replies that it is almost as barbaric as killing a king and marrying his brother. At this point Hamlet is consumed, and his inner philosophical discourse has been silenced. With no rules based morality to guide his actions and philosophical inquiry yearning no results, the young prince instead begins to act impulsively and rashly. He is consumed by revenge, and the right or wrong of his actions is lost on him. Ironically, at this point he becomes no different than Claudius. Just as Hamlet is a son who seeks to punish a man who murdered his father, Hamlet has now deprived a son of a father. At this point Hamlet is consumed by bloodlust. The ghostly apparition of his father appears again to remind him of his deadly quest to kill Claudius. There is no hint of justice, simply vengeance.
When Hamlet confronts Claudius and is finally able to achieve his revenge, the hollowness and folly of his quest is revealed. Hamlet is mortally wounded, and most of the royal family lays dead at the conclusion of their confrontation. At that moment Fortinbras simply steps onto the scene and sees the entire royal family lay in waste. He then proceeds to conquer the entire kingdom in a bloodless coup. So thustly the reader must ask themselves, was justice truly served? Was justice even possible? In the end, with no divine direction or clear cut philosophical answers, Hamlet gave in to moral nihilism. His quest, which started as a search for justice, ended in untold bloodshed, the deaths of loved ones, and the fall of Denmark to foreign invaders. Thus the renaissance humanist comes full circle into moral nihilism. In the end Hamlet became the thing that he despised most, a senseless murderer.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a metaphorical representation of the renaissance era’s evolving moral and ethical framework, first beginning in a rule based God centered morality, then evolving into humanism, and finally culminating in moral nihilism. At the beginning of the play Hamlet is devastated by the loss of his father, and is given a sense of purpose through the commands of the apparition to seek revenge on Claudius. As Hamlet begins to truly think about his grisly mission, he begins to question the authenticity of his mission. Did Claudius truly kill his father? Was the apparition a devil? What would be accomplished by killing the King? Philosophical inquiry gives Hamlet no answers, and he becomes driven by a rash and impulsive bloodlust for revenge. His descent into moral nihilism begins with the murder of the relatively innocent Polonius, and culminates in the gruesome murder of the King. In the end, nothing of value was achieved, the entire royal family was killed and Denmark was conquered by foreign invaders. Hamlet’s quest for justice was in the end futile, and a good representation of the philosophical evolution of renaissance era England.
Edwards, Philip. Tragic Balance in ‘Hamlet’. 1983. 43-52. Print. <http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/balinham.html>.
McClinton, Brian. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Humanist Masterpieces. 123. (2010): 12-13. Web. 3 Aug. 2014. <http://humanistni.org/filestore/image/Hamlet.pdf>.
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