Realizing that Hamlet Has Many Faces
Hamlet is a play about a young man’s journey to self-discovery through an intense examination of his spirituality, morality, and purpose on earth. Prince Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his murdered father prompts this path to self-enlightenment. Hamlet’s crusade to find meaning in his life is reconciled in his spirituality. Hamlet finds his purpose on earth as a truly moral man following the principles that govern his religion. His duties as a devoutly religious man include avenging his father’s death. The violence required for adequate revenge is justified by the Christian “eye-for-an-eye” concept as well as Hamlet’s filial duty to release his father’s soul from purgatory. While on his quest for revenge, Hamlet reaches important spiritual conclusions that put his soul at ease and fulfill his life’s purpose; therefore, his death in the final scene is not a tragedy but a fitting conclusion to a heroic life.
Hamlet’s personal enlightenment begins in the first scene when he encounters the ghost of his father. Initially it seems as though the ghost’s sole purpose is to incite Hamlet to retaliate against his father’s murderer. However, as the play progresses, the ghost’s role as Hamlet’s spiritual guide becomes more apparent. The ghost facilitates Hamlet’s self-discovery and pushes Hamlet to avenge his father’s death. In doing so, he inspires Hamlet to examine his religious beliefs and how they apply to his duties. The concept of death inspires Hamlet to also contemplate his fate and how his morality will determine his destiny.
Act One establishes Hamlet’s duty to his father. King Hamlet’s soul is stuck in purgatory, between heaven and hell, until the sins committed against him are vindicated. When they first meet, King Hamlet says to his bewildered son, “I am thy father’s spirit, / Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away” (1.5.10-14). Evident in his response, “O God!,” Hamlet did not in truly suspect foul play in his father’s death prior to his father’s shocking revelation (1.5.25). Wasting no time, King Hamlet explicitly instructs his son to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.26). Hamlet, loaded with a clear mission, leaves the ghost of his father and commences his quest for revenge. However, after the ghost of his father departs, Hamlet seems to lose strength in his convictions and struggles with his mission. Praying for strength he says, “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But bear me stiffly up” (1.5.93-96). Not only does this soliloquy establish Hamlet’s faith in God, but it also reveals his nature; he is not mentally stable enough to complete this mission independently. He relies on several outside forces to assist him in the completion of his task. In the third scene, the ghost of his father returns to “whet [his] almost blunted purpose” (3.4.115). The ghost’s physical existence is debatable. He may instead be, or at least represent, Hamlet’s faith in God and the strength he derives from his faith. The ghost undeniably represents Hamlet’s belief in a supernatural world separate from life on earth.
Aside from the ghost’s obvious significance as Hamlet’s motivation to execute revenge, he also provokes Hamlet to become meditative and spiritual. After the ghost leaves, Hamlet’s demeanor changes noticeably. His friends and family believe he has gone mad. However, after learning the true nature of his father’s death and what he must do to avenge it, Hamlet has simply becomes very introspective. His spirituality becomes extremely important to him and important to his search for meaning in his life. In the midst of his introspection and simultaneous revenge mission, Hamlet arrives at several highly significant conclusions. Death as a recurrent theme in his life causes Hamlet to reflect on his spirituality. He realizes that death is inevitable and indifferent to social status. His acknowledgment that death is inevitable leads to his affirmation of God’s existence, as well as his examination of God’s interaction with humanity, humanity’s singularity from the rest of God’s creatures, and humanity’s purpose on earth.
Death is a repeated, and thus highly significant, theme in Hamlet’s story. After his encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet becomes obsessed with death. When his university friends come to visit and to secretly evaluate his mental condition, he describes the depression that had descended upon him since his father’s death in a strange and melancholic monologue. Hamlet says:
I have of late–but wherefore I know not– lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to met, what is this quintessence of dust?
After speaking with his father, Hamlet has fallen out of his usual routines; he is no longer able to live his life normally. He now has a very distinct quest and that quest has resulted in a drastic change in his mentality. He is consumed by melancholy. His life on earth seems meaningless. He is resentful of humanity as a whole and its complete disregard for the unique gift of reason from God, a complaint he repeats in a final soliloquy. He says “capability and godlike reason/ To fust in us unused” is a blatant denial of God’s benevolence (4.4.39-40). Hamlet’s preoccupation with death resulting from his frightening encounter with his father has incited his desire to meditate on abstract ideas about spirituality, morality, and human responsibility. His contemplation becomes cyclically destructive. The more Hamlet contemplates his spirituality, his morality, and his duties, the more depressed he becomes and the more frequently ideas about suicide enter his mind. Hamlet contemplates his responsibilities to his father as well as the misdeeds of his mother and resolves that suicide seems to be the only viable solution to his problems. Hamlet mournfully says:
To be, or not to be, that is the question
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing them. To die, to sleep–
Hamlet’s obsession with death and subsequent obsession with spirituality has locked him in a terrible position: he cannot escape his pain without violating his morals, but his contemplation of his morality is causing him enormous pain. He finally resolves that his uncertainty about afterlife is too significant to risk eternal damnation. This particular episode of contemplation actually yields an optimistic conclusion for Hamlet, unlike his other meditations. Hamlet firmly establishes his belief in God and an afterlife. He resolves that no human would bear such horrible pain if he or she was not afraid that they would be punished for escaping it. Hamlet says that humans would “rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of” (3.1.82-83). He continues, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; / And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.84-86). Hamlet finally decides that the only way he will escape his pain is if he takes action in his plot for revenge. Either he or uncle must die for the sins committed against his father and Hamlet is not willing to die for the atonement of his uncle’s sins. Following this soliloquy, Hamlet truly begins his journey towards self-discovery. He is no longer caught on a wheel of melancholy. His newly discovered strength allows him to free his mind and begin to find meaning in his life. After resolving to take action, Hamlet’s thoughts become very religious in nature. He preaches about sin, repentance, and virtue to everyone around him. He is finally secure in his own morality and he believes that with God behind him he will successfully complete his mission and adequately avenge his father’s death.
Hamlet and his uncle’s roles begin to switch in the third act when Claudius is praying for forgiveness for his sins and Hamlet is scheming to take action. Claudius is weakened by guilt and is terrified of his impending consequences from higher forces. Claudius’ weakening position against his vengeful nephew is apparent when he says, “Pray can I not, / Through inclination be as sharp as will; / My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent” (3.3.38-41). Claudius’ immoral behavior is destroying his power. It seems as though Hamlet, with his consistently moral behavior, is stealing Claudius’ strength and power. In one of his first significant confrontations with his uncle, Hamlet affirms his faith in God and asserts that his will is guided by divinity. Hamlet walks in on Claudius praying and declares his knowledge of his uncle’s deeds and asserts that he is going to take revenge. Hamlet says about his uncle, “his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes,” again reaffirming his convictions in God and his belief that immoral behavior leads to eternal afterlife in hell and vice versa. Hamlet finds strength in his beliefs in God as well as a clear conscience. The queen and the king lack comparable faith to Hamlet or clean moral slates. Hamlet recognizes his advantage over his mother and uses it against her. He outlines her sins and essentially tells her that she and her lover are going to hell. She pleads with him to stop preaching against her, saying “O Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots “(3.4.90-92). He has caused both the king and the queen to look into their souls and see their misdeeds. In doing so, he has virtually accomplished his task of revenge. The king and the queen are tortured by their conflicted morality issues and plead for mercy from God’s wrath. Hamlet’s quest for revenge and subsequent attainment of confidence resulting from his faith in God and knowledge of his true moral behavior allowed him to take revenge on his uncle and mother in a way that exceeded killing them. Both the king and the queen were tortured as they considered their spiritual afterlives.
However, because Hamlet’s duties included filial duties, he still felt he had to kill Claudius. In the final scene, Hamlet and his cousin Laertes fought in a duel which resulted in both of their deaths. Claudius was of course a spectator of the duel because he expected his rebellious nephew to be killed. Instead, Hamlet killed Claudius easily with no regrets. Prior to his death, Claudius, still practicing immoral behavior, attempted to poison Hamlet in case Laertes was unable to defeat him in the duel. Hamlet’s mother accidentally drank the poison intended for Hamlet and died. Although Hamlet knew what that it was poison, he drank it and cursed his mother and uncle one last time before he died. Hamlet drank the poison because he had fulfilled his duties on earth and was spiritually prepared to continue on into the afterlife.
Because he completed all of his missions, Hamlet’s death was not a tragedy. He completed his duties to his father as well as to his God. He also completed his journey to self and spiritual enlightenment. Hamlet overcame his melancholy with a reaffirmation of his faith in God and good morals. His morality and faith saved his life and made him a hero.
Ed. David Bevington, et al. New York: Bantam, 1988.
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