Reason in Comparison with Conscience: Stoicism
In Hamlet, the philosophy and ideas of Stoicism make their appearance onstage and shape the themes and dialogue of the play. Stoicism, which praises the superiority of reason and civilization over the more base element of emotion, is the backbone of much of the conflict in Hamlet. Hamlet’s dedication to his Stoic beliefs ends up causing many problems for him as well as setting up a dichotomy between reason and emotion that marks the play. Hamlet considers emotion to be the opposite of reason, and therefore any actions that come as a result of emotion are undesirable. Hamlet finds that he must reason himself into a state of murder before he can exact his revenge on Claudius, but a murderous state is one that can only be reached through emotion for Hamlet. This philosophy of Stoicism leads Hamlet to believe in a man-versus-beast and reason-versus-emotion dichotomy, but it is only through the consideration of conscience that characters can know whether or not they are behaving morally. Hamlet’s belief in these false dichotomies wastes time and ultimately causes further harm to his family and friends, but Hamlet’s respect for his conscience is what preserves his morality, as it is the only fixed star in the play. Because of this, conscience can be seen to be the most important element of the three in Hamlet, as it is ultimately what defines the goodness of a character, distinguishing heroes from villains.
Hamlet has been studying in Wittenburg and has become a follower of the Stoic philosophy. The Stoic philosophy instructs its adherents “self-control and detachment from distracting emotions” (Stoicism, 1). Stoics regard the world to be chaotic and “an unruly and often unreasonable entity,” which can be seen as a cause for the dichotomies set up between man and animal (Stoicism, 1-2). Stoicism “holds that passion distorts truth, and that the pursuit of truth is virtuous,” showing why Hamlet believes in the reason versus emotion dichotomy (Stoicism, 2). Stoics “do not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgment,” which we can see clearly exemplified by Hamlet’s behavior in staging the “Mouse Trap” play in order to “catch the conscience of the King” (Stoicism, 3) (2.2.606). Because of the teachings of Stoicism, Hamlet distrusts his emotion and passion, preferring to suppress them and try to reason a solution; Hamlet eventually realizes that this is counterproductive, towards the end considering excessive thinking to be “some craven scruple/ Of thinking too precisely on th’ event” (4.4.44-45). Hamlet further questions the value of stoicism in the soliloquy “To be, or not to be” (3.1.58). The soliloquy is essentially Hamlet questioning whether or not Stoicism has the best solution for dealing with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” which Stoicism advises “to suffer” (3.1.60). Stoicism advises Hamlet to “suffer” his “sea of troubles,” but Hamlet has begun to question whether or not it is “more noble to take arms against [them] and, by opposing, end them” (3.1.59-62). This soliloquy is framed around the essential division addressed in Hamlet between reason and emotion. Hamlet reveals in his soliloquy that it is not the sleep of death that prevents him from taking his revenge (or killing himself, for both options end with Hamlet dead), but his fear of the “undiscovered country” of death. (3.1.81) The fact that Hamlet finishes his soliloquy unresolved to take action shows his adherence to his Stoic ways, choosing to continue to suffer “th’ oppressor’s wrong” (3.1.73).
Does Stoicism ultimately act as a barrier to Hamlet’s revenge, or must he simply have reason enough to act, as he does when his mother dies and Laertes admits the king’s treachery? The answer is unclear, as Hamlet does not always remain true to his beliefs, as is the case when he rashly kills Polonius. However, the evidence points to Hamlet’s eventual reliance on extreme emotion to provoke his most important deeds, such as the slaying of Polonius and the murder of Claudius.
Hamlet is incapable of bringing himself to a murderous state through rational arguments — he is only able to do this through frenzied states of emotion. Hamlet lives in a world where emotions are disparaged as bestial, but it is these bestial emotions that Hamlet requires to exact his revenge and to stay alive. Hamlet argues that a man who only sleeps and feeds is “a beast, no more” (4.4.39). Hamlet describes the mad Ophelia as “Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are… mere beasts” (4.5.83-84). Hamlet has very clearly separated himself from the beasts, with reason and “fair judgment” on his side and “bestial oblivion” on the other. Hamlet only confronts his mother because of the frenzied state he is in following the “mouse trap.” He kills Polonius in a state of wild emotion that Gertrude calls “a rash and bloody deed,” and he finally does so only after the death of his mother and his being assured of his own imminent death by Laertes’ poison (3.3.26). Thus, Hamlet must have his own mother and father murdered and his own death assured before he can become incensed enough to kill Claudius! This is not an act of reason; it is an act of emotion.
Stoicism manifests itself through the idea of conscience in Hamlet. The nobility of conscience is discussed by Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes. Conscience has a few properties in Hamlet. First, it serves as a sort of guideline for morality. Pangs of conscience afflict Claudius after seeing the play, when he admits “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” (3.1.49-50). Seeing his sins committed onstage by actors inflames Claudius’ conscience and reminds him of his own lack of morality, how he acted in a bestial manner and killed his own brother. Conscience works here to shame him. Hamlet’s conscience also alerts him to the immorality of his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle: “O, most wicked speed, to post, with such dexterity to incestuous sheets… but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.156-159). Even Laertes, considering the treacherous murder of Hamlet, declares that it is “almost ‘gainst [his] conscience”, even though he already damned “conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit” of hell (5.2.250) (4.5.130). Hamlet dismisses the idea that sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths was immoral because “they are not near [his] conscience” (5.2.59). Furthermore, Hamlet invokes conscience to argue that the murder of Claudius would be moral: “is’t not perfect conscience,/ to quit him with this arm?” (5.2.69). Conscience is the representation of morality within Hamlet. Characters, whether good or bad, can judge the morality of their actions by how their conscience speaks to them. Whether or not they listen to their conscience, however, determines whether they are heroes or villains.
Hamlet enters this play as the equivalent of a modern-day ideological young man: filled with lofty ideas of philosophy he believes can help him in the real world. With the murder of his father, the dishonourable marriage of his mother, the loss of his kingship to his uncle, and the death of his love, Hamlet finds that he cannot live both honorably and stoically. To revenge his father’s murder, he must follow the only guide to morality within the play, conscience, and allow his emotion to take over. Only when Hamlet combines emotion and his conscience towards achieving his goals does he become a truly effective revenger. Conscience and Stoicism are at odds in Hamlet as to which is the true yardstick of morality, but Hamlet certainly comes out on the side of conscience. Villains are afflicted with pangs of bad conscience while Hamlet’s conscience is clear as he takes just actions. Because of conscience’s triumph of morality, Hamlet eventually abandons Stoicism for its rival: emotion. Emotion and conscience, both natural components of human beings, are the characteristics of the true hero that Hamlet becomes.
“Stoicism.” Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. 15 Nov. 2005 < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism >
Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor, eds. The Complete Oxford Shakespeare. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
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