Self-Murder, Killing and Religion Valueness in the “Hamlet” Tragedy
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play rife with moral dilemmas. Religious codes often clash with desires and instinctual feelings in the minds of the characters, calling into question which courses of action are truly the righteous paths. In Hamlet’s case, such conundrums are debilitating and cause a frustrating, eventually fatal lack of action. Indeed, the absence of moral clarity in the play is arguably the root of most of the tragedy that is played out in the final scenes. Because of this, the issues in Hamlet provide an excellent basis from which to delve into an exploration of how religion motivates human actions. The characters’ dilemmas concerning two great moral questions, suicide and murder, demonstrate the centrality of this motivation, both within the confines of the play and within the larger scope of human society.
Hamlet’s ambivalence about suicide introduces topics like death, religion, and the afterlife as recurring themes throughout the work. His despair and confusion produce one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, the eloquent verbalization of a mental wrestling match between the forces of perseverance and suicide. Yet this oft-quoted “to be, or not to be” speech in act three is preceded by a few more obscure but extremely important lines two acts earlier. The lines express Hamlet’s desire to die and frustration at the fact that suicide is forbidden by Christianity: “O that this too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 129-132).” From these words it can be seen that, early in the play, Hamlet is very attentive to the letter of religious law. Yet Hamlet does not state why this religious prohibition is in reality keeping him from committing the deed he so longs to accomplish. Does his compunction spring purely from the desire to follow God’s word, or is he motivated by a fear of punishment for his transgression? This point is unclear, but it is evident from the speech that, were religion not a factor, Hamlet would choose to kill himself.
In contrast, as the play progresses to act three and Hamlet’s well known soliloquy is spoken, the emphasis has shifted away from religion and more towards personal qualms with suicide. Hamlet’s language here clearly conveys anxiety and fear about what may happen after death, yet he never refers to the wrath of God or any punishment for sins. Indeed, no reference to the Christian concept of the afterlife is made at all in the speech; rather, Hamlet speaks of death as an eternal sleep, dangerous in the possibility of unknown and perilous dreams. He enumerates at length the grievances of this world – “the whips and scorns of time, Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love… (Act 3, Scene 1, lines 70-72)”-and asserts that, surely, the only thing keeping man from ending his suffering is the fear of even greater suffering in that never-ending sleep. This is the fear of the unknown, not of assured punishment that religion promises. And, while religious thinking usually characterizes suicide as cowardly in its attempt to escape the suffering that man must endure on earth, Hamlet views suicide as the braver alternative. What is cowardly, he states, is to not pursue the possibility of greater happiness for fear of finding greater despair. Thus over the course of the play, as Hamlet delves deeper into thoughts of suicide, he finds himself confronted more by fears of his own imagining than by God’s promised torture.
Hamlet provides further fodder for the exploration of suicide as a theme with the death and burial of Ophelia. In this case, uncertainty arises about what, in fact, constitutes suicide. Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia as having gone mad with grief over the death of her father, and, upon accidentally falling in the river, not having had the presence of mind to extricate herself. But was Ophelia’s fall truly accidental? And, even if it was, does the fact that she allowed the water to overtake her itself amount to suicide? Shakespeare raises these questions by employing the conversation of two gravediggers who wonder over the propriety of allowing Ophelia a full Christian burial. Their dialogue (“Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation (Act 5, Scene 1, lines 1-2)?”) conveys the sense that most observers believe that Ophelia killed herself, but most are also willing to overlook this fact in light of her unfortunate circumstances. Those who tacitly condone Ophelia’s actions in this way are navigating the rift between the letter of religious law and what they feel to be right in their hearts. As Hamlet grappled with this issue and chose to follow the law, Ophelia’s buriers instead chose to follow their hearts.
Closely related to these moral dilemmas involving suicide are situations dealing with murder. Both actions entail the taking of a human life, and one would think that the act of murder would require at least as much soul-searching as a suicide. Yet the characters in the play display no hesitancy when it comes to the moral basis of murder for revenge; even though Hamlet has difficulty in actually carry out the deed, he does not doubt that it is the righteous thing to do. Hamlet even carries this zeal for retribution farther than just Claudius, killing in one swift motion the hidden Polonius, whom Hamlet takes to be a conspirator, or at least sympathizer, with his father’s murderer.
Laertes seems to consider revenge-murder in a similarly straightforward, necessary, and even honorable light. Thought the king has other motives for being swiftly rid of Hamlet, he expresses Laertes’s sentiments well when he states, in reference to Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, “And where th’offense is, let the great ax fall (Act 4, Scene 5, line 213).” Depending on one’s perspective, this mentality can be seen as either in conflict with religious guidelines or in accordance with them. The sixth commandment states, “Thou shalt not kill,” yet Hamlet and Laertes accept this rule only under some circumstances. Clearly, more appealing to them and their sense of justice by vengeance is the biblical passage regarding “an eye for an eye.” In these situations, the characters do not feel bound by religious prohibitions; in fact, beyond simply bloodlust, they feel a real moral compulsion to make right by avenging wrongs. As Laertes puts it, the questions surrounding his father’s death “Cry to be heard, as ’twere from heaven to earth…(Act 4, Scene 5, line 210)”, and must be appropriately answered.
One religious issue that does hinder Hamlet from achieving his goal of killing Claudius is his belief that Claudius will go to heaven if he dies while praying. This belief is an instance of Hamlet worrying about the letter of religious law rather than the spirit of religion. He does not consider that Claudius’s murder of Hamlet the elder is morally repugnant and sinful; the mere act of praying is enough, in Hamlet’s mind, to redeem Claudius before God: “Now might I do it pat, now a is a-praying, And now I’ll do’t. And so a goes to heaven, And so am I revenged (Act 3, Scene 3, lines 73-75).” Thus Hamlet refrains from killing Claudius (an act which he considers morally acceptable) because he believes that the repentant words of a murderer, while uttered, will absolve the murderer of sin, but that the sin will return once the praying ceases. This irrational logic demonstrates how religion can influence people into abiding by its technicalities, but not necessarily by its underlying moral spirit.
In a surprising juxtaposition, the murderer Claudius seems to comprehend the spirit of the religious laws better than Hamlet does. Claudius’s speech in act three (“O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven (Act 3, Scene 3, line 36)”) appears to be an anguished, heart-felt expression of repentance. Yet he recognizes that his thoughts are distracted, and acknowledges that his supplications are not valid: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go (Act 3, Scene 3, lines 97-98).” Though Polonius’s actions in the remainder of the play indicate that he is not truly sorry for his transgression, this speech at least shows that he understands the intent of religious regulations. It is ironic that he, more than the relatively innocent Hamlet, actually comprehends moral teachings.
The scene with Hamlet and Claudius in act three emphasizes how the belief in the Christian afterlife of heaven and hell is central to many of the issues in Hamlet that involve suicide and murder. If not for the motivation of these promised lands, few characters would act, or withhold action, based on moral codes. Yet the concept of the afterlife is challenged from the very first scene of the play, in which the late Hamlet appears as a ghost before the palace soldiers. The appearance of a ghost, a spirit neither in heaven nor in hell, is very unnatural and discomforting. Thus when the ghost instructs Hamlet to avenge his murder, Hamlet feels compelled to obey in order to remove his father from his apparent state of spiritual limbo. An additional moral motivation is therefore factored into Hamlet’s actions during the rest of the play. He is very much driven by the purpose of achieving the appropriate religious standings for himself, his father, and Claudius.
As the main and title character of the play, Hamlet is the best example of how the concepts of religion, morality, and afterlife drive the actions of the characters in the drama. Yet the supporting characters also provide strong evidence for this phenomenon, which is particularly relevant to the themes of murder and suicide that pervade Hamlet. From soliloquies to funerals to stabbings, the play pulses with moral dilemmas and characters attempting to reconcile religious doctrine with instinctual emotion. Hamlet, in all its complexity and tragedy, is at once an exhortation to act morally and an exploration of the havoc that moral uncertainty can wreak.
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