Sunday, 18 December 2011

Hamlet's weakness is his conscience- it is that which prevents his taking revenge

This supposition of course turns on the meaning of the word "conscience," particularly in the famous phrase "thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." Some have argued that it means "consciousness", or as Hamlet himself puts it "thinking too precisely on the event" and others that it has more or less its modern force. However to me it matters not: the "To be or not to be" speech is a metaphysical musing on the nature of human existence and cannot be taken as Hamlet's assessment of his own state of mind. Throughout he refers to "we", "us" and "he," never to "I" or "me."

The other source of this misconception is a careless misreading of Act 3 scene 3 that attributes Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius while he is praying to a crisis of conscience. This is patently absurd- Hamlet does not kill Claudius then because he believes him to have confessed his sins so that if killed he would go straight to heaven. This is not Hamlet holding back from a violent, murderous act because it would be morally wrong but the opposite- he does not kill because the act would not be violent or murderous enough. He wants instead to kill him in a state of sin so that "his soul may be as damn'd and black/As hell, whereto it goes." Absurd as this reading is though, I have seen it in the scene summary of that scholarly edition of the play, the Arden Shakespeare.

Over the rest of the play it is actually remarkable how little Hamlet is troubled by his conscience. I would argue that the degree with which we are brought to identify with Hamlet is actually quite disturbing given his cold-hearted ruthlessness in regards to the deaths of others who have done him little wrong. To summarise, as well as Claudius (whom he eventually kills without ceremony but with an unpleasant pun about his marriage and the poisoned pearl) Hamlet kills Polonius and Laertes, drives Ophelia to suicide and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England. What is remarkable about all of these deaths is Hamlet's apparent complete lack of remorse about them.

Polonius is an interfering, scheming, devious old fool but he clearly cares about his children. Hamlet kills him in Act 3 scene 4 for no discernible reason at all. He hears a voice from behind the curtain and immediately draws his sword and stabs whoever it might be. On finding out it is the father of his loved one whom he has killed in cold blood he calls him a "wretched, rash, intruding fool" and after a mere three lines, where he effectively blames Polonius because "Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger." resumes his argument with his mother. Later, in Act 4 scene 3 he makes a series of unpleasant jokes to Claudius about the dead body, concluding "But indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby."

Ophelia is alleged to be Hamlet's love, and the overt sexuality of his conversation with her in Act 3 scene 2 would suggest an intimate relationship ("I mean, my head upon your lap?" "Do you think I meant country matters?" "That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs." "It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge."). However Hamlet behaves towards her with intolerable cruelty that leads to her madness and suicide. When he hears (in Act 5 scene 1) that she is dead, he appears on the face of it to be mourning her, as he says "I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum." However it immediately becomes clear that he is actually motivated more by a desire to compete with Laertes- the competition culminating in an unseemly wrestling match in the grave, with Ophelia herself forgotten.

It could be argued that in killing Laertes Hamlet is simply defending himself and in killing Claudius he is avenging his father. However it is notable how little comment he makes on either death- even Macbeth appears more affected by the murders he commits than Hamlet is.

This coldness, which argues a lack rather than an excess of conscience, is clearest in the case of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These two are duplicitous, self-serving courtiers who use their relationship with Hamlet to curry favour with the King. However there is no suggestion that they were party to the plan to have him killed on his arrival in England- Claudius reveals that in Act 4 scene 3 after they have left the stage. Nevertheless, as he takes great delight in telling Horatio in Act 5 scene 2, when Hamlet discovers the plot, rather than simply escape he forges a new letter to the King of England to ensure that on arrival his two erstwhile friends will be "put to sudden death,/ No shriving-time allow'd." This a brutal punishment- "shriving" means confessing and, as he makes clear in Act 3 scene 3, Hamlet strongly believes that this will mean that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will got to Hell for all eternity. For Hamlet though, it is an occasion for light hearted humour in his account to Horatio.

So far from an excess of conscience, Hamlet in fact shows very little evidence of possessing a conscience at all. It is actually remarkable how Shakespeare draws us in, so that we overlook this and see poor Hamlet as a sensitive, tortured soul, weighed down with moral dilemmas.

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