In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is faced with emotional and physical hardship. The suffering that he endures causes his character to develop certain idiosyncrasies. Morality has a significant importance to Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet possesses a strong sense of morality. A sense that is stronger than all other characters. Hamlet’s actions and feelings are controlled by his morality. His morality grows weaker as the play progresses. Hamlet’s opinions toward the characters within the play are determined by his moral standpoint. As the play goes on, Hamlet’s tendency of thinking too much causes him to become mad. Hamlet’s focal problem is his madness.
As the play progresses, Hamlet’s moral perspective on life begins to alter. The first change in his morality occurred following Hamlet’s first visit from the ghost. Hamlet is told by the ghost to avenge his father’s murder. If Hamlet’s morality was as strong as it was in the beginning of the play, he would have immediately opposed the ghost. However, he did not oppose the thought of murdering his father’s murderer. Hamlet will have a continuous struggle whether to carry out the ghost’s deed or to act morally throughout the play. If, throughout, Hamlet is prevented from enacting his revenge by the discomforting ratios that his literary imitations generate, he is equally prevented from repudiating his revenge by his inability to emancipate himself from his father, to be other than an imitation of what has generated him(Kastan 204).
Toward the end of the play, Hamlet has abandoned the strong sense of morality that he once possessed. He no longer debated the morality of his every action. His true thoughts now controlled his actions. Hamlet’s action following his mother’s death is a strong example of his true feelings. After stabbing Claudius, Hamlet forces him to drink from the poisoned wine saying, “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dame, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother(The king dies.)”(5.2 327-329).
Hamlet does not only value his own morality, but also the morality of others. Besides worrying about his own morality, his mother’s morality has much significance to him. As Robert Luyster states, “Hamlet would have Gertrude, like himself, become purified, but this can only be done through the acceding to consciousness’ claim to be hard”(Luyster 77). Hamlet contemplates his every action. This problem eventually overwhelms him while also causing his madness. The depth of his thought concerning the murder of Claudius following Hamlet’s play reveals his madness. “Reason and action are not opposed in Hamlet, but for most of the play, they fail to coalesce as either we or the characters would like them to” (Kastan 48).
Throughout the play, Hamlet questions his every action. Elliot writes, “Claudius, to be sure, according to the Ghost’s story, has obtained the throne by killing a king. But that is a main motive for Hamlet’s not doing likewise; the ways of his uncle are precisely those that the prince is most reluctant to follow”( Elliot 27). Hamlet does not want to obtain the throne the same way in which Claudius has, through murder. Hamlet even thinks about Claudius’s life after death. An example of his thought is in Act III, Scene III, line 73. Hamlet says, “Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is praying; And now I’ll do ‘t. (He draws his sword.) And so ‘a goes to heaven. And so I am revenged. That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven(III, III, 73-78).” He says here that he has his chance to kill his father’s murderer but he is praying. By killing him while he is praying, his soul goes to heaven. If he murdered him at that time, it would not be revenge. Any other person would have murdered him at that point. However, Hamlet’s obsession with thinking it through stopped him. Hamlet possesses little or no morality at this time. He is no longer thinking of his own soul, but the future of someone else. For this reason, he refuses to kill the king when he is at his prayers, and by a refinement in malice, which is in truth only an excuse for his own want of resolution, defers his revenge to a more fatal opportunity, when he shall be engaged in some act ‘that has no relish of salvation in it(Hazlit 17).
In time, Hamlet developed another problem. His excessive thinking and paranoia caused him to gradually become mad. His excessive thinking may have originally occurred because of his intelligence. As Lidz says, “He is not the type of Renaissance hero whose life can be guided by the need for vengeance or power. He has been schooled in contemplation. If he is to act, as he has sworn to the ghost he will, he must become impetuous” (Lidz 66). Hamlet was faced with continuous plans against other characters. Hamlet’s thoughts may have possibly been one of the reasons for his madness.
Hamlet first realizes his madness following the meeting with the ghost. According to Blackmore, As soon as he had recovered from the terrible and overpowering agitation of mind and feelings with which the ghostly revelation had afflicted him, he realized that he himself had changed, and that he could no longer comport himself as before at the court of Claudius (Blackmore56). Since Hamlet’s madness controls his thoughts, Hamlet is often suspicious. Hamlet questions everyone and everything. He questions the reality of the ghost. He questions Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, and Polonius. Hamlet becomes suspicious of both Ophelia and her father, Polonius. He questions the presence of her father, but she denies it. However, Polonius is present. Hamlet now acts in a mad manor. This may be his true mad self, or it may be an act in order to deceive Polonius. When a man gives at different times a different reason for his conduct, it is safe to infer that, whether consciously or not, he is concealing the true reason (Jones 242).
Hamlet’s desire to keep the first occurrence with the ghost a secret was an early sign of his madness. The agreement that they made meant a great deal to Hamlet. Hamlet’s madness appears during a meeting between Hamlet and his mother. During the meeting, Polonius is secretly hiding behind the drapery. Hamlet unexpectedly kills Polonius. At this point, Hamlet’s madness controls him. Hamlet has not totally lost his morals. However, his madness overcame his morality. If this event were to happen earlier in the play, Hamlet would have acted extremely different. But what in common parlance is madness synonymous with a sudden outburst of anger, in which self-control is lost for the moment. Such was the madness of Hamlet, when in sudden anger he slew Polonius, and again, when at Ophelia’s grave, his mighty grief was roused to wrathful expression by the unseemly and exaggerated show of Laertes (Blackmore 60).
Hamlet’s madness only existed when he was in the presence of certain characters. His madness was only seen around Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. An example of this would be during a conversation between Hamlet and Polonius. Polonius asks, ” Do you know me my lord (II,II,173)?” Hamlet replies, “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger (II,II,174).” Hamlet pretends not to know who Polonius is, even though he is Ophelia’s father. When Hamlet is around Horatio, Francisco, and the Gravediggers, he behaves in a sane manor. During one part of the play, Hamlet tells Horatio that he will be acting mad and that he cannot say anything about it. Hamlet may be acting as a mad man or is trying to hide his true madness.
The second occurrence of the ghost between Hamlet and the Queen is a definite sign of Hamlet’s madness. The queen makes a comment on Hamlet’s madness. “This is the very coinage of your brain. This bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in”(III,IV,143).
Hamlet’s morality and conscience had originally controlled him. However, he was faced with several problems that led to his tragic flaw, the madness. His amazing intelligence gradually resulted in his dilemma of thinking too much. As he thought through every move he made, he gradually became mad. As he became mad, he lost his morality. His madness caused him to carry out actions that he would not have done in his right mind. Hamlet murdered himself. The character of Hamlet significantly altered as the play progressed. Hamlet’s problems killed him emotionally while Laertes killed him
Elliott, G. R.. Scourge and Minister. New York, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965. Hazlitt, William.”Character’s of Shakespeare” Hamlet. Ed by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Norton, 1949. Kastan, David Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s” Hamlet. New York: G.K. Hall, 1995. Chapter: “Hamlet and Our Problems”
Kastan, David Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. New York: G.K. Hall, 1995. Chapter: “Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge”