“This above all, to thine own self be true” (Act I scene 3 line 78) as expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a philosophical idea that strips away moral standards, accountability, and that selflessness is evidence of true love, as taught by
Jesus Christ. Professor Sir Walter Murdoch writes in The Policy of
Polonius, “As a matter of fact, of course, the lines are nonsense, and Shakespeare
was well aware that they are nonsense; he puts them in the mouth of a garrulous
old gentleman who spends most of his time talking nonsense” *http://home.pacific.net.au/~morrisqc/Murdoch/Polonius.htm*. The characters of Hamlet and Laertes live by this faulty philosophy and form defective character traits that ultimately lead them to death. The same can be said for Alfred in O’Neill’s Before Breakfast, he follows a different path using the same philosophical ideals and ultimately ends up serving the same self centered desire. The assertion that somehow this philosophy can become stable with a sound individual falls short because it is without objective measurable standard. Left to our own self to decide what is good will always lead to a pantheistic view; one without hope, self-serving and motivated to satisfy any desire that we think is correct. Successful living depends on an established guide of moral standards, accountability, and selflessness.
Hamlet, Laertes, and Alfred have set their hearts and minds to do just as they please without regard how their actions affect others and without regard to moral standards. Hamlet and Laertes have settled in their own mind that the way to find peace is through the death of the person that murdered their fathers. T.S. Eliot acknowledges in, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, “In
the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet
in action… The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding
its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known” *http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw9.html*. When Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius he waits because he wants, “… his soul [to] be as dammed and black as hell” (Act III Scene 4 Line 95). This demonstrates that he intends to murder the King and reveals his desire to get personal satisfaction during the murder. Hamlet illustrates that murder is an acceptable and moral action when he is being true to himself. Laertes sets his heart on a similar task, to kill Hamlet when he declares, “But my revenge will come” (Act IV Scene 7 Line 29). This type of behavior is portrayed as normal in Hamlet and Laertes is matter of fact of his intentions. The idea of killing another human is apparently acceptable when not being held to an objective moral standard. Alfred, on the other hand, has had an affair as his wife confronts him when she says’ “But I’m not the only one who’s got you to thank for being unhappy. There’s one other, at least, she can’t hope to marry you now. How about Helen?” (14). This evidently made Alfred angry. His anger is not because he had an affair; rather, it is motivated because he is guilty and his wife will make it impossible for him to pursue his lustful affair. Alfred’s decision to step outside his commitment to his wife and have sexual intercourse with another woman is immoral by any standard. The tone is already set to sympathize with Alfred because his wife is portrayed as a compulsive nag. O’Neill thrusts the idea “If it feels right, do it” with the ever building empathy for Alfred. The complete lack of moral standards brings all three characters into crisis and is easily justifiable when looking at their situations without any objective measurable standard. However, Jesus Chris taught “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” Matt 15:19-20 (KJV). If these men would have had a standard to measure against, they could have changed direction, rather than lived by the maxim, “…to thine own self be true”.
Even with a moral standard, we still need to be accountable for our actions, because accountability provides motivation to adhere to standards, and to do what is right. Hamlet makes his desire to be free from accountability apparent when he says, “Never make known what you have seen tonight” (Act I Scene 5 Line 142). Hamlet forces the only people that know about his murderous intent to swear to secrecy by forcing them to take an oath on his sword. This allows him up to act completely autonomous. Without the necessary accountability, Hamlet is free to justify any idea that comes to mind, even the murder of the King. Laertes brings an additional twist when Claudius offers him the opportunity to kill Hamlet without fear of reprisal. Laertes responds, “I will do’t, and for the purpose, I’ll anoint my sword.” (Act IV Scene 7 Line 138 – 139). Laertes is deceived to think because the King has given him permission that he has accountability. Being accountable to the King makes Laertes a willing accomplice to murder, for accountability is not necessarily to another person but to a higher standard. All Laertes has accomplished is to find someone agrees to share his guilt. Alfred has a continuing clanging of his wife as a relentless reminder of his faults. Her accusing tone is loud and clear as she points out Alfred’s lack of ambition when she says, “We haven’t even got any way of telling time since you pawned your pocket watch like a fool. … anything to put off getting a job, anything to get out of going to work like a man.” (5). This form of accountability is without merit because it is not supporting Alfred’s goal of becoming a writer. It only makes Alfred feel guilty, angry, and misunderstood. Alfred and his wife suffer from creating standards independently and setting expectations without mutual consent or consistent frame of reference to measure success. Self-justification is common when evaluating one’s actions. It makes justice simple and accountability is only to one’s self. Sir Murdoch says it well when he states, “Why, Satan himself, the father of lies, adopts the policy of Polonius, and is truest to himself when he is at his most deceitful!” Being true to your self can be far from truth, and when there is no objective measurable standard there is no accountability.
Only being true to yourself leads to self-absorption and a disregard for others. Hamlet and Ophelia are in love as evidenced by Ophelia’s statement to her father “And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven.” (Act I Scene 3 Line 114). After Hamlet conceives in his heart to murder his Uncle, the King, he sacrifices his relationship to commit murder by telling Ophelia, “I loved you not” (Act III Scene 1 Line 118). Peter J. Leithart states in The Serpent Now Wears the Crown: A Typological Reading of Hamlet, “Hamlet is the most prominent vengeful
son, but in the course of working out his vengeance, he inadvertently kills
Polonius. As if that were not enough, he rejects Ophelia,
sending her into a pitiful emotional spiral that eventually leads to her death.” *http://www.visi.com/~contra_m//cm/features/cm11_hamlet.html*. Hamlet proves his selfishness by sacrificing Ophelia and love for murder. Laertes displays selfishness in death. As the certainty of his death approaches, he begs forgiveness, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet, mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, nor thine on me”. (Act V Scene 2 Line 312-313). He is only willing to offer forgiveness in barter with Hamlet to escape hell. The motive reveals the true nature of Laertes and the condition of his heart. On the other hand, Alfred displays the his self-centeredness after his wife states, “What did she expect, then? That I’ll divorce you and let her marry you? Does she think I’m crazy enough for that – after all you’ve made me go through?” (28). Then Alfred cuts his own throat and commits suicide. This is the ultimate act of selfishness. Taking one’s own life displays the logical conclusion “to thine own self be true”. Jesus teaches ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 KJV). This teaches it is not only setting aside your physical life, it is also includes setting personal security aside for the good of another. This requires stepping outside being true to self to be willing to see life through the eyes of another.
Hamlet, Laertes, and Alfred left to their own self to decide what is good. This took them down a path without hope, self-serving and motivated to satisfy only themselves. Their failure is because they did not establish moral standards, accountability, or selflessness. The worldview that self is to be satisfied brings with it destruction of society, culture, and worst of all the soul. Throughout the centuries, the philosophy behind “to thine own self be true” is advertised as the way to bring success, happiness, and contentment. It looks good on the surface but lacks the ability to change life. Jesus said it best when he declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6 NKJ). This leaves no guesswork as to the author of truth or how to find happiness and contentment. “Hamlet thus presents a negative typology of redemption. Denmark is a fallen world, needing to be set right. Instead of showing us the redeemer, however, Shakespeare shows us the folly and danger of man’s efforts at self-redemption and especially redemption through violence. Time out of joint is not, in short, set right by the wrath of men. The vengeful do not prosper. The crown usurped by the serpent is finally worn by one who rejected revenge. The meek inherit the land” (Leithart). To thine own self be true? I think not. Be true to God and His commandments, His judgment, and the philosophy that I must lay down my life if I want to find it. Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25 NKJ).
Leithart, Peter J. “The Serpent Now Wears the Crown: A Typological Reading of Hamlet.” Contra Mundum No. 11 Home Page 19 Nov. 2000
Murdoch, Walter. “The Policy of Polonius”. The Shakespeare Essays. Home Page
19 Nov. 2000 .