The Moral Question in Hamlet

Hamlet (2)

Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character have always attracted the attention of critics with a strongly moral bent.  This is inevitable.  The play deals with crime and punishment, with complex questions of right and wrong, moral decisions, and questions of conscience.  Critics and readers must respond accordingly.  Confining our attention to Hamlet himself, it must be said that a good deal of what he does, says and thinks throughout the play is open to discussion on moral grounds, and one’s verdict on his character must depend to a large extent on one’s judgement of his moral stature.  The following are some of the main points at issue:

  • Does Hamlet take the Ghost’s command to revenge as a moral duty, and if he does, is he right to do so? If he does, does the play as a whole insist that we approve of his attitude?  As one might expect, there has been a wide range of answers to these questions.  Some critics accept without hesitation that the revenge-ethic is the one that governs the play, that Hamlet accepts it, that he has a duty to do as the Ghost asks, that he is an agent of justice as well as a revenger.  Against this, we have the view that a ghost which calls for revenge must be a morally ambivalent spirit, that Hamlet, in accepting the command, is yielding to temptation and that the Ghost is an evil spirit.
  • On the whole, one must take it that Shakespeare, for the purposes of this play, accepts the revenge ethic – even if it is contrary to Christian teaching.  The argument for this seems unanswerable.  Hamlet himself is in no doubt about the question, whatever doubts he may entertain about his uncle’s guilt or the Ghost’s ‘honesty’.  The overall tone of the play persuades us to admire Hamlet and to identify with his concerns, and, by implication, with his acceptance as a duty of the task of vengeance.  To argue otherwise would be to see a massive irony in the ending, and in Horatio’s parting tribute (‘Flights of angels, sing thee to thy rest’) – something few readers or spectators would find acceptable.
  • Shakespeare places Hamlet in some morally dubious situations, causes him to perform some morally questionable acts, and express morally questionable sentiments. The most obvious example is the Prayer Scene.  Here he spares Claudius at prayer because he thinks that if he kills him his victim will go to heaven, and this would not be an ideal form of revenge, since Claudius killed Old Hamlet when the latter was spiritually unprepared for death.  so, Hamlet declares, he must wait for an opportunity to take the kind of revenge he assumes his father would have wanted, to catch Claudius in the midst of sin:

about some act

                                    That has no relish of salvation in it

                                    Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven

                                    And that his soul may be as damned and black

                                    As hell, whereto it goes …..  III, iii, 90.

No matter how this passage is interpreted, the effect is shocking.  Johnson declared it ‘too horrible to be read or uttered’.  Patrick Cruttwell has an interesting comment:  ‘The irony is that Hamlet is here behaving as he does because he is a Christian, convinced, as most believers then were, of the vital importance of dying well.  The pagan revenger could have taken his revenge then and there – the only vengeance available to a pagan, the bringing to an end of bodily life’ (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, p. 121).  When Cruttwell says that ‘Hamlet is behaving as he does because he is a Christian’, he means Hamlet believes in the Christian doctrine appropriate to the subject.  The attitude expressed by Hamlet is not the Christian one.  The course he rejects is, presumably, the only one open to a ‘Christian’ avenger: ‘To take him in the purging of his soul / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage’ (III, iii, 85).

  • Hamlet’s dealings with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have provoked some impassioned moral responses. L.C. Knights writes about ‘the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’.  The two are bearing a packet containing sealed orders for Hamlet’s execution in England (‘No leisure bated….my head should be struck off’).  He alters the commission.  The English king is to put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ‘to sudden death / No shriving time allowed’.  In defence of Hamlet’s proceedings here, it might be argued that it is a question of his survival or theirs.  But there is another consideration.  There is a sense in which Hamlet is at war, and Shakespeare conveys this sense by the use of military imagery in relation to the practices of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer

Hoist with his own petard …. III, iv, 206.


their defeat

                                    Does by their own insinuation grow:

                                    ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

                                    Between the pass and fell incensed points

                                    Of mighty opposites…. V, ii, 59.

  • The killing of Polonius in mistake for Claudius is another episode that has attracted much unfavourable moral comment. His dismissal of the dead man as ‘thou wretched, rash, intruding fool’ may be reasonably accurate by way of general description of his role, but is scarcely appropriate in the circumstances of the moment.  A later comment serves to redeem some of Hamlet’s reputation: ‘For this same Lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this and this with me / That I must be their scourge and minister’.  Here Hamlet is thinking of the retribution (his death) that must inevitably follow for him as a result of what he has done.  But he soon dissipates whatever moral sympathy he has gained when he flippantly dismisses the corpse of Polonius: ‘Not where he eats but where he is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him….if indeed, you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby’ (IV, iv, 34).  It is not enough in the way of a defence of Hamlet’s conduct in this affair to suggest that he has killed Polonius in a blaze of mindless fury; his subsequent comments surely undermine such a defence.
  • One of the most interesting topics arising from Hamlet’s behaviour and attitudes through the play may be presented in the form of a question: Is the Hamlet we encounter in Act V a different character, morally and spiritually, from the one we have known in the earlier acts? Most of those who have dealt with this question have given affirmative answers, and many have argued that the Hamlet who returns from the sea-voyage shows a new spiritual awareness, a faith in the benevolent workings of Providence that was not evident before.  This faith in Providence is usually seen as the principal mark of his regeneration.  One critic, Roy Walker, finds the sea voyage ‘symbolical of a spiritual journey’, rather like Yeats’ in Sailing to Byzantium.  Another, G. W. Knight, suggests that ‘Hamlet’s sea adventures may be allowed (though the text itself gives no explicit warrant for it) to serve vaguely some symbolic purpose: certainly he comes back a subtly changed man’.

There is some strong evidence in favour of the general proposition that the sea-voyage does mark a significant change (a sea-change?!) in Hamlet’s attitudes.  He has, he believes, escaped the death that awaited him in England partly through his own ingenuity, but also through a series of near-miraculous accidents.  He has the sense that Heaven has preserved him, and that without Providential intervention his own plans would have availed him little.  One of the crucial textual supports for the notion of a ‘regenerated’ hamlet is his affirmation to Horatio:


                              And praised be rashness for it let us know,

                              Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

                              When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us

                              There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

                              Rough-hew them how we will….. V, ii, 6.

There is also a new attitude to the revenger’s role after his return from the voyage, which is expressed in his question to Horatio about Claudius:

  is’t not perfect conscience

                               To quit him with this arm?  And is’t not to be damned

                              To let this canker of our nature come

                            In further evil? …….V, ii, 67.

Here he seems to be thinking of his task not as an act of private vengeance, but of public duty, to be undertaken for the benefit of society.

The most celebrated passage bearing on Hamlet’s ‘regeneration’ is the one in which he replies to Horatio’s suggestion that it might be best to postpone the duel:

‘Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now , yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be’  (V, ii, 216).

This is generally taken to signify Hamlet’s newly-found faith in a higher power, a faith which gives him strength to face the forthcoming trial.  There is a note of passive acceptance in the passage, as if Hamlet felt himself an instrument in the hands of providence.  This submission takes the place of the earlier ‘bloody thoughts’ associated with revenge.  The evil represented by Claudius, which has intensifies since the beginning of the action, will, Hamlet senses, be dealt with by Providence, but with himself as the instrument.  He has already indicated to Horatio his sense that Providence is working in his favour.  Asked how he could alter the documents giving warrant for his death, he tells Horatio:

What even in that was heaven ordinant

                               I had my father’s signet in my purse…..V, ii, 49.

After the frantic outburst at Ophelia’s grave, we no longer find him trying to work up his feelings against Claudius, or planning schemes of revenge.  There is as calm assurance in his acceptance of the King’s invitation to fence with Laertes: ‘I am constant to my purposes; they follow the King’s pleasure; if his fitness speaks, mine is ready now – or whensoever, provided I be so able as now’ (V, ii, 197).  It is, perhaps, idle to speculate about the reasons behind this new attitude.  Even in the Closet Scene, he has shown a certain momentary tenderness towards his mother (‘And when you are desirous to be blest / I’ll blessing beg of you’).  It may be that after he has relieved his mind of his horror at Gertrude’s act, a healing process is set in motion which causes the striking changes in attitude we see as the end approaches.

What seems beyond doubt is that in the last Act, Hamlet’s attitude to his mission conforms much more closely to the Christian moral code than it did at the beginning, and that he moves to the completion of his task as a ‘justicer’ rather than a revenger.  The impression is intensified by the fact that, with the passage of time, his uncle’s greater commitment to evil practices make his eventual execution look as much like the fulfilment of a public duty as an act of private vengeance.  Peter Ure has a useful comment:

‘If Hamlet does not commit himself but is committed, however freely he submits, it can be said that he is less the revenger, that he is able to achieve the act of revenge without ever really becoming a revenger, that the larger perspective frees his inward self from the role: because all does not now depend on him, and because the end can be accomplished without his being in the mood for it, the identification of the self with the revenger, the coalescence of the two, is no longer enjoined upon him’ (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, 5, 1963, p. 28).

If all these considerations are valid, we shall not find Hamlet’s departure from the world as a Christian hero incongruous.

Works Cited

Crutwell, Patrick, in  Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, 1963, p. 121

Ure, Peter, in Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, 1963, p. 28.

Knight, G.W., The Wheel of Fire, London: Routledge, 2001.

Knights, L.C., in Shakespeare Survey, Volume 20: Shakespearian and Other Tragedy. ed. Kenneth Muir. Cambridge University Press, 1967.