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The author Izaak Walton noted, “The person that loses their conscience has nothing left worth keeping.” The characters in Hamlet constantly struggle with the power of their consciences, as they are tempted to satiate their innermost desires. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is the epitome of the power of conscience in the play. Although at first he is ruled by his conscience, he only begins to carry out his father’s will as he alienates himself from his sense of morality. However, the other characters in Hamlet also feel the power of conscience as they consider actions they are about to perform and as they reflect upon their past deeds. Shakespeare utilizes the struggle between morality and immorality to create characters with real depth and with whom the audience can connect. The presence and duality of conscience in Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrates the depth of Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet.
The depth of Laertes is evident in his struggle with his conscience on his quest to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius. When Laertes learns of his father’s murder, he return from France enraged. He seeks immediate vengeance and cries, “Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!” (4.5.131) Clearly, Laertes is willing to ignore his conscience and “dare damnation” (4.5.132) to satisfy his own sense of justice. Laertes is also willing to commit the foulest deeds imaginable to obtain vengeance. When asked by Claudius how far he is willing to go, Laertes exclaims he would “cut his [Hamlet’s] throat i’ th’ church!” (4.7.124) Laertes is prepared to slay Hamlet in cold blood within the holiest of places, the Church. However, when Laertes duels Hamlet he begins to feel guilty about carrying out Claudius’ plan. In an aside Laertes reveals that he feels poisoning Hamlet “is almost against my conscience.” (5.2.274) Although he goes through with the plan, the presence of Laertes’ conscience adds depth to his character by displaying his inherent goodness. In the end, Laertes dies with a clean conscience as he asks Hamlet to “Exchange forgiveness with me [Laertes]” (5.2.307). By illustrating the duality of Laertes’ conscience, Shakespeare creates a three-dimensional character rather than a typical man seeking revenge.
Like Laertes, Claudius also struggles with his conscience and this conflict portrays him as a real character instead of as a standard villain. In contrast, however, Claudius is able to disregard his conscience entirely when he executes his plans. This ability is illustrated when he murders the King while he is asleep. As the ghost describes,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment (1.5.61-64)
Claudius’ complete lack of conscience described by the ghost immediately classifies him as a villain. However, when Claudius reflects upon his actions, he demonstrates the moral struggle he is experiencing. In a soliloquy, he reflects,
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word. (3.1.50-54)
Claudius knows his actions and lies are immoral and he buries this guilt deep within himself. Claudius uses his lies to deceive others, but in doing so, he feels that he is no better than a prostitute masking her venereal diseases with heavy makeup. In showing Claudius’ guilt, Shakespeare establishes him as a real person – not one who is entirely evil. The clearest illustration of Claudius’ struggle with his conscience comes when he attempts to pray. He cries,
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. (3.3.36-38)
Claudius realizes his sins are wrong and highly offensive to the ultimate judge of morality, Heaven. However, Claudius does not repent since he feels that he is unworthy of forgiveness as he still possesses “those effects for which I did the murder” (3.3.54). Clearly, the duality of Claudius’ immorality and feelings of guilt expand his character. When he is given opportunities to address the audience directly, Claudius demonstrates that he is not a simple villain. Instead, he is merely a person whose desires have swept aside the resistance of his conscience.
In contrast to Claudius, Hamlet’s struggles with his conscience are obvious and ultimately, a defining part of his character. After the ghost asks Hamlet to seek vengeance, Hamlet procrastinates as he considers the moral implications of killing another person. Irritated with his inaction he cries,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words (2.2.550-553)
Hamlet is frustrated with his inability to act without moral consideration. He considers himself a coward and devoid of passion for not completing his father’s quest immediately, and wants to stop analyzing the situation and act decisively. However, his conscience prevents him from satisfying these urges and in doing so, gives him tremendous depth as a hero. Furthermore, as a person obsessed with his own conscience, Hamlet realizes he can invoke a reaction from Claudius’ conscience to make certain that Claudius is the killer of his father. When he comes up with the play idea, he notes,
More relative than this: the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (2.2.571-572)
Hamlet wishes the use the power of conscience to ensure the ghost was telling him the truth. This exploitation of conscience illustrates Hamlet’s profound awareness. However, Hamlet also displays his immorality in the play. He completely ignores his conscience when he murders Polonius in a fit of rage. He simply comments, “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!” (3.4.32) Hamlet completely ignores the fact that he killed Polonius in cold blood, but instead, he attempts to justify the murder. At this point, Hamlet loses his moral perfection and part of the audience’s respect. In addition, he disregards his conscience when he sends his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their execution in England. He justifies to Horatio,
Why, man, they did make love to this employment.
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow. (5.2. 160-162)
Hamlet shows absolutely no remorse in sending his school friends to their deaths. He does not consider the morality of his actions and instead, he attempts to justify their execution. Most rational persons would agree that some punishment for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s betrayal is reasonable, but death seems too high a price. Once again, Hamlet’s judgment detracts from his initial moral perfection as he moves further away from the image of the ideal hero. His disintegrating morality prepares him for the ensuing killing he must do in order to avenge his father. The presence of a conscience and his moral duality set Hamlet apart from traditional heroes. Although he is a great man, he is obviously imperfect.
Clearly, the depth of character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is illustrated by the moral struggles of Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet. Each character has a differing duality of conscience. Laertes ignores his conscience until he is about to commit a morally unjustified act. In contrast, Claudius only demonstrates the power of his conscience after he commits his heinous crime.
However, Hamlet is the character with the greatest depth since his conscience is an intrinsic part of him. He begins the play with a perfect conscience, but he alienates himself from its clutches to fulfill his father’s quest. Essentially, the duality of conscience present in Hamlet mirrors those found in real life. Not many lie within the extremes of the moral spectrum. Instead, we constantly alternate between shades of grey.
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