The Nature of Evil in William Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Society has been preoccupied by the concept of good and evil since the emergence of civilization and, just as humankind has evolved over time, so has the definition of evil. Evil was first used to describe someone who placed themselves above others and it wasn't until the Old and Middle English period that evil became associated with wrong-doing. As time passed, the definition continued to become increasingly more specific until it reached its modern day definition: “extreme moral wickedness.” (www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=evil) However, what one ultimately defines as evil depends on one's personal experiences, frame of reference, and culture. For instance, during World War II, the Americans believed that dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was an act of good as it ended conflict with the Japanese. On the other hand, the Japanese viewed it as an act of evil as the bombings resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. This proves that good and evil cannot always be seen as simply black or white, but also as shades of grey making it difficult to label characters in various literary works, especially those of William Shakespeare. The ambiguity of evil in William Shakespeare's Hamlet forces spectators to interpret each character's thoughts, actions, and personality in order to place them properly on the gradient of evil. Regardless of one's personal idea of evil, Claudius can be seen as a villain from many standpoints. He constantly performs actions with malicious intent and expresses true love only for himself. The first and most important act that Claudius commits is the murder of his own brother, which he does to obtain the crown of Denmark, as described by King Hamlet's ghost: Now, Hamlet, hear.

'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me – so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus'd – but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
(I.v.34-40)

The ghost's speech shows the true nature of Claudius' evil as he allows himself to kill his own brother. However, this is not to say that Claudius does not understand the nature of his sins. Following 'The Murder of Gonzago', a test of his conscience set up by Hamlet, Claudius feels overwhelmed with guilt and self disgust; he attempts to repent for his sins and expresses that he realizes the magnitude of what he has done: O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon't–
A brother's murder.
(III.iii.37-39)

This is the first and only time that the readers or spectators see Claudius acting as a normal human being and showing or recognizing his emotions. This is very important as many people believe that repentance leads to mercy. However, Claudius finds himself unable to properly do so as he comes to realize that he does not feel remorse for what he has done since he continues to reap the rewards of his deed: Pray can I not,

Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent...
My fault is past – but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder?'
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder–
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
...My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(III.iii.36-40, 51-55, 97-98)

If Claudius had successfully repented for his sins, he would no longer be labelled as an evil character. He is, however, unable to do so. Despite Claudius' callousness, the fact that he even attempts to repent is honourable. However, by continuing to manipulate, destroy, and murder he voids any chance of forgiveness. He uses his “son” as a scapegoat by focusing all of the negative attention on him and thus avoids negative attention himself, marries his brother's widow, turns Hamlet's childhood friends against him, and ultimately causes the deaths of all the main characters in...
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