Through a consideration of the conflict between familial duty and individual moral integrity, Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveals perennial issues of the human condition to audiences which transcend temporal bounds. Hamlet’s burden of fulfilling revenge is established from the onset with the appearance of the ghost and pervades throughout the play. However, this is juxtaposed to his entrenched Renaissance humanist temperament, characterised through the maintaining of moral integrity and questioning of his existential worth. Furthermore, the adherence to Christian doctrine, which fundamentally conflicts with his humanist character, becomes a significant consideration for Hamlet’s revenge quest. The resultant indecisiveness which emerges from the divergence between these internal and exterior influences conveys the universal value and compatibility of Hamlet to broader contexts. Gregory Doran’s 2009 film adaptation of the play further highlights the malleability of Hamlet into ecumenical contexts, reflecting its enduring worth.
The catalyst for Hamlet’s plight for revenge initiates with the appearance of his father’s ghost, providing the necessary justification for action. Its arrival offers Hamlet a medium to escape the ethical injustices occurring within his life; with his impulsive acceptance of the ghost’s existence an indictment of the severity of his moral dilemma. The sudden death of his father and incestuous remarriage of Gertrude have removed the sense of purpose and corrupted his understanding of moral integrity, whilst the commandment to seek revenge is welcomed as a means to re-establish such doctrines. Hamlet’s Senior’s murder and his mother’s carnality have produced emotional shocks whilst suggesting fundamental questions regarding the nature of human existence with which Hamlet is unable to cope. A.C. Bradley argues in Shakespearean Tragedy that Hamlet’s nature is blanketed by the melancholy ensuing from such occurrences, with this affliction inhibiting the fulfilment of his purpose. Furthermore, Hamlet’s character as a Renaissance humanist is juxtaposed to his immediate acceptance of the ghost and the duty entailed with its appearance, without significant considerations of its validity or existence. The high modality of his response to the ghost’s command in “And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain” (I.v.102) highlights the initial willingness of Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder.
Hamlet’s underlying questioning of events, of both the morality of executing the ghost’s commands, as well as the existential questioning which defines the humanist protagonist, is the primary deterrent against effective action. Contextually, humanism was a prevalent social philosophy in the Renaissance period, essentially replacing the orthodox Christian doctrine and the feudal system with secular individualism. Hamlet’s Renaissance preoccupation with the importance of individual identity contrast with his coexistent beliefs on Christian ethics, highlighting the paradoxical nature of his struggle for truth. As Hamlet begins to question the existence and nature of the ghost, the initial urgency to execute its commands is substituted by doubt. A questioning of the supernatural is inherent to his humanist character, thus the uncertainty that begins to pervade his thoughts leads to more internal conflict rather than action. Hamlet realises in the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy that the nature of the ghost may be contrary to his initial perceptions.
“The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil – and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape.” (II.ii.551)
However, thought acts only as an agent for procrastination; an excuse from a duty he is reluctant to carry out. Indecision can also be attributed to Hamlet’s problematic reconciliation of duty and instinct; as an intellect, he cannot completely embrace the sense of practical reason required of a revenger. The...
Bibliography: Bradley, A. C. 1905, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, 2nd edn, Macmillan, London
James, D. G. 1951, The Dream of Learning, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Kerrigan, J 1997, Revenge Tragedy, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Knight, G.W. and Elliot, T.S. 1949, The Wheel of Fire: interpretations of Shakespearian tragedy, 4th edn, Methuen & Co, London
Marsh, D. R. C. 1970, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sydney University Press, Sydney
Tam, J, The Raging Prince, viewed 18 July 2011, < http://jefftam.org/personal/essay1.htm>
The History Guide, 2010, Renaissance Humanism, viewed 17 July 2011,
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[ 8 ]. Knight, G.W. and Elliot, T.S. 1949, The wheel of fire: interpretations of Shakespearian tragedy, 4th edn, Methuen & Co, London
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