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Revenge as a Matter of Honor

There is a certain tendency in Shakespeare’s tragedies to deal with the problem of revenge. The problem is approached in various tragedies from different angles. Discussing Hamlet we can regard it as a play in which Shakespeare examines the problem of revenge in the abstract, he discloses the weak points of the code which demanded the revenge and at the same time shows the moral torments experience by Hamlet before arriving to final decision. As a result the Prince is seen as a man torn between two moralities, rejecting the deed which he has not the strength to renounce.

In the period of Shakespeare the honor code and noble behavior were the highest values. Against such background Shakespeare created a character that has no wish but to behave as honor demands, and who despises himself for the hesitation forced on him by his inability to accept the risk of damnation. In treating the problem of revenge in Hamlet the most complex question is: what is the reason for the Prince’s delay in revenging his father’s murder Throughout the play Hamlet is hesitating and in his last monologue he treats the problem of gaining honor. Sloth in revenging his father’s death puts his honor under doubt.

The failure to fulfill revenge would utterly destroy his honor. It is obvious that for Hamlet revenge is a part of moral law, to fail to revenge father’s murder is equal to showing irreverence to God or treachery to king or any other disrespect to the natural obligations or bonds of blood. The revenge in form of duel was the most common and in fact the duel between Hamlet and Laertes would be taken as an example of how to reconcile the demands of honor with public order. Observing the inner struggle of Hamlet we still cannot recognize a clear condemnation of revenge or vice versa the normal attitude to nobility and honor.

As Wilson Knight observes “Hamlet is a dualized personality, wavering, oscillating between grace and the hell of cynicism. ” (45) There is no answer to the question what is nobler to avenge or to suffer instead of fighting. Hamlet does not express overt statement that revenge is unworthy of a noble nature. His ideals are traditionally those of the nobleman. However, there is an opinion that he does not avenge his father’s death, not because he dare not, not because he hates the thought of bloodshed, but because his ‘wit’s diseased’ (III. ii. 341); “his will is snapped and useless, like a broken leg.

” (Knight, 25) It is the Ghost who stimulates Hamlet to fulfill his duty. After meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet still remains uncertain as for Ghost’s true nature. Shakespeare presents his Ghost with great ambiguity that complicates the way to the solution of Hamlet’s dilemma. As if to emphasize the ambiguity about the his provenance, Ghost orders Hamlet to “Swear” that he will revenge him, from that hell-like “cellarage” under the stage (I, v, 163). True, revenge keeps slipping from Hamlet’s mind, in favor of remembering. GHOST: Remember me HAMLET: … Remember thee?

Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records … And thy commandment all alone shall live…. (I, v, 91, 97-99, 102) Hamlet comes to despise himself for forgetting; but when the play begins it is his mother’s oblivion which gives bitterness to the sense of outrage which permeates the first soliloquy. Thus, another facet of the problem of honor perseverance through revenge is Hamlet’s reaction to Gertrude’s incest which contains certain personal violence, for Hamlet himself feels ashamed; he believes that honor loses its luster in his mother’s sin.

Her sinful deed to some extent accounts for the melancholy in which we find Hamlet as the play opens. Gertrude’s second quasi marriage evokes detestation and mockery. Hamlet’s reaction to his mother’s incest is adequate. His contempt and disillusionment are normal moreover that she had heightened her fault by the speed with which she rushed into “incestuous sheets. ” (I, ii,153) But revenge slips to the margin of the Ghost’s concerns when he visits his adulterous wife’s chamber. He tells their son to leave her to her own conscience: Do not forget. This visitation

Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. But look, amazement on thy mother sits. O step between her and her fighting soul. (III, iv, 110-13) This is not the only occasion on which the Ghost urges restraint in punishing Hamlet’s wife. But howsomever thou pursuest this act, Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven…. (I, v, 84-86) Thus throughout the whole play neither Hamlet nor any other character ever challenges the legitimacy of the revenge. They only question, for a time, the veracity of the Ghost ordering it.

Hence John Bayley says: “… the duty of revenge removes from Hamlet’s consciousness any question of dilemma or soul-searching. He does not have to concentrate; his mind floats freely and takes on the color of new occurrences … Conscience and its activities are a distraction and a relief from duty. ” This is “… the paradoxical freedom of consciousness, when confined by an unquestioned duty…. ” (Bayley, 172) The question of the Ghost’s provenance temporarily distracts Hamlet from the idea of revenge. And when the Prince’s revenge on Claudius does finally come, it is quite unplanned.

It is the impulsive result of accident and rage. At the end of the play the fate steps in and forces Hamlet to perform assassination he has been, by reason of his inner disintegration, unable to perform. To gain better understanding of Shakespeare writing mastery and catch the implied sense, hidden in various stylistic devices, we performed close readings of two passages. Let us consider Claudius’s opening speech in scene II with which he address those present in the room in the castle. The speech is characterized by pompous tone.

Here Claudius is using the royal first person plural; but as the speech develops the distinction between the royal we and we meaning ‘we Danes’ is deliberately blurred, thus giving the impression that his actions have received general approval. Discussing the literary devices it is necessary note how consistent he is in his use of the “royal first-person plural” Claudius as the new ruler is trying to sound regal: Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The memory be green, and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe,

Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature That we with wisest sorrow think on him Together with remembrance of ourselves. (I. ii. 1-7) Within these seven lines we can distinguish a number of figures common in courtly diction. These words are meant for a pleasing and constructed on the play of sound and sense. For instance, we notice at the beginning of lines 3 and 4 the repetition of sounds: “To bear. . . / To be. . . ” This figure is called anaphora, or “carrying over. ” There are two striking metaphors, examples of catachresis: “The memory be green,” and “our whole kingdom /.

. . contracted in one brow of woe. ” The first treats Hamlet shows in his response — Claudius and his mother request him to stay at court and not return to Wittenberg — that he is in complete control of the rhetorical art. Gertrude has asked of his grief, “Why seems it so particular with thee? ” Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems. ” ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I. ii. 76-86) The tone of these lines is that of indignant person who tries to express his grieve and explain the state of soul. Like Claudius Hamlet employs anaphora stretching over four lines: “Nor. . . / Nor. . . / No. . . / Nor. ” Also personification and catachresis are evident: tears are the “river of the eye,” and it is, like a tree, “fruitful.

” He adds asyndeton, the joining of a series without conjunctions: “forms, moods, shapes. ” Finally there is a developed metaphor in the last three lines: “actions a man might play /. . . show /. . . trappings. ” Hamlet compares his grief to a play acted out on stage in costume; this introduces one of the most consistent allusions in the play, which is to the relation between theatre and reality. It precisely explains Hamlet’s philosophical and psychological point, the difference between illusion (“seems”) and reality. We can compare Hamlet’s concision with Claudius’s expansiveness.

Indeed this whole scene is drawn up like an agon, a contest, between Claudius and Hamlet: they are enemies, antagonists, in competition for the throne and the love of Gertrude, and Shakespeare first presents them to us in a rhetorical agon with the audience of the court, wherein they display their skills of both reason and expression.

Works Cited List

Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981 Knight, Wilson G. The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2001 Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Editor G. R. Hibbard Oxford: Oxford University, 199

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