In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the concept of cultural identity is explored through Hamlet’s isolation which is created by the conflict between his duty to his father, and his duties to the monarchy and society. Hamlet is isolated from his society due to his turbulent emotions which result from his indecision on how to respond to his father’s murder. Hamlet’s duty as a son is to avenge his father’s death and he would be supported in his actions by society if the murderer was believed to be guilty. Hamlet’s duty as a citizen and a Prince is to protect the King and to ensure stability in the monarchy. In order for Hamlet to revenge his father he would have to kill the King which creates a conflict between his two primary duties. Because of this, Hamlet finds it difficult to decide how to proceed and which duty takes precedence, and Hamlet decides to gather evidence as proof of Claudius’ guilt so that his revenge is justified to society and to himself. The ‘unholiness’ of murdering a king who is also a close relative is highlighted by Claudius and this allows the audience to better understand the conflict and the indecision facing Hamlet.
Hamlet’s duty as a son, in his social context and circumstances, is one which encourages him to seek revenge for his murdered father. For Hamlet to be perceived as a noble and worthy son, he would have to kill his father’s murderer, and his actions would be supported by society as long as the murderer was believed to be guilty. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy after the encounter with the ghost early in the play, when the ghost tells him that he must seek revenge, Hamlet quickly acknowledges his duty as a son.
Hamlet: I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past…
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. (I.5.99-104)
Hamlet seems to decide with determination that he will “wipe away” all of his memories of “youth”, and all “past pressures” so that the ghost’s “commandment” to seek revenge would be his only focus, without the distraction of “baser matter”. Hamlet’s duty as a son is shown clearly at this point where he accepts the ghost’s words, be it from fear or loyalty, and he appears to decide that he must fulfil his duty and kill Claudius. If he were to do otherwise, Hamlet knows that the values he believes in, and therefore the values of the society which raised him, would not permit him to live as a noble and worthy son and citizen.
Hamlet’s duty to the monarchy and his role in society are in direct conflict with his duty as a son. Hamlet’s duty to the monarchy is to protect the King and Hamlet’s role in society as a Prince is to show leadership, live an honourable life and ensure stability in the kingdom. It is socially expected of Hamlet to protect the King and his position as Prince determines his need to obey society’s moral values to remain a noble and worthy person. A direct conflict would occur if Hamlet were to kill Claudius because he would fulfil his duties as a son but society would view his actions as betraying the society and the monarchy. He would be acting against his own socially enforced values and in the opinion of society, and perhaps in his own mind, he would be committing the highest act of treachery. This is very important with respect to Hamlet’s indecision and resulting isolation since his duty to the monarchy and to society is in direct conflict with his duty to his dead father.
Society’s view of murdering a king as the most sacrilegious crime of all is illustrated by Claudius when he reflects on his own actions in killing his brother, King Hamlet. An understanding of the conflict facing Hamlet that leads to his isolation occurs because there is a direct link between Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet and Hamlet’s planned murder of Claudius. In both situations, a man kills a king, who is also a close relative, albeit for different reasons. This intensifies the moral dilemma and horror concerning these murders. Claudius highlights the ‘unholiness’ of these crimes in his first private speech:
King: O, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent. (III.3.36-40)
Claudius is unable to pray even though his “inclination” is “as sharp as will”, and his determination is overpowered by his “stronger guilt” which defeats his “strong intent” to find peace with God. This illustrates society??s view of this crime as being ??unholy??. The horror of murdering a brother is emphasised by Claudius who describes the offence as “rank” and as having “the primal eldest curse upon’t”. He means that this is the oldest curse placed upon humanity. This links with Hamlet’s planned murder of Claudius which would also have “the eldest curse” upon it since he would be killing his uncle. Through Claudius’ words this society’s views on murdering a king and a close relative become clear, and this leads to a better understanding of the conflict facing Hamlet and of his hesitation to act, which ultimately leads to his isolation and death.
Hamlet’s uncertainty concerning Claudius’ guilt and the importance he places on gathering evidence against Claudius is illustrated by Hamlet when he plans to organise a trap for the king in his soliloquy at the end of Act II. Hamlet knows that society would not tolerate him murdering Claudius as an act of revenge if there was no evidence to prove that Claudius killed Hamlet’s father. Hamlet realises that the only proof he has of Claudius?? guilt is the words of the ghost who cannot be relied upon to appear to justify Hamlet’s actions. He also needs to be sure of Claudius?? guilt to reassure himself that what he is doing is right.
Hamlet: I’ll have the grounds
More relative than this, The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. (III.2.601-end)
The “grounds more relative than this” which Hamlet refers to are primarily the ghost’s promptings for Hamlet to seek revenge. Hamlet decides that he needs “more relative” evidence, such as Claudius’ reaction at the play, and he emphasises this by using a rhyming couplet to end Act II. An important part of Hamlet??s revenge is for Claudius to be perceived as the killer he really is. Even though Hamlet uses the lack of evidence to justify his own previous inaction in this soliloquy, he also realises that he needs proof for society to believe that Claudius is guilty in order to keep his status as a noble Prince.
Hamlet’s plan to use Horatio as a witness to any possible reaction the King may have shows Hamlet’s awareness that proof will be necessary to justify his revenge on Claudius and shows his desire for Claudius?? crimes to be made public. Hamlet knows that if he were to kill Claudius as an act of revenge, he would need society and the members of the court to question Claudius’ innocence. Hamlet also needs to be sure that he is right in seeking revenge and if he could prove Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet’s revenge would not be treated as treason as it would be if Claudius was perceived as innocent.
Hamlet (to Horatio) : There is a play tonight before the King…
I prithee…Observe my uncle…
And after we will both our judgements join
In censure of his seeming. (III.2.85-96)
The honest relationship which Hamlet has had with his friend Horatio is emphasised by Hamlet’s apparent sincerity in asking Horatio to “observe” Claudius when he is confronted with the play. Hamlet believes that he can trust Horatio, and probably only him, to be honest and accurate in his observations. Hamlet’s plan for after the play is clearly defined in this extract when he suggests to Horatio that they should both their “judgments join in censure of his seeming”. He means that they should combine their judgements of Claudius’ outward appearance which could provide proof of his guilt and undermine his status in society. If Hamlet could indeed prove Claudius’ guilt then he could proceed with his plan for revenge and (perhaps), eventually, be at peace with himself. Hamlet does get his revenge on Claudius in the end but he falls victim to Claudius’ treachery. His revenge however is justified and he asks Horatio to report his “cause to the unsatisfied” so that society accepts Hamlet’s actions and death as noble, and Claudius life and death as dishonourable.
Hamlet’s isolation occurs in this play because of his constantly changing emotions, which are caused, among other things, by his conflicting duties. Hamlet’s uncertainty of how to proceed after his encounter with the ghost provides the basis of the cause of his turbulent emotions. Frequently in the play Hamlet feels depressed about his previous inaction in not obeying the ghost’s “commandment”. Because of his conflicting duties Hamlet is uncertain how to proceed with the immediate future and his emotional turmoil does nothing to boost his confidence and self-respect. The social expectations of him in his role as a noble son and his role as a worthy Prince cause Hamlet to feel turbulent emotions throughout the play. His indecision causes him to withdraw from society because of how he tries to come to terms with the situation. On one hand his adoption of an antic disposition creates an impression of him being mad and therefore he is isolated from society, and on the other hand the confusion he feels results in him withdrawing so as to not show his shame and anger to others. The differing values which he upholds and which society expects him to uphold lead to his isolation and eventual death which is a result of his futile attempt to achieve revenge in a manner with which he is comfortable.
In William Shakespeare??s play Hamlet, cultural identity is explored through Hamlet??s isolation which results from the indecision he feels. Hamlet??s indecision results from his conflicting duties as a son and as a Prince and citizen. His duty as a son is to avenge his father??s murder and kill Claudius, but his duty as a Prince and a citizen is to protect the King and ensure stability in the monarchy. In order for Hamlet??s revenge to be justified to society and to himself, Claudius?? guilt must be proven. Hamlet decides to attempt to gather evidence against Claudius so that Hamlet??s actions are regarded as being honourable, and so that he can come to terms with his revenge. The ??unholiness?? of killing a king and a close relative is highlighted by Claudius when he reflects on his own crime of killing King Hamlet. Through this, a deeper understanding of the conflict facing Hamlet and of his turbulent emotions occurs. Hamlet dies at the end, fulfilling his duty as a son and his duty to society, by purging the corrupt from the monarchy and avenging his father??s death.