Does conscience make cowards of us all?

Hamlet is a loser. He turns out to be completely inadequate to the call to action of his father’s ghost, who wants to be rightfully revenged by his son. Yet, he had accurately chosen the most effective words to describe how his brother Claudius had atrociously murdered him and the “horrible“consequences on his body in order to stir Hamlet’s sense of indignation. Eventually, as if he doubted his son’s inclination to action, the ghost even warns him saying: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not“. If. He was not wrong in mistrusting his son, in fact, once alone on stage and soon after a first flame of rage Hamlet hesitates and ponders :”The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,That ever I was born to set it right!”

Can the words of a ghost, even if in the shape of a beloved father, be trusted thus becoming a murderer in turn? Can it be easily accepted that an uncle, a man who Hamlet had instinctively always despised, of course, but who had recently married his mother and become the King of Denmark, might be a criminal? He wants to do what is right, which means finding evidence to his father’s words and only then planning his revenge.

To set everything right he needs time, but time could be the worst enemy of action. At first he pretends to have become mad, in order to act more freely and then he organizes  “the mouse’s trap”, that is a play to be shown at court which displays the way his father had been murdered as the ghost had told him, thus being able to check his uncle’s response at the sight of the faithful reproduction on stage of his foul crime.

Claudius cannot disguise his agitation. He had been unmasked by that nephew he had always distrusted, but how could he know it? It doesn’t matter and runs away to find refuge in the quietness of the chapel in the castle. Now Hamlet has his proof, he could accomplish his father’s task and follows Claudius to the chapel determined to kill him. He is right behind his uncle’s back  while he is in the act of praying, when he hesitates again. Is it right to murder even a criminal, while the latter is purging his soul thus having the gates to heaven open , while his fathers fasts in hell as he died unconfessed? It is not.

His forced inaction arises a bitter sense of frustration that makes him lose focus. He kills Polonius by mistake and then violently takes it out on his mother for having yielded to his uncle and married him. He behaves as a headless fly in a jar and exactly in that moment the ghost re-appears to remind his son the true object of his revenge. But it is too late. Claudius is now aware of how dangerous that nephew might be for him and quickly entraps him in a final duel. Only on that occasion, when he realizes that there no way out and nothing to lose Hamlets eventually acts and kills Claudius.

Hence, Hamlet is a loser and maybe a coward too. However, the feeling of powerlessness that pervades him and causes the delay of any action has a name: conscience. That’s why:
“………………….. the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.”

In short that means that the noble effort of following the principle of morality, trying to pursue what is right, pondering the consequences of any decision undertaken cannot but weaken our determination and expose ouselves to other’s resolutions. Hamlet once again embodies very well our sense of helplessness of this age which I perceive so “out of joint“.



9 thoughts on “Does conscience make cowards of us all?

  1. Reblogged this on newauthoronline and commented:
    An interesting perspective on Hamlet. “Conscience” may indeed “make cowards of us all”. However, had it not been for Hamlet’s “conscience” (or whatever else stays his hand), we would not have had Shakespeare’s play for Claudious would have met his end shortly after the ghost of his father appeared to Hamlet.

    • Hadn’t Claudius ‘s conscience spared his nephew ( it might have been “wiser” to murder him , after all),we would have had no play at all. 😜 Thank you so much for the re-blog.

  2. Ha! This is well said. Hamlet is a wonderful example of our moral confusion. To do what is right, he must do what is wrong, which of course is irrational. People have always struggled with these kinds of things, not as melodramatically as Hamlet, but we are all kind of struck in a bind. It’s virtually impossible to go forth and slay what you hate without becoming what you hate in the first place.

  3. Some people just act, others think, reflect and agonise before trying to act; part of Hamlet’s tragedy is that he’s one of the latter. After he’s finally convinced himself that the ghost is genuine – and not an evil spirit luring him to perdition – and Claudius did commit the crime, he tries to act, but too late: killing Claudius is not revenge for the murder of his father, but for his own engineered death, by Claudius at the hands of Laertes. Truly it’s a very complex and multi-layered play…

  4. Even though I remember going through Shakespeare’s work at school, I have only a few memories (if none) of lessons on the Hamlet (but I do recall something about Romeo and Juliet). Hamlet and others of his plays are definitely something I need to recover!

    I really enjoyed reading these insights on it, thank you!

    Happy Ferragosto from cloudy, yer warm, London.

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