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Essay: Hamlet’s attempt to reconcile conflicting moral frameworks

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According to this work’s view of life, what is mankind’s relationship to god? To the universe?

Text References:

  • Act 1, Scene 2 “It shows a will most incoherent to heaven,/ A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,/ An understanding simple and unschooled.” In this passage Claudius tries to use religion to control those around him. Hamlet is very well liked in Denmark and Claudius is all too aware that his obsession with his father’s death is a massive threat to his reign as king. Claudius is trying to restrain Hamlet from dealing with the death of his father in the name of religion. Claudius uses religion to act others while he continually ignores his own wrong doing.
  • Act 2, Scene 2 “The Devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.” In this passage Hamlet explains that while Claudius appears fair and virtuous under the surface are his own sins. Although Claudius is an evil man his wrong doing is hidden from those around him. He uses his power to veil his own sinfulness all whilst expecting others to be righteous and good.
  • Act 3, Scene 1 “Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage/ And pious action we do sugar o’er/ The devil himself.” In this passage Polonius explains that one’s wrongdoing is often masked by religion. Furthermore it illustrates that sinful people often use their relationship with god to mask their evil action. Often true evil is cloaked in layers of false righteousness. Those who can influence others of their own goodness are easily able to hide their own transgressions.
  • Act 3, Scene 1 “Get thee to a nunnery./ Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” In this passage Hamlet accuses Ophelia of being sinful. However Hamlet fails to realize his own wrongdoing. While he tries to be virtuous he is ultimately the same as Ophelia. Despite his faith he also does evil things. Hamlet is a hypocrite who criticizes others for wrong doing and that he himself is also responsible.
  • Act 3, Scene 3 “There the action lies in his true nature,/ and we ourselves compelled.” In this passage Claudius tries to reconcile his wrong doing but he is unable to. While Claudius preaches the value of religion he himself does not follow its codes. While he says it’s very easy to corrupt justice in our world he wonders how he will be considered in heaven where all that matters is his truth.


In Hamlet mankind’s relationship to religion has a major influence on the behaviours of characters within the text. Religion is seen by Shakespeare as a code that prevents people from wrong doing. Hamlet presents a strong case that religion is in fact a man made construct that intends to keep society in order. Characters in Hamlet preach religion and morality to others, but just as soon forget it for their own political benefit. In this way Shakespeare illustrates the contradiction of religion and the hypocrisy of humanity. Humanity uses religion as a way to control the behaviour of others while they themselves often abandon if it endangers their own pursuit of power. Furthermore Hamlet reveals the hypocrisy of humanity. We often hold others to a higher standard than that to which we hold ourselves. It is always easy to be critical of others instead of looking inwards and reflecting on our own actions. In conclusion religion is a moral framework that seeks to keep society in order, however it is often manipulated by those with power to control others around them. Finally the contradiction of religion is a reflection of the hypocrisy of mankind.

What moral statement, if any, does this story make? Is it explicit or implicit?

Text References:

  • Act 1, Scene 3 “This above all: to thine own self be true,” In this passage Polonius gives advice to his Laertes who is leaving for university. He tells Lartes that the most important thing is that he stays true to himself. Laertes is told from the very beginning to be true to himself, this contrasts Hamlet who has no one there to discuss his moral crisis with.
  • Act 2, Scene 2 “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In this passage Hamlet explains that no action has any inherent moral value, instead it is the value we as individuals assign to an action that makes it good or evil. The morality of an action is all about one’s perception and in different situations the righteousness of any action will be weighed differently. We have the power to decide what is good and evil.
  • Act 3, Scene 3 “To be, or not to be?/ That is the question — whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And, by opposing, end them?” In this passage Hamlet continues to languish in his own inaction. He doesn’t know what the best course of action is while he continues to be caught between two moral frameworks. He wants to take revenge but his conscience doesn’t let him.
  • Act 4, Scene 4 “Rightly to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument,” In this passage Hamlet decides that he must defend his honour. He believes that true greatness comes from defending your honour no matter how small the conflict. Finally Hamlet makes a definitive decision to take revenge on his uncle. In doing this he regains his sense of self.
  • Act 5, Scene 2 “They are not near my conscience,/ Their defeat does by their own insinuation grow.” In this passage we can see the transformation that Hamlet has gone through. He now realises that the righteousness of an action can’t always be based on the competing moral frameworks that he used to uphold. He now realises that as an individual only he can decide the morality of his actions. Thus he feels that the deceitful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got what they deserve.

Outside research: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/documents/working-papers/wp013.pdf


The article explains Hamlet’s attempt to reconcile conflicting moral frameworks. It highlights Hamlet’s inability to reconcile competing moral framework and compares it to the contemporary condition where we must now decide what is moral for ourselves. The article argues that consistent practice of all moral codes is impossible considering the human condition. Like Hamlet we have to follow moral doctrines that do not wholly apply to most situations. While we should look to moral codes for guidance, ones that encourage violent extremism for the sake of finding meaning are irrelevant. Perhaps we should pursue the consistent practice of our own internal moral code and always attempt to be true to ourselves. In a modern world devoid of meaning Hamlet echoes our search for meaning. Perhaps we should take a page out of his book and realize that in our search for meaning we must be true to ourselves.


Hamlet makes a very clear moral statement on an individual’s search for meaning. Shakespeare’s moral statement is explored through Hamlet’s search for meaning. Hamlet demonstrates that an individual’s journey to find meaning is ultimately resolved through definitive action and choice. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is forced to choose between the filial code that dictates he avenges the death of his father and his own conscience which is greatly influenced by religion. Hamlet’s internal struggle about what is virtuous makes him progressively more mad. Hamlet wants to be virtuous but he is unable to because he can’t reconcile between the competing moral codes that dominate his moral perspective. It is only once he makes a definitive choice to kill Claudius and avenge the murder of his father that he regains his sense of self. However by this point the damage has already been done and his inaction not only caused his own downfall but also that of many others. As Hamlet realizes that the societal codes he’s followed his whole life are irrelevant to his current situation, he begins to realise that it is up to him to navigate his situation. Shakespeare clearly suggests that in order to find meaning in life we must take action. That ultimately it is our own responsibility to decide what is morally righteous, and thus what is morally correct should be defined by one’s self instead of conflicting moral hierarchies that act in opposition of one another.

What forces are motivating the characters?

Text References:

  • Act 1, Scene 2 “O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” In this passage Hamlet is saying that Gertrude has betrayed him. She made a vow to Old Hamlet in marriage and within one month of his death she has moved on betraying both him and his father. Hamlet’s filled with anger for the immoral actions of his mother. Before he had mourned the death of Old Hamlet she was so quick to move on, inconsiderate of his emotions. Hamlet begins to wonder how he can trust others when those around him put on a mask that veils who they really are.
  • Act 1, Scene 5 “Revenge his foul and most unatural murder.” In this passage the ghost of Old tells Hamlet to avenge is cruel murder. Here we see a massive motivating force being imposed on Hamlet. It is his filial duty to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet immediately promises to take swift and decisive action against Claudius. It is clear that he understands the importance of avenging his father. However his promise is ultimately entirely untrue as other opposing forces make him hesitant.
  • Act 2, Scene 2 “That I, the son of a dear father murdered,/ prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/ Must like a whore, unpack my heart with words.” In this passage Hamlet wishes that avenging Old Hamlet was easy. However Hamlet’s desire to be virtuous stops him from taking decisive action against his father. Instead he lavishes in indecision and decides he must get proof that Claudius is guilty. Hamlet can’t yet wield the passion to kill Claudius.
  • Act 3, Scene 1 “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is slicked o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pith and moment/ With this regard their current turn away,/ And lose the name of action.-Soft you know,” In this passage we see the other motivating force affecting Hamlet. He admits that he is scared of doing wrong. His moral objections to taking revenge on his uncle have caused him to “Lose the name of action”.
  • Act 4, Scene 4 “How all occasions do inform against me,/ And spur my dull revenge!” In this passage Hamlet’s desire to kill his father ultimately overcomes his desire to be virtuous. His anger and grief motivate him to finally take revenge.

Outside resources: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/documents/working-papers/wp013.pdf


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