Essay by banditboy1560College, UndergraduateA+, April 2007

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In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character of Hamlet is seen in many situations with changing evolutions of thought. The conscience plays a very important part in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives insight to actions and thought that take place within Act III scene I, which includes perhaps the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Act V scene I, regarding Yorick and the grave yard, and lastly Act V scene II, which involves Claudius’s wager on Hamlet.

The conscience is used in the play Hamlet for many important reasons. It is used to bring justice and to reveal failures and shortcomings. The fact that humans even have a conscience proves that they are doing something wrong. By definition, a conscience is the sense of rightness assuming there’s a wrong thing to do. The king is brought to justice by his conscience for doing the wrong thing. Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing /Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (II, ii).

There is no problem in finding Claudius’s guilt, acting on this new found conviction, however, is tricky because Hamlet must justify killing him. His conscience is the battle between wills: God’s and Hamlet’s. This means Hamlet must consult his conscience before acting, and therein lays his genius. Most men, Claudius included, wait till sin until being accosted by conscience. He says after the mousetrap caught him, “My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer/Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?” (III, iii). So Shakespeare is describing here how humans must act, realizing we’re all flawed. He is saying that the conscience is the key before acting as justly as possible.

Act III opens with Hamlet's soliloquy in which he metaphorically obsesses with a personal dilemma that ponders within his mind. The scene opens with the line, "To be or not to be..." (III.i). Not only is this one of the most famous lines in English literature but this is the first time the audience is exposed to Hamlet's subconscious side. It causes the audience to sense that there is something mysterious about the words that speak, almost as if there is something hidden within his words that never truly leave his mouth. The audience begins to get an impression that these things are going on within Hamlet's mind, but he can not think about them directly. With this famous line, Hamlet may be questioning something along the lines of, "Should I kill myself or not." In this soliloquy, Shakespeare strikes a chord with a fundamental human concern: the validity and worthiness of life. Would it not be easier for us to simply enter a never-ending sleep when we find ourselves facing the daunting problems of life than to "suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"(III.i)? However, it is perhaps because we do not know what this endless sleep entails that humans usually opt against suicide. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause." (III.i.). Shakespeare seems to understand this dilemma through his character Hamlet, and thus the phrase "To be, or not to be" has been immortalized. It produces an infinitely greater effect than could be expected of an argument on suicide and death in tragedy.

In the graveyard scene of Act V Hamlet's encounter with the gravedigger explains the nature of death and is a turning point for Hamlet's character. The structure serves to move Hamlet and the audience closer to the realization that death is inevitable and universal. This encounter provides information of Hamlet's return from England and sets the stage for Hamlet's discovery of Ophelia's death. This grants him a realistic outlook on the nature of death and his own fate. Up to this point Hamlet had concentrated on doing what his father’s ghost had prescribed. The lesson of the graveyard scene is that death is eventually inevitable. Hamlet comes across a skull and acknowledges it with the words, "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him Horatio/A fellow of infinite jest" (V. i.). In short order, Hamlet tells us that Yorick was once the court fool. Hamlet harbors a sentimental affection for the deceased jester, who once gave him piggyback rides and delighted the boy with his gibes, gambols and songs. Yorick's demise provides an opportunity for Hamlet to again contemplate human mortality. Yet at the same time, it is a reminder that all of life is not glum, that there was a happier time in even the dour Hamlet's life. Perhaps most important, this reminder of loss and Hamlet's willingness to face it is emblematic of his acceptance of loss as both part of life and as the end of life. This obsession with the dead originates with Hamlet's inability to accept his father's death and his own suicidal tendencies.

Osric, in Act V scene II, enters and informs Hamlet that Claudius has wagered that Hamlet could beat Laertes in a fencing match. Hamlet agrees to the match. He is informed that the King and Queen would like him to come early to show some courtesy (to apologize) to Laertes, for their bitter past, before they engage in the match. Horatio tells Hamlet that he doesn't have a chance of winning. Hamlet informs him that since this affair (with the ghost and his madness) started he has been practicing. Hamlet admits to misgivings about the fight, but seems to ignore them because of his state of mind.

Before the fencing match begins Hamlet explains to Laertes that although he killed Laertes' father, he did not mean to. Hamlet explains further that it was his madness which came over him that caused this undesirable result. Laertes then accepts Hamlet's apology, but states that he must keep his honor and demands that Hamlet still duels with him. Hamlet agrees and they get ready to fight. The winner of the fight is the first opponent to score three 'hits' on the other. Laertes and Claudius are using this match to secretly murder Hamlet. Laertes' sword tip is poisoned and Claudius plans to have Hamlet drink a toast out of a poisoned cup.

The match begins and Hamlet scores the first hit. Claudius offers a toast to Hamlet, but Hamlet isn't tired yet he postpones the drink and continues fighting. Hamlet scores a second hit and before Hamlet is offered the toast again, Gertrude grabs the goblet and drinks the poisoned wine. Hamlet once again refuses a drink at this time and continues the match. Laertes manages to wound Hamlet, but in the scuffle they end up exchanging swords and Hamlet wounds Laertes back. The match is disrupted as Gertrude falls. Although Claudius tries to convince everyone that Gertrude fainted, but Gertrude informs everyone that she was poisoned by Claudius' wine. Gertrude then dies. Laertes falls and before he dies, he informs Hamlet that the sword tip was poisoned. He tells Hamlet that it was Claudius' idea to poison the sword and that Hamlet is going to die as well. Hamlet, in a psychotic rage, stabs the king with the sword with the poisoned tip and then proceeds to pour the poisoned wine down the king's throat. Claudius dies. Laertes apologizes for his actions against Hamlet and asks for Hamlet's forgiveness. Laertes then dies. Hamlet gives his approval to Fortibras to become king of Denmark after Hamlet's death. Hamlet then dies. Fortinbras enters and discover the deaths of Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet. He informs Horatio that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed in England. Horatio informs Fortinbras that he knows about the misdeeds that in Denmark and that the cause of it all was Claudius, not Hamlet.

The significance of this final scene is such that we are now able to fully distinguish between Hamlet’s initial thoughts and trace the evolution of his thoughts to this point. Hamlet was able to come to come to a realization that he is not truly a mad man; it was simply pure emotion that he was dealing with in such an extreme manner. At the end of the play Hamlet has control over his thoughts and actions and in part is able to overcome the diversity that surrounds him and eliminate Laertes, and most of all Claudius.

Works CitedBloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Foss, George R. What the Author Meant. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Frye, Roland Mushat. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Grace, William J. Approaching Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1964.

Santayana, George. Essays in Literary Criticism. New York: Scribner, 1956.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Wilson, J. Dover. "The Parallel Plots in 'Hamlet': A Reply to Dr. W. W. Greg." The Modern Language Review. XIII, No. 1. (1918): 129-156.