Prompt: Discuss the ideas developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty to their lives.
When torn between the human desire for honour and the equally human tendency to doubt, individuals are deterred from taking action during times of conflict due to the fear of misguided intuition, thereby often resulting in the destruction of the honour and certainty they initially sought to restore. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, readers follow the titular protagonist on a quest for honour after the ghost of his father claims he was murdered by his brother and Hamlet’s uncle. However, due to his doubts, Hamlet finds himself unable to act upon his thoughts, which eventually results not only in the prevention of restoring his father’s honour, but in his own downfall and that of his kingdom as well. Through this play, Shakespeare explores the idea that disgraced individuals who allow their misgivings to control their actions prevent themselves from achieving their desire for honour, leading to an interior struggle that mars a life with madness and desperation. When these feelings born of an individual’s initial uncertainties are allowed to thrive through their efforts, this can lead to a life of unconfirmed suspicions, incomplete deeds, and increasing doubt, eventually robbing them of their potential to restore the honour and dignity that often evades humanity.
Doubt, especially if present at the very beginning of a conflict in which honour is at stake, stains an individual’s actions with a certain sense of hesitation that eventually presents an obstacle to the restoration of said honour; these misgivings often force the individual to first enact additional measures to establish certainty, instead of prompting them to take immediate action. In 1.4, while waiting on the ramparts of the castle at Elsinore, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father for the first time. Both awed and frightened, Hamlet utters:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1.4.42-47)
Hamlet begins by evoking the powers of heaven, a brief expression that serves as a short prayer demonstrating his fear and his budding doubts concerning the ghost. Despite his uncertainty regarding the ghost’s nature, however, Hamlet decides to speak to the apparition, not only to discover its motives, but also to satiate his curiosity about the reason for his father’s ghostly appearance. Thus, when his father’s ghost claims that his brother, King Claudius, poisoned him, Hamlet suddenly faces the task of restoring honour to the throne of Denmark. The doubts expressed by Hamlet upon first seeing the ghost begin permeating his thoughts and actions, as his tendency to question his circumstances stains his resolution to act on his father’s claim, keeping him from taking his promise further than uttered words. His words reflect an inquisitive nature, one that refuses to accept anything at face value and is often forced to venture on a mad search of certitude for want of satisfactory evidence. This is clearly demonstrated when Hamlet, haunted by uncertainty, decides to adopt a guise of madness instead of taking immediate action against his uncle. He does this to deflect suspicion, as well as to provide himself with more time to think about the ghost’s claims, who he fears is trying to mislead him. Thus, when individuals find themselves in confusing or doubtful circumstances, especially regarding personal honour, they are often faced with an inner struggle between their hesitation to act due to fear and their conviction to attain dignity. At times, their obsession with seeking objective truth distracts them from their ultimate goal, serving as a deterrent to restoring what they truly desire. Many make additional efforts to establish more certainty, which can eradicate any traces of doubt at the expense of prolonging the restoration of honour. As it is in the story of the young prince Hamlet, however, doubt often begets doubt and as a result, it is never truly removed; this not only makes his struggle for certainty increasingly difficult, but it also prevents honour from being reinstated at all.
Even when initial uncertainties are dispelled, other circumstances often reintroduce the sense of doubt, especially in individuals that have already grown accustomed to misgivings and feelings of apprehension. As a result, one uncertainty leads to another, and honour is once again prevented from being attained. In 3.3, after Hamlet stages a play re-enacting the murder of his father, his doubts about the ghost’s claims vanish when his uncle flees from the room. Hamlet then encounters a vulnerable Claudius, kneeling on the floor and praying, and questions whether or not to kill the king at that moment, saying:
Now might I do it pat. Now he is a-praying.
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven.
And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father, and, for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge. (3.3.74-80)
Even when given the chance, Hamlet decides against killing his uncle when he realizes that Claudius would go to heaven when he dies, owing to his prayers and what seems to be his repentance for the murder of his brother. With this in mind, Hamlet refrains from taking action and leaves, deciding to wait until Claudius sins again. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, Claudius cannot bring himself to repent, and thus, Hamlet loses the opportunity to take the king’s life and restore honour to his father and to the throne of Denmark. Despite the establishment of certainty regarding the ghost’s claims and Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet allows his doubts to give way to more uncertainty, controlling his actions once again and instilling within him the fear that his uncle no longer has an unrepentant soul. By letting his chance slip away, Hamlet inadvertently triggers the start of Denmark’s downfall, commencing with the death of Polonius, the king’s advisor, in the next scene. A series of deaths among Denmark’s royal family follows, the consequences of which could have arguably been prevented had Hamlet seized the opportunity to end Claudius’ life. However, as a result of Hamlet’s misgivings, honour moves further away from his grasp as it becomes increasingly difficult to accomplish his mission due to a lack of action that springs from his hesitation. His reluctance reflects the traces of doubt still present in his mind, proving that once uncertainty has taken hold in one’s thoughts, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to uproot. When individuals refuse to take action until doubts are dispelled, uncertainty often begets more uncertainty when those initial misgivings are not successfully eliminated. As more confusing circumstances are forced upon the individual, it becomes harder to separate truth from fallacy, and action is often withheld until conditions fall in the individual’s favour. More often than not, however, one’s reluctance to act leads to more unfavourable occurrences, which makes it even harder to accomplish their objective. Then, when one is presented with another opportunity to take action, that individual often seizes the chance after being steeped too long in hesitation and regret. Hamlet, after allowing his chances to slip through his fingers, finally engages in a desperate effort that brings him close to honour, but even closer to death; by that time, he feels the brunt of the consequences resulting from his inaction, further fueling his desperation in an attempt to stage a last, hopeless grab to grasp the honour ever evading his reach.
After missed opportunities, lingering doubts, and broken resolutions, individuals long hungry for honour often take the next chance they encounter, paying no heed to the dignity they have left and disregarding the cost; consequently, an individual’s efforts often prove futile as they realize that their desperation has led to the destruction – and not the restoration – of the honour they struggled so hard to attain. In 5.2, Hamlet is slowly dying after fencing with Laertes, the son of Polonius, who plotted with King Claudius to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Hamlet manages to kill not only Laertes, but Claudius as well; however, Hamlet himself is mortally wounded. In his death throes, Hamlet struggles to say his final words to his closest friend, Horatio, uttering:
O, I die, Horatio.
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England.
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence. (5.2.351-56)
Having been poisoned by Laertes’ sword, Hamlet dies, but not before imparting a few, though very important, instructions to Horatio. In his final words, Hamlet gives Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, the right to rule over Denmark. Additionally, he tells Horatio to tell the Norwegian prince of the events that occurred in Elsinore leading up to the death of its royal family. With this, Hamlet passes away, thereby effectively bringing an end to Denmark’s royal family. Though Hamlet eventually avenges his father by killing Claudius, he still fails to restore both certainty in Elsinore and honour to the throne, at least during his lifetime. In fact, Hamlet prevents Horatio from taking his own life for the purposes of telling Fortinbras about the true events surrounding Denmark’s fall from grace; even as he is dying, Hamlet expresses his concern that his reputation will remain damaged, fearing that the truth will die with him. As for honour, Hamlet finds no choice but to hand over the kingdom to a foreigner, one whose father fought with the late King Hamlet and lost some Norwegian territory to Danish control. By giving Norway the throne of Denmark, Hamlet relinquishes the territories that his father won from Norway, along with other lands under (now former) Danish rule. Given that land symbolizes prestige and power, Hamlet then succeeds in bringing upon further dishonour to his father’s kingdom, effectively destroying any remnants of remaining dignity and rendering his previous efforts to restore honour insignificant. Unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras took immediate action following the death of his father; as a result, he was able to win back the lands that his father lost, thereby reinstating honour. On the other hand, Hamlet fails to do so, instead bringing about the downfall of his nation. Individuals in the pursuit of honour, after experiencing times of hesitation and subsequent regret, often act only after making progress has proved to be too late. As a consequence of uncertainty, individuals find themselves further and further away from achieving honour, until finally, they are compelled to enact desperate measures in an attempt to compensate for lost time and inaction. Left with no choice, they are often forced to accept circumstances deemed unfavourable, usually bringing an end to the quest for honour as they realize they have failed in attaining their objective. This proves that when immediate action is not taken, the initial spark propelling them to act soon fades away; this is seen through Hamlet, where he loses his zeal over time and his resolution falters, taking away his conviction and bringing with it the strength to persevere. As a result, honour is not only unrecovered, but also destroyed, its last vestiges having been consumed by a desperate hope, which, at this moment, is nothing more than a dying voice.
Plagued by doubt, individuals face the struggle to re-establish honour in a world abundant in confusion and deceit. However, as uncertainty paves the way for inaction, honour is seldom restored, in addition to robbing an individual of his life, both mentally and in some cases, physically. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare demonstrates the difficulties of attaining honour amidst uncertain circumstances, especially through the young Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, who allows his doubts to control his actions instead of finding the strength to chart his own course. Doubt, if left untouched, can grow and become difficult to uproot, which leads individuals to take additional measures in an effort to establish certitude. However, one uncertainty often leads to another, eventually culminating in an increasingly burdensome pursuit of honour. Being left with no option, the individual then gives in to unfavourable circumstances in a final, desperate attempt to restore honour – or lose their life trying. As the cause of the collapse of empires and the rise of others, honour remains a force sought by all, but impossible to grasp for many. At least in the eyes of the unforgiving world, one awash in uncertainty, many individuals go to their graves without it; this proves that sometimes, it is only in that sleep of death when dreams of dignity may come, rendering honour nothing but one of life’s many fantasies, devoutly to be wished, but never to be granted.