The ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty.
Lineal Transition of Honour and Certainty
Honour is the only way in which individuals can control others’ perspective of them, in that an individual who is able to maintain their honour will ensure respect from the individuals around them. There is always uncertainty that comes with the struggle to maintain honour: an individual can never truly be certain when their honour has been lost – it’s all a matter of perception. Willaim Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives the ideal example of this aspect of the human condition through the titular character, who can be said to have lost his honour during the prelude to the play’s first act. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is unsure of what purpose he has left in life: he is not certain if he has any honour remaining in life after the death of his father and his mother’s marriage to his uncle, Claudius. In order to regain the honour he has lost, Hamlet decides that he must exact revenge on the very thing that was the cause to his perceived loss of honour: Claudius. Through his play Hamlet, Shakespeare develops the idea that an individual who has lost their honour as a result of a precursor may struggle to regain the honour and certainty they once had by forcibly removing the source of their dishonour.
Hamlet is initially a character who has lost all conviction to live as a result of multiple factors: his father has died, his chance of being king has been greatly reduced, and his mother has remarried his uncle. These rapid changes in Hamlet’s life result in uncertainty within Hamlet – there doesn’t seem to be a distinguished purpose in Hamlet’s life. He is neither a war king as his father once was, and nor is he the prince that is waiting for the moment when the crown that his father bears will be rightfully passed onto him. This purposelessness translates into a loss of honour as Claudius’ acquisition of the throne pushes Hamlet off as a side member of the royal family instead of a direct descendent of both the king and queen. Hamlet views his situation with pure disdain, shown in his soliloquy when he says, “’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.” (1.2.136-138).Hamlet’s pessimism is revealed when he states that the world is an “unweeded garden”: Hamlet believes that there is a lack of care in the expulsion of evil in society, which has resulted in the abundance of it. The world became an “unweeded garden” for Hamlet after his father died and his mother remarried within a short time span after his father’s death. These two events in unison serve as the precursor that leads to Hamlet’s loss of honour, which can be seen when Hamlet states that “things rank and gross in nature possess it merely”. These words signify Hamlet’s acceptance of defeat against his circumstances, for he resigns himself to lamenting the corruption of the world. The most damaging part about Hamlet’s predicament is that he himself cannot do anything: he cannot be the person who will pull out the weeds. The situation dynamically shifts with the presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father that Horatio (along with the other guards) inform Hamlet of. The Ghost’s presence is perfectly symbolic of the validity of Hamlet’s previous statement: a ghost will only haunt the place of their death if the ghost does not wish to leave the plane of the living. Hamlet already feels dishonourable in his purposelessness, yet, after hearing the ghost’s tale, Hamlet feels dishonourable due to his inadequacy of continuing his father’s legacy. This exemplified when Hamlet says, “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records… And thy commandment all alone shall live” (1.5.100-103). The precedence that the Ghost’s dishonour takes over Hamlet’s own dishonour is shown by Hamlet calling his own thoughts and memories to be “trivial fond records”; furthermore, Hamlet calls the Ghost’s plea for Hamlet to get revenge against Claudius a “commandment”. Here, Hamlet is making a promise: a promise that he will kill Claudius to avenge his father. In this way, the dishonour of the king becomes Hamlet’s own dishonour – and to rid himself and his father of this dishonour, Hamlet must remove the source: Claudius. The “commandment” of the ghost reinvigorates Hamlet’s sense of purpose while also directing his feelings of anger over his dishonour and uncertainty to a singular individual.
Despite knowing that he must kill Claudius in order to rid the ghost – and himself- of dishonour, Hamlet does not know what to do in order to ascertain that killing Claudius will help him regain honour. Hamlet stalls his planning of Claudius’ death. Instead, Hamlet becomes the epitome of dishonour: he begins to act madly, particularly as if his madness were a result of unrequited love. This dishonourable act is meant as a rebuttal against Claudius and Gertrude’s attempts to spy on him through their various subjects. At this moment, Hamlet’s external indulgence in dishonourable acts parallels the growing feeling of inadequacy that is prevalent within him as a result of his inaction in planning Claudius’ death. This feeling is displayed in Hamlet’s soliloquy to himself when he says, “That I…Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words…” (2.2.612-614). The fact that Hamlet addresses the Ghost’s order to kill Claudius as being prompted by both “heaven and hell” speaks to his growing uncertainty in the identity of the ghost. Hamlet also laments over his miserable state as the leftover son of a deceased war-king. He finds himself despicable given that he has had to stoop low enough to using words to protect himself against Claudius’ probing of him through appointed spies. Hamlet’s anger over himself stems from the fact that he –as the son of a highly respected war-king – is only acting as a jester would, using wordplay to harmlessly counter Claudius’ attempts to spy on him. This comparison to his father hints at feelings of inadequacy in Hamlet – particularly, Hamlet’s inadequacy in accomplishing the commandment of his father. The feeling of inadequacy becomes Hamlet’s greatest dishonour; he has failed his father. With his dishonour reaching its pinnacle, Hamlet finally builds the resolve to prove Claudius’ guilt by re-enacting the Ghost’s description of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. This plan succeeds in its goal: Claudius leaves at the re-enactment of King Hamlet’s death. Guilt has been proven. All that’s left is for Hamlet to act. Hamlet is even given the opportune moment to kill Claudius: Hamlet stands with his blade poised at the head of a praying Claudius. At the opportune moment, however, Hamlet falters. He does not remove the source of his dishonour when given the chance, and thus enhances the effect of that very dishonour. Hamlet’s reasoning for not killing Claudius, however, is entirely rational: killing Claudius in a moment of prayer would have sent his soul straight to heaven. Although killing Claudius would’ve freed him from one dishonour, it would result in the ultimate dishonour of sending Claudius’ soul to heaven. There was no certainty that Hamlet would be freed of honour. For Hamlet, honour must always come with certainty. He opted to suffer dishonour and uncertainty that he had the potential to remove (his feeling of inadequacy) instead of being forced to cope with a dishonour that he could do nothing about (sending Claudius to heaven). Ultimately, Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius at the opportune moment saves him from greater dishonour.
Although Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius spared him from greater dishonour, it ensured that Hamlet would have an infinitely harder time finding another moment to kill Claudius; Hamlet will have to fight for his next opportunity. Before he can fully commit himself to killing Claudius once more, Hamlet learns of the nature of what he must do in killing Claudius. In his meeting with Horatio in the graveyard, Hamlet studies the skull of Yorick and says, “I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?” (5.1.191-197). Given that Yorick was a person that Hamlet once personally knew, the skull serves as a grave reminder to Hamlet about the finality of death. The certainty that one will be forgotten in death. That all of one’s honour and dishonour dies with them in their grave if the individual is able to die in piece. Hamlet knows that this was not an option for his father: his father would not want to die with any hint of dishonour, and so his father had Hamlet work to restore honour to him. Hamlet observes how the skull seems entirely different from his memory of Yorick: Hamlet fondly remembers Yorick as a “fellow of infinite jest”, as an entertainer who would brighten the day of those who interacted with him. All of Yorick’s honour and dishonour is not of significance as he lies in the graveyard. It is here that Hamlet comes to the understanding of what he must do to Claudius. He must make Claudius become the same as Yorick: a forgotten skull in a graveyard. Claudius will become insignificant after his death, and it is a result of that insignificance that Hamlet’s dishonourable nature as an inadequate son will disappear. By gaining a new understanding of death, Hamlet re-establishes his conviction to kill Claudius in order to free himself of dishonour; Hamlet does not wish to end up as his father, having to haunt the living in order to ensure that honour is restored to him. Hamlet wishes to die and end up like Yorick, untroubled by either dishonour or uncertainty. Upon seeing Hamlet’s return, Claudius schedules a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, knowing that Laertes’ poison dipped blade will guarantee Hamlet’s death. When both duelists are injured during the duel, Laertes restores his own honour by confessing to Hamlet about Claudius’ deception. With limited time remaining before his death, Hamlet knows that if he fails to kill Claudius at that moment, he will end up like his father. Hamlet already knows about the effects of death on the individual; that uncertainty was cleared at the graveyard. Dishonour as a son who has failed his father still plagues him. Hamlet is finally able to regain his honour after he stabs Claudius with the poison tipped sword. With Claudius’ death, Hamlet knows that he can die with his father’s honour, and by extension, his own honour, being restored. With the removal of the individual who stole his honour, Hamlet is able to regain what he had lost before the play even began: his status as the successful son of a war-king. With this action, Hamlet has risen to the status of his father. He has conquered and reclaimed his honour.
The loss of honour and certainty as a result of an event may only ever be regained by the elimination of the cause. For Hamlet, Claudius’ ascension to the throne caused dishonour for him as the son of the previous king whom Claudius had killed. Initially, Hamlet was uncertain of whether killing Claudius would truly restore his honour, yet when Hamlet came to understand death and mortality, he understood that killing Claudius was something he truly had to accomplish in order to die peacefully. It was only in his dying moments that Hamlet truly felt the need to kill Claudius; before that, Hamlet did not have complete conviction. When the fear of ending up like his poor father – who was forced to place the burden of restoring his honour on his own son- came over him, Hamlet was quick to kill Claudius. Like all sons, Hamlet just wanted to make his father proud. He wanted to succeed in a task that his father appointed to him. For this reason, his dishonour as a failure of a son haunted him most. In the end, however, Hamlet was able to utilize his chance to restore his father’s honour to ascend to the same level as him. Through the restoration of honour and certainty, the son was finally able to catch up to the father.