The Nature of Evil in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Society has been preoccupied by the concept of good and evil since the emergence of civilization and, just as humankind has evolved over time, so has the definition of evil. Evil was first used to describe someone who placed themselves above others and it wasn’t until the Old and Middle English period that evil became associated with wrong-doing. As time passed, the definition continued to become increasingly more specific until it reached its modern day definition: “extreme moral wickedness.
(www. etymonline. com/index. php? term=evil) However, what one ultimately defines as evil depends on one’s personal experiences, frame of reference, and culture. For instance, during World War II, the Americans believed that dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was an act of good as it ended conflict with the Japanese. On the other hand, the Japanese viewed it as an act of evil as the bombings resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
This proves that good and evil cannot always be seen as simply black or white, but also as shades of grey making it difficult to label characters in various literary works, especially those of William Shakespeare. The ambiguity of evil in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet forces spectators to interpret each character’s thoughts, actions, and personality in order to place them properly on the gradient of evil. Regardless of one’s personal idea of evil, Claudius can be seen as a villain from many standpoints.
He constantly performs actions with malicious intent and expresses true love only for himself. The first and most important act that Claudius commits is the murder of his own brother, which he does to obtain the crown of Denmark, as described by King Hamlet’s ghost: Now, Hamlet, hear. ‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me – so the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abus’d – but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown. (I. v. 34-40)
The ghost’s speech shows the true nature of Claudius’ evil as he allows himself to kill his own brother. However, this is not to say that Claudius does not understand the nature of his sins. Following ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, a test of his conscience set up by Hamlet, Claudius feels overwhelmed with guilt and self disgust; he attempts to repent for his sins and expresses that he realizes the magnitude of what he has done: O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t– A brother’s murder. (III. iii. 37-39)
This is the first and only time that the readers or spectators see Claudius acting as a normal human being and showing or recognizing his emotions. This is very important as many people believe that repentance leads to mercy. However, Claudius finds himself unable to properly do so as he comes to realize that he does not feel remorse for what he has done since he continues to reap the rewards of his deed: Pray can I not, Though inclination be as sharp as will, My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent… My fault is past – but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder? ‘ That cannot be, since I am still possess’d Of those effects for which I did the murder– My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. … My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (III. iii. 36-40, 51-55, 97-98) If Claudius had successfully repented for his sins, he would no longer be labelled as an evil character. He is, however, unable to do so. Despite Claudius’ callousness, the fact that he even attempts to repent is honourable.
However, by continuing to manipulate, destroy, and murder he voids any chance of forgiveness. He uses his “son” as a scapegoat by focusing all of the negative attention on him and thus avoids negative attention himself, marries his brother’s widow, turns Hamlet’s childhood friends against him, and ultimately causes the deaths of all the main characters in the play. He uses his charm and political power to unleash increasing amounts of chaos proving that, “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain! ” (I. v. 07) In the end, it is Claudius who is responsible for trapping otherwise innocent characters in a chain of deception, deceit, and destruction which is escapable only by death. Hamlet is the primary victim of Claudius’ malevolent deeds, causing a dramatic shift in his nature. He becomes a slave to misfortune and feels the need to right the wrongs in his life, specifically the murder of his father. Upon hearing the truth about the nature of his father’s death, Hamlet becomes a vital part in the cyclical pattern of evil as he vows to take revenge on his uncle, Claudius: Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love May sweep me to my revenge. (I. v. 29-31) Although Hamlet is “a victim” of Claudius’ deeds, the reader is unable to sustain any feeling of heightened pathos once he seeks justice by exacting revenge. However, one must take into consideration the common thought processes of the time. It wasn’t until recently that society began to view retributive justice as unacceptable and morally wrong. Therefore, Hamlet would have been justified in his attempts to get revenge for his father’s murder.
In addition, getting revenge gives Hamlet no personal gain except the redemption of his father’s name, while Claudius kills with power in mind. Furthermore, Claudius is responsible for the death of an innocent while Hamlet is only concerned with killing those who are guilty, particularly his uncle. Hamlet even takes precautions, such as arranging the performance of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, to prove his suspicions and keep a clean conscience: I’ll have groundsMore relative than this—the play’s the thingWherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. II. ii. 603-605) By trying to figure out whether or not Claudius is guilty, Hamlet shows that he is trying to cause the least damage possible and does not want to kill those who do not deserve it. A truly evil person would not care whether or not their victim was innocent, as is the case with Claudius. Unfortunately, Hamlet becomes tangled up in his thoughts and emotions and causes more problems than he intends to; primarly when Hamlet and his mother are talking and Hamlet attacks Polonius who is hiding behind an arras.
The attack kills Polonius, who Hamlet initially thought was Claudius. While some may consider this to be evil, Hamlet recognizes the event as a tragic accident: A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, As kill a king and marry with his brother… Thou wretched, rash intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune. (III. iv. 28-29, 31-32) By comparing the murder of Polonius to the murder of his father, Hamlet acknowledges that what he has done is wrong but unfortunately this does not allow him to escape the repercussions which follow.
Killing Polonius is the biggest mistake that Hamlet makes in the play, turning Laertes against him and leading to the death of both himself and Ophelia. Although Hamlet can be seen as unnaturally cruel many times throughout the play, he is not evil. Hamlet is simply trying to play the cards he has been dealt in life. Throughout Hamlet, Laertes is described as a very loyal and noble gentleman. Unfortunately for Laertes, he suffers the same fate as poor Hamlet. He loses his father and his sister, just as Hamlet loses his father and mother.
Following his father’s death, Laertes feels the need to kill to uphold his family’s name. At first Laertes believes the murderer to be Claudius but when Claudius convinces him otherwise, Laertes shifts his attention towards Hamlet. In order to get Laertes to do this, Claudius manipulates him into thinking that Hamlet is the root of all evil and must be taken care of. Laertes agrees to do so and even contributes his own ideas: I will do’t. And for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword. I bought an unction of mountebank So mortal but dip a knife in it, Where it draws blood, no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue Under the moon, can save the thing from death That is but scratch’d withal. I’ll touch my point With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly, It may be death. (IV. vii. 139-148) Similarly to Hamlet, it is not evil that gets the best of Laertes, but his emotions. His anger and sadness cause him to react drastically and he makes decisions at a time where he is unable to think straight. Laertes later comes to realize this as he reflects upon his plan to kill Hamlet: And yet it is almost against my conscience. V. ii. 288) At this point in the play, it becomes evident that Laertes’ “evil” is not of his own creation but of Claudius’. It is not only Laertes who realizes this but Hamlet as well, allowing the men to see the similarities in their situations and apologize to one another: He is just serv’d. It is a poison temper’d by himself. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me. (V. ii. 321-325) Unlike Claudius, the men are forgiven for their sins and are able to die as heroes rather than villains.
This final act of nobility is what truly defines the characters of Hamlet and Laertes, not their mishaps. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet exemplifies how it is not what a character does but who a character is that determines whether they are truly evil or not. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the character’s do not fall victim to temptation or evil. It is the way that they handle themselves once they have done so that allows spectators an insight into their true nature. As Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking it makes it so. ” (II. ii. 245-246)