It is inevitable that all humans experience guilty feelings. Guilt is also an old concept which can be traced to the origins of humans. Guilty feelings arise when people commit acts a wrongful act. However, how the wrongful act manifests into guilt calls for further analysis. Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveals that guilt is experienced as a result of the social construction of morality. This construction is based on belief in the supernatural.
Conscience as pointed out in Laura (1992), draws or can be said to be of God. At the Same time, Laura (1992) does note that conscience is “invoked by the individual and, almost more importantly, defined by the individual” (93). Malm (2017), refines this definition further by stating that conscience is “the application of moral law to an individual action in unique and bewildering set of circumstances” (19). These definitions lead us to the first inference that conscience draws from God and also on the nature of human beings.
In Hamlet, there are several instances that support the argument that conscience drawing from personal reflection on the laws of morality is the cause of the feelings of guilt. People feel guilty because according to their own evaluation of their action or inaction. In these, failure to act when it is necessary to act is equally as bad as taking the wrong action. Wrong action brings guilt in the sense that one feels that the fate of the other person or persons in his hands. Inaction on the other hand feels like a betrayal that one cases on the victim. For instance, if an individual’s parents lost lives because of violent murder, one would feel like he has betrayed them if he is not able to get revenge for then. The person who committed the actual murder would continue to have guilt inside and probably do more bad things (Betleby, 2017).
The first instance we sense the feeling of guilt in King Claudius is captured in a moment when we first notice the past deeds weighing him down. Speaking in an aside,
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burden! (3.1.49-53)
In this instance, we understand that the king conscience is being affected by his past actions. His evil acts include the murder of Hamlet’s father, marrying his brother’s wife, and plotting to kill Hamlet. To this end, he is letting the audience know that despite being calm on the outside, he feels the pain of his actions weighing down on him.
King Claudius also reveals how guilt is connected to the understanding of the supernatural God. In one soliloquy in act three, the king reveals his knowledge of heaven. In this acknowledgement he remarks about his evil acts can be smelt from heaven.
O, my offence is rank,
It smells to heaven:
It has the primal eldest curse upon’t.
A brother’s murder! (3.3.36 – 38)
In this seen, it can be understood that the king is well aware that his actions are bad judged upon the religious standard. He does not seem to try and make justifications for his actions. This clearly shows he is guilty. The guilt hurts his conscience all the time.
Guilt is inescapable. Conscience is a deeply embedded in humans and is the voice of reason that guides actions of people. However, people choose to follow it or not to follow. Which path one choses, if they go against the voice of their conscience, the guilt of their wrong judgment haunts them until death. Leaders however are charged with a responsibility of making decisions which affect the greater good. In this sense, they must sometimes against their own will to protect the interests of the people. Faced with this scenario, it is hard to reconcile one’s acts with their conscience. This is the primary reason why the king is not able to seek for his actions.
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, my ambition, and my queen. (3.4.52 – 55)
In this soliloquy, the king reveals that he is not able to seek forgiveness from God for his actions. Doing so would cause tension in the kingdom which he has managed to pacify by appearing as a moral, and intelligent king. He cannot also seek to be forgiven while he has not cleansed himself of his acts. He still possess his brother’s wife and would not want to lose him. Losing him would make him lose his throne. His personal and collective ambitions bar him from seeking forgiveness to reconcile his conscience (Gopinath & Abraham, 2015).
- Bertleby. (2017). The Role of Guilt in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Barleby.com
- Gopinath, M. & Abraham, D. (2015). The Role of Guilt in Hamlet. The EFL Journal 6(1), 47 – 57.
- Laura, S. (1992). Individual Conscience and the Law. Depaul Law Review, 42(93), 92 – 98.
- Malm, L. (2017). Hamlet, Conscience, and, Freewill. The University of Arizona.
- Shakespeare, W. (n.d). Hamlet. Amanda Mabillard, accessed November 23, 2017, at http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamletscenes.html