Today I must dispute with Horatio who referred to Hamlet as “noble.” The dictionary definition of noble said: possessing high ideals or excellent moral character. Of “moral” the dictionary stated: principles of right and wrong as they govern standards of general or sexual behavior. Murder is not noble. Vengefulness is not moral. Inconstancy in love is not moral.
I argue that Hamlet never acted with any sense of moral principles. In the true tragedian style—everyone died and every death could have been easily avoided if the characters had only chosen to act nobly. Instead, everyone dies due to poor choices as a way for Shakespeare to illustrate the frailty of mankind and drive home the obvious lesson that it is wisest to live morally.
Some have argued that Hamlet acted morally because he was honor-bound to avenge his father’s death. His uncle did behave abominably when he killed his brother and it can be argued that the uncle’s poor choice set in motion the tragic chain of events, thereby excusing Hamlet’s subsequent poor behavior. However, Shakespeare discredits that argument when he has Ophelia say, “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” In essence, we know what we are now because we are the sum of our experiences. However, we do not know what we will be in the future because we haven’t reacted/responded/adapted to future events yet. We can only guess at how we will respond to future situations by how we have responded in the past.
But even that is not a perfect guide. As our knowledge base grows our behavior changes, our attitudes alter, our convictions become firmer and our morals either loosen or tighten. Hamlet, clearly, was a fairly likeable, regular guy before his father’s death. Hamlet’s uncle claimed that he could not do anything too drastic to Hamlet because he was popular with the citizenry. Ophelia was in love with him. He had extremely loyal friends including Horatio who wanted to die to be with him, and he had not appeared to give his parent’s much grief prior to his father’s murder. Clearly, Hamlet’s character had not been tried in the fire prior to his father’s death and when that event occurred, followed by the even more important ghostly visitation of his father, Hamlet’s true colors started to show forth. He started a relatively moral person and became a murderer. Indeed, by the end he knew not what he was. While not an owl, he was no longer the Hamlet he was at the beginning of the events.
Horatio can argue Hamlet’s morality until the end of time (and he will), but murder is not moral. Hamlet caused the death of three people directly and one person indirectly. Polonious Hamlet stabbed in a fit of temper, thinking it was his uncle. He later had his two old friends killed. He did not hold the sword but he wrote the order. There is no difference. Ophelia he killed indirectly, first through neglect and second through killing her father. While she determined her time of death, Hamlet—not his uncle—set the chain of events into motion that resulted in her drowning.
It can be argued that Hamlet was justified in killing his uncle. Death for death is justice—not murder. I agree, therefore I am not counting that death as one of Hamlet’s murders and certainly Laertes is to blame for his own death and Gertrude’s death rests on her second husband’s head. However, if Hamlet had only accused his uncle and killed him immediately instead of dithering around, all the other deaths would have been avoided. That is the sin of vengeance. Hamlet wanted his uncle to die in his sins. Instead, Hamlet died in his.
Noble Hamlet? No; ignoble Hamlet. A lesson in morality.