Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sin in Hamlet

The day after we saw Hamlet at the Stratford Festival, my wife Susan and I were walking along the charming streets of Stratford talking about the production. Susan made an astute observation that had somehow eluded me. She said how in the play one sin spreads through the characters like the plague leading to still more sin.

Claudius kills the father of Hamlet who then seeks revenge. In his so-called madness, Hamlet kills Polonius. The murder of her father by her boyfriend leads Ophelia to madness and death. Prompted by Claudius, Laertes seeks Hamlet’s death to revenge his father, and by the end of the play all the main characters are dead. They don’t call it tragedy for nothing.

One of the reasons Hamlet is so relevant today is that the characters ring true. Hamlet knows and admits his sinful nature to Ophelia.

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all;
Even Claudius has a moment of honesty when he is alone.

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder.
O wretched state! O bosom black as death! O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Yet Hamlet knows that man, despite his sinful nature, is God’s greatest and special creation.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
When speaking to his mother, Hamlet realizes the wickedness of sin and the redeeming power of forgiveness.

Confess yourself to heaven; Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;

Hamlet encourages us to get rid of whatever in our lives is sinful. (And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.)

        O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

       O, throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half.

Laertes proudly states that he will risk damnation for his revenge. When he leans Hamlet has killed Laertes’ father, Claudius asks:
What would you undertake
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?
Laertes answers, To cut his throat i' th' church.

To which Claudius replies, Revenge should have no bounds.

Murderous revenge, ambitious coveting, and despair are all rife in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Humans are sinful creatures. My wife is right. In Hamlet sin begets more sinning. Hamlet is a great play for the very reason that we can learn from it.

Stephen Gaspar's books can be found on Amazon

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