When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he told the story of a young man who returns from the university only to find his life turned upside down. Upon his arrival at his home for the funeral of his father, the king of Denmark, Prince Hamlet learns that his Uncle Claudius has seized the throne and married his mother, Gertrude. As if these circumstances are not bad enough, a ghost tells him that his father was murdered by the current king. Thus, the stage is set for a great story as well as some interesting lessons. This essay will explore what we can learn from Hamlet about redemption, moral truths, and a just society.
Redemption takes place whenever individuals seek to help someone else, to make something right, or to make the world a better place. When an individual seeks redemption for themselves, they are actually asking for mercy. When a person seeks redemption for another, it is an act of giving mercy. There are numerous examples of redemption within the world of Hamlet in addition to Hamlet’s constant attempt to redeem his father’s soul. One example is the way that Hamlet tries to convince his mother that she is living in an incestuous marriage and should end it. After Hamlet speaks strong words to her, Gertrude cries out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.” (3.4.157) Hamlet answers, “O, throw away the worser part of it, / And live the purer with the other half. / Good night – but go not to my uncle’s bed. / Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” (3.4.158-61) Another powerful example of redemption is found at the end of the play when Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio, “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story.” (5.2.347-49) With these words, Hamlet seeks to offer redemption to others by learning from his unhappiness and the destruction of his entire family.
Along with the theme of redemption, Hamlet teaches many moral truths within its lines. A moral truth is an eternal truth that is applicable to all people no matter where or when they live. Hamlet obviously knows the difference between right and wrong because of his comment upon learning that his mother is already married to his uncle. “Within a month … / She married. O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (1.2.153-59) A second moral truth is taught by Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, as she agrees to protect her chastity but questions why there is a double standard between men and women. “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep / As watchman to my heart, but, good my brother, / Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads / And [follows not his own advice].” (1.3.45-51)
Moral truths are essential in order to exercise both justice and mercy. Justice requires that there be a law before obedience can be required. Mercy requires that there be a way for the disobedient to be redeemed from the law. As both redemption and moral truths are included in the play, we know that Hamlet’s world is a just society.
This essay shows some of the many examples in Hamlet of individuals seeking redemption for themselves or others as well as some moral truths of their time. The world within Hamlet is a just society because the people have moral truths to guide them as they seek more truth along with redemption for their sins. In addition, Shakespeare insures that the people who watch Hamlet are taught moral truths and the importance of seeking redemption.
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