Themes of Honour in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Honour is a pervasive theme in the tragedy Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The obvious contrast between the characters Hamlet and Laertes is well established in much scholarly work on the play. Hamlet is uncertain and slow to action, while Laertes is assertive and hasty to action. I argue that both Hamlet and Laertes react dishonourably while seeking revenge for the murder of their respective fathers, due to their respective positions on the extreme opposing ends of the same spectrum. Each of them stands far from the balanced center, as far as fortitude for action is concerned. In order to argue the validity of the spectrum on which Hamlet and Laertes stand, I will prove that the play purposely sets them up with the same situation, and the same level of cause for action. The effect of the play, by portraying the fall from grace and eventual death of two men in black and white opposition, is to exemplify the ideal position in the centre of the spectrum, where the neutral character Horatio stands.
It is necessary to first establish the definition of honour from which I am contrasting the dishonour of Hamlet and Laertes. According to a definition in the OED, honour is “a fine sense of and strict allegiance to what is due or right” (“honour, honor,” n. 2a). For Hamlet and Laertes to seek revenge for the murder of their respective fathers is what is “due,” and for them to do so justly, without treachery, is what is “right.” Hamlet is late in doing what is due in order to revenge the murder of his father, and does what is wrong by killing Polonius along the way. Laertes is too quick to act on what is due, and does what is wrong by conceding to the treacherous plot Claudius constructs for him. I apply this definition of honour, as it is applicable to the individual, to Curtis Watson’s attempt at defining the Renaissance concept of honour. Watson suggests, based on his research, that a noble man was thought to be born with the innate capacity to be honourable, and that whether or not this inborn sense of honour properly manifests itself depends on his upbringing (91-92). He concludes from this that “the sense of honor, the desire for virtue, is then deeply implanted in the soul of the Renaissance gentleman. He is not concerned primarily with the opinion of others, but with his own conscience, his own inner integrity” (92). This definition of honour as a sense of duty and righteousness in the individual is what I contrast Hamlet and Laertes from to prove them dishonourable.
Before either Hamlet or Laertes has cause for revenge, they are both set up early in the play as demonstrating a tendency to differ in response to the same situation. This is first evident in the second scene of the first act, around where Hamlet is reprimanded for his prolonged grieving process over the death of his father. The topic of potential travel for Hamlet and Laertes is considered at the discretion of their respective fathers. When Claudius asks Polonius for his opinion on the desire of his son, Laertes, to return to France (now that Claudius’ coronation as king has concluded) Polonius responds: “H’ath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave by laborsome petition, and at last upon his will I seal’d my hard consent” (I.ii.58-60). It is evident in Polonius’ response that he initially objects to Laertes’ wish to travel abroad, but Laertes persuaded him extensively until he finally achieved consent from his father to return to France. Following shortly after his questioning of Polonius, Claudius speaks to Hamlet, making is clear that he is now Hamlet’s legitimate father, as well as expressing his desire for Hamlet to remain at home in Denmark, rather than study at Wittenberg:
Think of [me] as of a father, for let the world take note you are the most immediate to [my] throne, and with no less nobility of love than that which dearest father bears his son do I impart toward you. For your intent in going back to school in Wittenberg, it is most retrograde to our desire, and we beseech you bend you to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye, our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son. (I.ii.106-117)
As is evident in Polonius’ brief speech to Claudius, he has reservations about his son returning to France, but Laertes has asserted himself strongly in order to persuade his father to allow him to leave. Alternately, Hamlet quietly concedes to Claudius’ wish that he remain at home, right after making it clear that he considers Hamlet, beyond standard legal intents and purposes, to be his son. It is significant for Claudius’ proclamation of fatherhood to happen here, for the play is deliberately placing the dynamic between Hamlet and Claudius in the same context as the paternal situation of Laertes and Polonius. Therefore, because they are in the same situation, Hamlet’s passive nature is validly contrasted with Laertes’ assertive tendency.
The contrast between Hamlet and Laertes has concise coverage by Max H. James in his discourse on the obligation Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras (who shall here be omitted) have to revenge the death of their fathers. James claims that, to the need for revenge, “Hamlet’s response controls the play, but Shakespeare deliberately contrasts the responses of Young Fortinbras and Laertes” (54). James’ notion of the contrast as a deliberate device of Shakespeare works in support of my claim that the play serves to demonstrate the two extremes exemplified by Hamlet and Laertes, respectively, as wrong in order to idealize the balanced centre, which is exemplified by Horatio. James later asserts, more specifically, that “Laertes’ rash excesses stand in contrast to . . . the hesitant reasoning of Hamlet” (58), which further buttresses my understanding of the distinct dichotomy between these two men, and that it plays a role in the demonstration discussed above.
It is important to continue demonstrating the equivalence between the situations of both Hamlet and Laertes, in order to prove their individual locations on a single spectrum. The reliability of the source of information by which both men learn of the treachery that befell their respective fathers is cause for debate. It is valid to suggest that Hamlet is right to be cautious of how trustworthy the ghost who claims to be his father is, because it could very well be a baleful entity, for in Hamlet’s reality, “the [dev’l] hath power t’assume a pleasing shape” (II.ii.599-600). However, that Hamlet is convinced that the spirit is really the ghost of his father, during their conversation, is evident when Hamlet promptly asks to know who murdered the ghost (his father) so that he may speedily seek revenge: “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift as meditation, or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge” (I.v.29-31). I conclude from Hamlet’s bold promise to the ghost that it was not made under the expectation that the murderer would be Claudius, who, as king, could not be killed without obvious consequences. It is reasonable to conclude from this that Hamlet postpones killing Claudius, not as much out of doubt for the ghost’s legitimacy, but out of his fear of the consequences of such treason against the state.
Further proof of Hamlet’s certainty that the ghost is truly his father is evident when the ghost makes Hamlet promise to remember him. Hamlet responds by assuring the ghost that he will transform his knowledge into nothing but the memory of the ghost, and the task he has been instructed to do:
Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records
all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there,
and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain,
unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven! (I.v.97-104)
By saying that he will remove all other content from his mind, in order to focus on the memory and orders of the ghost, Hamlet effectively erases any doubt that would have culturally been impressed upon him against the trustworthiness of spiritual beings. Nonetheless, we eventually do find Hamlet doubting the ghost. However, I will suggest that his doubt is less out of absolute uncertainty about the ghost’s honesty, than it is out of his own perceived lack of ability or courage to kill Claudius, who after all, is the king, and still a fairly direct biological relative to Hamlet. It is first important to note, despite his lofty promise to the ghost to seek revenge, that Hamlet is seen resenting his task for revenge at the end of his meeting with the ghost: “The time is out of joint – O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.188-9). Thus, Hamlet’s resentment for the responsibility of revenging his father can not be ignored as a likely reason for his hesitation to kill Claudius.
Hamlet recognizes his delay for what it is when he meets the actors for the play within Hamlet that Hamlet uses to prove to himself that Claudius really is guilty of murdering his father. One of the actors demonstrates his acting talent by realistically portraying an intense emotive response to the death of a loved one. Hamlet feels ashamed of himself for not feeling anywhere near as passionate about his father’s murder as the actor who is only pretending to grieve:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here, but in a fiction, in a dream of passion, could force his soul so to his own conceit that from her working all the visage wann’d, tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, a broken voice, an’ his whole function suiting with forms to his own conceit? And all for nothing, for Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him, or he to [Hecuba], that he should weep for her? What would he do had he the motive and [the cue] for passion that I have? (II.ii.550-62)
It is my claim that Hamlet is quite specifically berating himself for his failure, as of yet, to kill Claudius. It is noted early in the play that Hamlet’s father has been dead for some time now, and that Hamlet has already been through a lengthy grieving process, so that leaves his reaction to the actor’s performance to be most likely about his obligation to revenge his father. Hamlet resolves after this that he will test Claudius’ innocence by gauging his reaction to a play that indirectly portrays Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father.
After Claudius suddenly demands an end to the play and flees the scene, Hamlet has no doubt that the ghost’s news is genuine as he says to Horatio: “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286-7). Even though his doubt about the ghost has been eliminated, Hamlet still hesitates to kill Claudius. When Hamlet finds him praying, he realizes that he must ensure that Claudius goes to hell, and therefore resolves to wait until he can kill his uncle while engaged in a significantly compromising situation: “Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent: When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in th’incestious pleasure of his bed, at game a-swearing, or about some act some act that has no relish or salvation in’t” (III.iv.88-92). I assert that this is yet another means of purposely delaying his task. Hamlet should remember at this point that his father’s ghost told him that he was merely taking a nap (not passed out drunk) when he was murdered, and went to hell for the simple fact that he did not have the chance to officially absolve himself of general sin. Furthermore, Hamlet’s hesitation to kill Claudius for reasons of religion relates to the assertion of Reta A. Terry that “Hamlet is thus confronted with the taboos of Christian hierarchical order – to exact revenge he must slay a king who is, of course, God's anointed ruler” (1081). However, Hamlet clearly rejects regard for position kings hold on the political, and presumably divine, hierarchy when he explains the fate of Polonius:
A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots; your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table–that’s the end. (IV.iv.19-25)
Hamlet places kings and beggars on the same level by asserting that we all end up as worm food in the end, and that there is no natural evidence in support of the notion of the hierarchical order of the monarchy.
On his way to England, escorted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet crosses paths with Fortinbras’ army on, their way to fight for land in Poland. Fortinbras tells Hamlet that there is no economic or political leverage to be gained from the conquest, and that it is merely in the name of honour. Hamlet reflects on this in relation to his obligation to revenge his father’s murder:
Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at stake. How stand I then, that have father kill’d, a mother stain’d, excitements of my reason and my blood , and let all sleep, while to my shame I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men, that for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain? O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or nothing worth! (IV.iv.53-66)
Hamlet feels ashamed of his inability to bring himself to kill Claudius in the name of his father when he realizes that a whole army of men are risking their life just for the principle of conquest. I read this consideration of Hamlet’s as a confession that he has, until now, been procrastinating in the face of his task to kill Claudius.
Now that I have established that Hamlet has failed to kill Claudius, despite his certainty that the situation warrants such action on his part, it is time to contrast his actions with those of Laertes. The significance of this contrast is well outlined by James who asserts that “to understand Hamlet’s response to his dead father’s ‘command’ to revenge his murder, one should examine Laertes’ thirst for revenge for the death of Polonius, his father” (57). Thus, the mutual necessity of comprehending both men to comprehend each of them justifies my reading of the play which suggests there is particular significance in the contrast itself, and that it speaks for broad, socially relevant themes.
Laertes immediately seeks to revenge the death of his father. While considering Laertes’ reaction to the murder of his father, Terry suggests, based on her historical research of the medieval concept of honour, that “[his] instant and violent reaction bespeaks the old chivalric code of honor” (1079). However, Terry continues by arguing that “[Laertes] consciously rejects the more modern, moralized codes of honor” (1079). It is this code of honour, based on moral conduct, that is the fundamental definition of honor on which I argue that both Hamlet and Laertes take dishonourable action. Terry supports Laertes’ rejection of moral honour in the following quotation, which incidentally titles her article:
To hell allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, that both the worlds I give to negligence, let come what comes, only I’ll be reveng’d most thoroughly for my father. (IV.v.132-7)
The result of Laertes being driven to desperate means of revenging his father is that he agrees to Claudius’ plan to deceitfully kill Hamlet. He challenges Hamlet to a duel under the false pretence of friendly sport. However, in reality, his sword will be anointed with poison so that a mere scratch would be enough to kill Hamlet. James effectively quantifies this dishonourable quality of Laertes by suggesting that his capacity for such deceit was passed down to him from his late father, Polonius. James notes Polonius’ tendency to eavesdrop, and how this leads to his demise after Hamlet mistakes him for Claudius behind the arras, and kills him. James concludes that “the secretive cunning of Polonius emerges a thousand times worse in the secretive sellout by the son to an unmitigatedly dishonorable scheme for coldblooded murder” (58). Laertes admits his dishonorable conduct when he is poisoned by Hamlet with his own sword: “I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery” (V.ii.307). Therefore, it is clear that Laertes acts without honour, and that this tendency was passed down to him by his father in a significantly amplified form.
Finally, I will consider Horatio as the balanced ideal the play seeks to idealize. He stands in the centre of the spectrum that both Hamlet and Laertes stand on the opposite extremes of. This is evident in the way Hamlet describes him (to him):
Thou hast been as one in suff’ring all that suffers nothing, a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards hast ta’en with equal thanks; the blest are those whose blood and judgment are so well co-meddled, that they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please. Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee. (III.ii.65-74)
Horatio is described as well balanced and not prone to excess emotion, he truly is the middle to the two extremes of Hamlet and Laertes. That this balanced center is idealized is evident in the fact that Horatio is essentially the only survivor who can give a nearly full account of the events of the tragedy.
Both Hamlet and Laertes conduct themselves dishonourably upon learning of the murder of their respective fathers. Hamlet, despite being certain more often than not throughout the play that the news of his father’s ghost is genuine, does not effectively answer the call of duty that I argue is necessary to be considered honourable until he has engaged in a serious of events leading to his own death shortly after finally killing revenging his father. Laertes is quick to respond to the news of his father’s death, and in his intense reaction, rejects all sense of honorable morals and resorts to treacherous deception, with the prompting of Claudius, to kill Hamlet. I have thoroughly demonstrated how Hamlet and Laertes are in essentially equivalent situations, and that the play points this out through the exchange between fathers and sons early in the play regarding travel. It is the death of both Hamlet and Laertes, as well as Horatio’s survival, that I argue is the device by which the play idealizes Horatio’s position on the centre of the spectrum.
Day, J. F. R. "Primers of Honor: Heraldry, Heraldry Books, and English Renaissance Literature." The Sixteenth Century Journal 22.1 (1990): 93-103. JSTOR. Web. 07 Feb. 2010.
"Honour, Honor." The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd. ed. 2009. Web. 18 February 2010.
James, Max H. “Fathers Dominant Even From the Grave.” “Our House is Hell”: Shakespeare’s Troubled Families. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 54-8. Print.
James, Max H. “‘Virtue,’ The Door to Honor.” “Our House is Hell”: Shakespeare’s Troubled Families. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 26-9. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Riverside Shakespeare.Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al., 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 1189-234. Print.
Terry, Reta A. "‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England." Renaissance Society of America 52.4 (1999): 1070-1086. JSTOR. Web. 2 Feb. 2010.
Watson, Curtis Brown. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1960. Print.