Izaak Walton, the writer, said that “The person who loses her conscience has nothing left worthy of keeping.” Hamlet’s characters are constantly challenged by their consciences and their insatiable desires. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, epitomizes the power of conscience. Even though he feels initially controlled by his conscience at first, he starts to do what his father wants once he has lost his morality. Hamlet’s characters, however, feel the power they have of conscience as well as as the ability to reflect on their past actions and consider what they are about doing. Shakespeare makes use of the conflict between morality, immorality in order to create characters who are truly human and can be bonded with the audience. Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates the depth and duality in conscience, as demonstrated by Claudius and Laertes.
Laertes’s deepest feelings are evident in his battle with his conscience as he tries to revenge Polonius’s murder. Laertes becomes furious after learning about Polonius’s murder. Laertes wants immediate vengeance. He cries out, “Conscience & grace, to a deepest pit!” (4.5.131). Laertes will also do the most horrible things to get vengeance. Claudius asks Laertes how far he will go to get revenge. (4.7.124). Laertes is ready to kill Hamlet in coldblood within the Church, the holiest of all places. Laertes starts to feel guilty after he duels Hamlet. Laertes says in an aside that poisoning Hamlet was “almost against me conscience.” (5.2.274) Despite his willingness to go ahead with the plan, Laertes shows his inherent goodness and depth by being present. Laertes finally dies with a clear conscience when he asks Hamlet for forgiveness (5.2.307). Shakespeare illustrates the dual nature of Laertes’ conscience. He asks Hamlet to “Exchange forgiveness with me [Laertes]” (5.2.307). Claudius, however can ignore his conscience completely while executing his plans. This ability is demonstrated when Claudius murders King while he’s asleep. The ghost tells us that he killed the King while he was asleep.
I was at my safe hour when thy uncle robbed me.
A vial of juice from cursed hebona
And I heard the rain in my porches
The leperous distillment (1.5.61-64)
Claudius’ total lack of conscience, as the ghost describes it, immediately makes him a villain. Claudius’ moral dilemma is revealed when he reviews his actions. He contemplates his actions in soliloquy.
What a smart speech!
The cheek of the harlot, embellished with plast’ring artwork
It doesn’t have to be more ugly than what it supports
Than is my word to my most beautiful deed. (3.1.50-54)
Claudius recognizes his sins and hides them in deepest parts of himself. Claudius deceives others by telling lies, but he feels no different to a prostitute, who masks her venereal illnesses with heavy makeup. Shakespeare shows Claudius his guilt and makes him a real person. He is not completely evil. Claudius’ struggles with conscience are best illustrated when he tries to pray. He weeps.
O, my offense, it smells like heaven.
It hath the primal oldest curse upon it.
Murder of a brother. (3.3.36-38)
Claudius understands his sins and is deeply offended by Heaven, the ultimate judge in morality. Claudius isn’t able to repent as he doesn’t believe he deserves forgiveness. He still possesses “those results for which I committed murder” (3.3.54). Claudius’ duality of his immorality as well as guilt makes him more human. Claudius is more than a villain when he has the opportunity to speak directly to the audience. He is, instead, an individual whose desire has overcome any resistance to his conscience.
Hamlet’s struggle to reconcile his conscience with his past is a clear sign of his character. Hamlet procrastinates, as the ghost demands that Hamlet seek revenge. His inaction angers him and he begins to cry.
That I, the beloved father’s son, have been murdered
I was compelled to take my revenge by hell and heaven.
Would love to hear from a whore (2.2.550-553).
Hamlet is disappointed by his inability not to consider morality. He views himself as a coward for not following his father’s quest immediately. He is unable to satisfy his urges due to his conscience. However, he can do so and he becomes a great hero. Hamlet also realizes that Claudius has a conscience reaction which he can use to convince Claudius of his father’s death. He notifies his father that he had come up with the idea for the play.
It’s more relatable than this: The play’s what
I’ll be able to catch the conscience king. (2.2.571-572)
Hamlet would like to use the power and wisdom of his conscience to make sure the ghost is telling the truth. Hamlet is a profound observer, and this exploiting of conscience is a sign of his awareness. Hamlet, however, also shows his morality in this play. When he kills Polonius, he completely disregards his conscience. He says nothing but “Thou wretched,” and then he goes on to justify his act of murder. Hamlet’s moral perfection and some respect for the audience are lost at this point. Additionally, he ignores his conscience and sends Rosencrantz to England with Guildenstern. Horatio is justified by him.
They did, indeed, fall in love with this job.
They are not in my thoughts; they are their defeat
Can their insinuation make them grow. (5.2. 160-162)
Hamlet showed no remorse at the execution of his schoolmates. Instead of considering the morality, Hamlet tries justifying his friends’ deaths. Most rational people would agree with him that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should be punished for their betrayal, but it seems too steep. Hamlet’s judgment is yet another detract from his initial moral perfection. As he gets further away, he becomes less like the hero he was. His crumbling morality prepares them for the subsequent killing they must do to get revenge on their father. Hamlet stands out from other heroes because of his conscience and moral duality. He is an admirable man, but he is clearly flawed.
The moral struggles of Claudius and Laertes clearly show the depth of Hamlet’s character. Each character is a unique duality in their conscience. Laertes ignores the warning signs of his conscience when he is about commit an inhumane act. Claudius, in contrast, does not show the power of conscience until he is about to commit his horrendous crime.
Hamlet, on the other hand, has the deepest character. His conscience is an intrinsic part. The play opens with Hamlet having a perfect conscience. However, he is forced to leave the clutches of his conscience in order fulfill his father’s quest. The Hamlet’s dualistic conscience mirrors the real world. Few people live at the extremes. We instead alternate between different shades of grey.