Table of Contents
2. Infected minds: moral discrepancies
3. Rotten states: disrupted politics
List of Works Cited
Even to this day, Shakespeare’s plays are raising a series of—perhaps irresolvable—questions. First and foremost, the two tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth have baffled generations of literary researchers who have been toiling away more or less successfully on the disclosure of their many secrets for centuries now. I have no doubt that some of these riddles—for example whether Hamlet has, at some point, transgressed the border to insanity —will never be satisfactorily solved.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that a closer look back at the major works of Shakespeare’s ingenious contemporary Thomas Hobbes can shed some light onto Shakespeare’s cryptic writings. The Leviathan, in particular, takes up many of the issues inherent in Hamlet and Macbeth and, correspondingly, might help us decode some of these mysteries.
Both tragedies, for instance, thematize crimes as they emergence from and contribute to a state of general disorder. In this respect, Hobbes writes in the second part of the Leviathan that “the source of every crime is some defect of the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of the passions. Defect in the understanding is ignorance; in reasoning, erroneous opinion.” (2.17.4). Now, how does that affect our understanding of the plays? Apparently, all unnatural acts root in imbalances of body and soul. And this is exactly what I set out to examine in the course of this term paper: focusing on the mental and political disparities in the tragedies, I am going to explain how it comes to be that both tragic heroes add to the unrest in their respective states.
2. Infected minds: moral discrepancies
Hamlet is first introduced to us as a man in grief who has lost touch with reality as an aftereffect of his father’s death. Where his mother lacks sincere consternation and only seems to enact her mourning (I.ii.76-86), Hamlet is getting carried away by his excessive teariness. In fact, his “grief bears such an emphasis” (V.i.243) that this apparent “disease” starts to “feed even on the pith of live.” (IV.i.22-23). Devastated as he is, he appears to be poised to “self-destruct, to perform rash actions which can only deprive him of all that is most precious to him, of Ophelia, his kingdom, his life and possibly even the salvation of his soul.” (Held 17)
However, this cannot be attributed only to his deep mourning. As Claudius puts it in Act 3, “there’s something in his soul, o’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (III.i.161-62). Hamlet is also prone to a general depression or even weltschmerz. This melancholy is especially obvious in the ‘To-be-or-not-to-be”-soliloquy, when he considers various aspects of life and death and discusses the calamitous state of the world where suffering is inevitable and inseparable from human existence. According to Held “the confusion in the speech between revenge and suicide reflects the conflict in Hamlet’s mind between the two purposes.” (18) It is his over-reflective mind, then, that damns Hamlet to remain inactive and causes infinite regression.
With his impervious apathy (II.ii.261-75) Hamlet does not fit in his surroundings: he speaks in mental leaps and puns, dresses only in black (I.ii.64) and delights neither in men nor in women (II.ii.212). Hence, there are two reasons for his antic disposition: the concrete assignment by his father and his own need to hide his deviant sentiments under the cover-up of his feigned madness. “The initial contrast between inner truth and outer deception, between public professions and private anguish, establishes the necessity for Hamlet to protect himself against the reality of Claudius and his court. “(Charney 64).
This contrivance goes completely awry, though. Because Hamlet cannot be certain what is true and what is not, because he cannot know whether the ghost is really his father’s spirit or just a daemon that wants to “exploit [his] melancholy” (II.ii.533-38), the doubts never let him go anymore: ever since the first ghostly appearance he feels that his mind is upset with “thoughts beyond the reaches of [his] soul” (I.iv.52-56). This confusion soon degenerates into a struggle between emotion and reason. Both Claudius and Ophelia have noticed that Hamlet is now “much from the understanding of himself” (II.ii.9) and that his reasoning has been vitiated by emotional impulses (III.i.56-59). Thus, we can even explain why he has killed Polonius: the hasty murder, which, at first, seems so unlike him, might just be a spontaneous act meant to” release pent-up feelings and frustrations” (“Neglect” 94).
I will now focus on Macbeth, who is first introduced to the reader as a merciless warrior killing anyone who dares to stand in his way. As opposed to this bellicose picture painted by his fellow soldiers, the Macbeth that now enters the stage in order to meet the three witches appears more of a procrastinator not quite dissimilar to Hamlet. He is so unsettled by the prophecy and its early validations that he allows himself to demur on action because of ethical and moral concerns (I.vii.12-26). In effect, he is only tricked into murdering Duncan by Lady Macbeth who is “pouring [her] spirits into [his] ear.” (I.v.15-19) It is then that a long process of continuing moral degeneration turns him into the tyrant and usurper despised so much by his subjects (III.vi.32-37): although it was never intended for him to kill the grooms, this first ever non-commissioned murder of Macbeth’s is still reasonable, for it is the only way for him to avoid a long trial replete with a number of recriminations. The following slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son, however, is both irrational and purposeless. A closer look at his dealings with the witches and their “horrid images” highlights this: totally bewildered as he was in the beginning when first seeing the dagger and the ghost, he now meets them with indifference. Macbeth’s ability to face these images and ask for more until he is confronted again by the murdered Banquo shows how far he has travelled morally and mentally since the opening of the play.” (“Images” 22)
Now, how did this change come about? Like Hamlet, Macbeth has had to mask his natural feelings lest he endangers the completion of his order. In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth instructs him to ”look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t.” (64-65) In the beginning, it doesn’t seem like her husband is able to live up to her expectations: during the banquet scene, for example, the guests become suspicious and start to believe that something was not completely legitimate with his acquisition of the throne. Shortly after the complimentary dinner, Lennox claims that “Things have been strangely borne. The gracious Duncan Was pitied of Macbeth: marry, he was dead”, besides adding that Macduff would probably have been dead as well, had he decided to come to the dinner (III.vi.3-23). But if we are to believe D.J. Palmer, Macbeth later surpasses all expectations and fulfills his task up to a certain point where it harms him. Palmer writes: “Macbeth becomes increasingly inured to horrors and so accustomed to suppressing and masking his natural feelings that in the latter half of the play they seem to wither away.” (61) This is displayed most clearly in the direct response to his wife’s suicide: “so barren is Macbeth now of humane feeling that it takes Seyton to tell him that what he has heard is ‘the cry of women’ (V.v.8-9), and when he learns it is his own wife who has died, he can only shrug wearily over what he cannot feel, and then lament a life devoid of all human meaning…” (Ramsey 298)
This moral degeneration, then, leads to the anticipation of Macbeth’s ruin: by aggravating more and more of his subject’s he spurs their rebellion and, consequently, his own death.
3. Rotten states: the disrupted body politic
In Hamlet, the notion of disorder is apparent throughout the entire play. This state of disturbance and commotion dates back to an event in the past that is not an actual part of the plot but has a decisive impact on all characters, videlicet their actions and inactions: when Old Hamlet was killed, he literally dragged the rest of the country down with him (III.iii.15-23), so that his subjects are left susceptible to a whole spectrum of imponderabilities and incertitudes. Of these, the most palpable one is the apparition of the ghost whose identity remains unclear even after the last scene.
Even though the Ghost wears the armor of Old Hamlet and is similarly built, his facial features remain opaque, even Hamlet is not able to clearly identify his father’s traits (Haverkamp 23). Hence, Horatio and the guards are convinced that this spectre must be a harbinger of further tragedies (I.i.120-24). Hamlet, by contrast, is indecisive: although he assures Horatio of the ghost’s honesty and verisimilitude (I.v.136), he later starts to claim malign intentions, saying that the ghost only wanted to exploit his depression (II.ii.533-38). From this Eric Levy infers that “Hamlet’s dialogue with the Ghost complicates his uncertainty in [the regard of the pending revenge], with the result that he questions both (a) his own courage to implement purpose . . . and (b) the Ghost’s motives in enunciating purpose. “(74)
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- Ann-Kathrin Latter (Autor), 2015, A comparison of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Macbeth". Moral discrepancies and disrupted politics, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/354503