Corruption in Hamlet:
Is Hamlet an Evil Avenger?
The first and central occurrence of corruption in Hamlet is the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius and his subsequent usurpation of the Danish. He also marries Gertude, King Hamlet's former wife. From an Elizabethan perspective, such a marriage would have been considered adultery and incest. “She married — O most wicked speed! To post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” (220.127.116.11). King Hamlet's assassination takes place before the play's narrative begins. We are informed about it by King Hamlet's ghost: “The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown” (1.5.39-40). This “primal eldest curse,” a brother's murder, is the crux of the play, the pivotal event that triggers all the corruption and intrigue. As Hamlet puts it: “Ay, sir, to be honest as this world goes is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.” (2.2.178-79). His obsession with corruption imbues his senses for most parts of the play.
We find corruption mainly in the act of taking and planning the act of vengeance. Claudius' “self-defence” against Hamlet becomes a source of corruption, too, when he realises how Hamlet could threaten his throne. In the beginning he is well-disposed towards Hamlet, calls him his son and confirms him as successor of the throne. Hamlet does not respond positively to these seemingly sympathetic overtures, since he envisions his “war” against Claudius, if not life in general as an endless struggle played by unfair rules: “Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man is contumely,” (3.1.71). Hamlet is upset with his own fate and the world order in general. He even calls all of Denmark a prison (2.2.243). Claudius as king is a formidable opponent, forcing Hamlet to use all his wits to entrap him, even in the wake of considerable loss of life as the play progresses.
The play is full of intrigues from beginning to end. One could try to generalise Hamlet, Claudius and Laertes as perpetrators; Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius and others as victims. Although this distinction is not unambiguous, since Hamlet, Claudius and Laertes are also victims, Polonius the henchman of Claudius and Gertrude at least morally questionable. The tragic ending of the play, where almost all the main characters (Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius) are killed, is a touchstone of corruption. As Bevington notes, we find the same “eye for an eye pagan ethic” as in Saxo's oldest known version handed down from ancient Scandinavia (p. 55). Prosser argues that the lex talionis principle, as it appears in the play, is deeply anchored in our instincts (p.5), it is part of our culture. One could call it the primal law, which used to be applied all over Europe, from north to south. We even find it in the Old Testament. Jenkins writes about Hamlet: “we have a hero who in seeking to right a wrong commits one, whose aspirations and achievements are matched by failures and offences, and in whom potentialities for good and evil hauntingly coexist. And this is what transforms the single-mingled revenger into the complex representation of us all.” (p. 146)
The main source of corruption appears to be Hamlet's opposition to Claudius. As becomes clear early in the play, Hamlet cannot accept Claudius, neither as father nor as king, even before the ghost reveals the circumstances of his death. When Claudius greets Hamlet with: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” Hamlet answers: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (1.2.64- 65). Although he cannot deny ties of blood to Claudius, his uncle, Hamlet leaves no doubt that he is neither like him nor likes him. As he says: “I am too much in the sun” (1.2.67), i.e. I do not appreciate being favoured by you so much, I am not your son. Shakespeare uses this pun on sun and son to create this ambiguity. Furthermore, Hamlet idolizes his dead father: “I shall not look upon his like again” (1.2.187) and leaves no doubt that Claudius cannot at all be compared to him. Later in the play, he reproaches Gertrude: “Have you eyes? Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed And batten on this moor?” (3.4.65-67).
Nardo argues for a double-bind theory (p. 184), which partly also explains Hamlet's melancholy. He cannot oppose Claudius in public, because he is the king. For example, Hamlet has to obey him when the king directs that he remains in Denmark, although Hamlet wants to go back to Wittenberg. As Mercer writes, Claudius maintains an “image of firm but benevolent authority” at the Danish court (p. 137) . Hamlet has to moderate his personal resentments against Claudius. Nevertheless, his, at times over-exaggerated, grief also allows him to keep a certain distance to Claudius as Mercer concludes (p. 142). Claudius calls Hamlet's grief “unmanly” (2.2.94), but King Hamlet's death justifies his behaviour to a certain point and it cannot be considered wholly feigned either, although he capitalizes on it for his vengeful purposes, as we see Hamlet weeps in private too: “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133-34). When his melancholy mutates into an alleged temporary madness, he uses this dispositional effect to achieve his aims. In other words, it gives him a certain fool's freedom. To what extent it is pretence or real is debatable, for Hamlet seems to lose complete control at times, e.g. when he mistakenly kills Polonius. At other times, he seems just to feign being mad.
Terry sees Hamlet as a middle point in a changing honour system of the time (p. 1084), from medieval chivalry to a modern, more personal, internalized and moralistic understanding of the term. In the medieval honour code, which is not completely irrelevant for the people in the Renaissance, “betraying one's lord is the worst of all crimes” (p. 1078). Hamlet talks about himself as a “peasant slave” (2.2.544) and his obsession with revenging his father also seems to follow a medieval or even ancient pagan code of honour, when compared to modern jurisprudence. “That I, the son of a dear father murder'd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell (2.2.579-80). Prosser suggests that in his deterioration of the mind Hamlet shuts out everything else but the thought of revenge (p. 8). She argues that Hamlet is morally obligated to obey his father's ghost (p. 238) and that he does not even consider the possibility of revenge being immoral (p. 167).
The ghost of Hamlet's father itself is an important and often discussed character, for he takes the oath of revenge from Hamlet: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love … Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (1.5.23-25). He also repudiates Claudius in the most wicked way - although one cannot say that he has no reason for doing so - and further manifests the opposition between Claudius and Hamlet: “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts … won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.” (1.5.42-46). From the beginning, the origin of the ghost is unclear, as Hamlet says: “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd … Thou com'st in such a questionable shape” (1.4.40-43). Marcellus and Horatio warn Hamlet against trusting the apparition: “But do not go with it. No, by no means.” (1.5.62-63). Later in the play Hamlet even says to Horatio: “If this occulted guilt Do not unkennel in one speech, It is a damned ghost that we have seen, And my imaginations are as foul as Vulcan's stithy.” (3.2.80-84). Nevertheless, it is unquestionable that Hamlet almost unconditionally subordinates himself to the ghost's intercession.
Prosser examined the ghost in Hamlet thoroughly and comes to the conclusion that it is an evil spirit, because taking revenge must have been regarded as blasphemy (p. 6). As we find it written in the Bible: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). She claims that “the nature of vengeance makes justice impossible” (p. 7). Her approach is rather religious and her moral standards might be set a little too high, especially for a play which is more than 400 years old. Unsurprisingly, her argumentation has not remained undisputed, but, although one must not totally agree with her, she makes some interesting and definitely important points. As it seems, the ghost has a negative, inciting effect on Hamlet and its legitimacy is queried more than once throughout the play.
Soliloquies play a significant role for the understanding and analysis of a character, and one of the most famous ones in Hamlet, as well as in world literature, is the “to be or not to be soliloquy”. As it is generally agreed upon, Hamlet does not really consider suicide an option here, the soliloquy mirrors his situation, at least as he sees himself. As Hassel explains the soliloquy expresses “his almost unbearable grief and disillusionment, a feeling of helplessness in the face of events he cannot control.” (p. 613). Hamlet, who had already been melancholic because of his father's death and his mother's quick remarriage, is now informed about the circumstances of his father's death. He has been murdered by his own brother in order to scam the crown. Hamlet asks himself: “Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.” (3.1.57-60). As I have already tried to point out, Hamlet's position to oppose the apparently legitimate king, is more than uncomfortable. Prosser argues that Hamlet recovered from his melancholy and “has been roused to action” at this point of the play, his “choice is between suffering the ills of this world and taking resolute action against them” (p. 159). Hamlet declaims his decision to fight against the injustice which has been done to him and his father, although he is aware of the resistance he can expect from the King of Denmark and his followers.
A tragic case of corruption is found with Ophelia, she is denied freedom of choice and treated more like a mannequin than an actual person. Although a treatment like this might not have been uncommon for a young girl at the time, she is obviously driven mad by Hamlet as well as her own family. First, she is forbidden to keep contact with Hamlet by Laertes and Polonius, because she is of too low rank for a crown prince. But when the royal couple gives the blessings to that relationship, in the hope of Hamlet's recovery, Hamlet refuses her: “I did love thee once.” (3.1.115). But that is not enough, he accuses her to be of low moral: “Get the to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be the breeder of sins?” (121-22) and of false pretence: “I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.” (144-46). Although Hamlet is questioning the morals of mankind in general, he still addresses Ophelia directly and harasses her in that scene as well as later during the Mousetrap. One can actually argue for Hamlet being a misogynist, the trigger has unequivocally been his discontent with Gertrude's remarriage. As he states: “Frailty, thy name is Woman” (1.2.146). Prosser writes: “Once Hamlet has been forced to consider Ophelia as a fallible woman, his mind swiftly associates her with Gertrude.” (p. 175).
Bevington sees Ophelia as an indirect victim, who has just been at the wrong place at the wrong time (p. 60), but Hassel blames Hamlet for his self-centredness and self-indulgent use of other people in order to get rid of his own fury and frustration (p. 617). I think the truth, as so often, lies somewhere in the middle. Ophelia is sent to Hamlet right after his soliloquy, when he is most lost in thoughts of rage and vengeance. He is simply not in the condition to hold a normal conversation. In addition, he seems to have lost interest in Ophelia completely, as he makes her as well as the reader believe. He is obsessed by the idea that the whole world has become corrupt and shows no intent to spare Ophelia with his reproaches. Claudius, who eavesdrops Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia, comes to the following conclusion:
“There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclosure Will be some danger; which for to prevent, I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall speed to England” (3.1.166-71).
Hamlet is confused and seeks assurance about his motives to revenge his father, he instructs the players, who came to the court for his encouragement, to modify the Murder of Gonzago so that it equals Claudius evil deed in almost every detail. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you” (3.2.1-2). He asks Horatio for assistance, for he will be expected to sit next to the royal couple and will hardly be able to observe Claudius all the time: “One scene of it comes near the circumstance Which I have told thee of my father's death. I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot, Even with the very comment of thy soul Observe my uncle.” (3.2.76-80). Choosing and manipulating the play is an ingenious move on the part of Hamlet, who that way just circumvents existing social restrictions. It would just have been impossible to confront Claudius directly with such gross accusations as murder and adultery, but a theatre play is universally regarded innocent entertainment. Nardo even sees the Mousetrap as part of the revenge (pp. 190-91), at least Hamlet uses the opportunity to stultify Claudius: “Tis a knavish piece of work, but what o' that? Your Majesty, and I we that have free souls, it touches us not.” (3.2.235-37). Claudius' reaction is unambiguous: “Give me some light. Away.” (3.2.263). Claudius is perplexed by the paradox of a true illusion (Nardo, p. 192). How could Hamlet know the details of his father's assassination? Claudius is driven into temporary bewilderment, he needs to be alone for a while. His response to the play is clear: “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us To let his madness range. … Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow Out of his brows.” (3.3.1-8). On the other hand, the play has also been a warn shot for Claudius, he is now aware of Hamlet's knowledge and what danger that means to him. At least the ghost turns out to be telling the truth: “O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound.” (3.2.280-81). Hamlet is satisfied, his plan worked out and he is yearning for revenge ere long.
What follows is usually described as “the prayer scene”. Assumingly undisturbed, Claudius confesses his crime: “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't - A brother's murder. Pray can I not, Though inclination be as sharp as will, My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent” (3.3.36-40). Hamlet finds Claudius praying, alone and vulnerable, actually an ideal situation for taking revenge, but Hamlet hesitates: “I, his sole son, do this villain send To heaven. Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.77-79).