Hamlet's Problem as a Renaissance Man
Hamlet title page
Today, readers see a “Renaissance Man” in a favorable light, but being a man of the Renaissance did not prove to be favorable for Hamlet. While the play was not set in the Renaissance, Shakespeare wrote it in that period with the characteristics of a true Renaissance Man applied to Hamlet. In fact, his status as a “Renaissance Man” is to blame for the bulk of the conflict in Hamlet. Old ideas and the Christian way of life challenge Hamlet as he deals with the death of his father and swift remarriage of his mother to his uncle.
Ophelia establishes Hamlet as a “Renaissance Man” in Act Three, when Polonius has sends her out as a decoy to demonstrate his theory to the king. Polonius proposes that Hamlet’s melancholy is due to love-sickness for Ophelia. As Polonius and the king eavesdrop, Hamlet refuses to recall any gifts he has given to Ophelia and demonstrates no emotional attachment to her. As he walks away, Ophelia remarks what a shame it is that his mind is gone. She establishes him as a person who fulfills (or in this case, who fulfilled) many roles: courtier, soldier, scholar, and as an eloquent speaker, claiming to having sucked the honey out of his lyrical expressions of love for her (3.1.163-175). Using theater to trap Claudius rather than brutally killing him is another example that establishes Hamlet as a “Renaissance Man” (3.2.)
As a “Renaissance Man,” Hamlet finds himself caught in a precarious situation. The ghost of his father expects him to avenge his death by swiftly killing Claudius (1.5.88-93). This is just in King Hamlet’s eyes, the traditional way wrongs were righted. However, Hamlet takes Christianity into consideration. He is caught between what his ghostly father wants him to do and what his Holy Ghostly Father expects of him. Hamlet’s ghostly father, who admits he died without having time to repent (1.5.83), wants him to kill Claudius. His Holy Ghostly Father, however, commands him not to kill (Exodus 13). Add to this confusion God’s commandment to honor one’s parents (Exodus 12).
Even despite his ghostly father’s instruction to let heaven deal with the queen (1.5.93), Hamlet has a difficult time fulfilling God’s commandment to honor his mother. He sees her remarriage as both bestial and incestuous (1.2.154, 162). No one else in the kingdom seems to find the queen’s swift remarriage as incestuous or in bad taste (p30, note 162). He believes an old superstition that the incest will bring ruin to the kingdom (1.2.163).
Hamlet wants to avenge his father’s death as tradition dictates, but his Christianity makes him question the notion. He ponders the idea of the ghost being the devil, appearing for the purpose of enticing him to wrongly commit murder and thus doom his soul to hell (2.2.627-633). The conflict that spreads him among traditional superstitions, Christianity, and being a “Renaissance Man” continues to wear on Hamlet throughout the play. Perhaps the best example of his confusion is the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy (3.1.63-98). In it, Hamlet questions whether it is better to be clear of conscience as Christianity promotes or to seek revenge as is the age-old tradition his father’s ghost has requested (3.1.63-68).
The religious aspect of Hamlet’s conflict confuses him even more. He ponders “the dread of something after death” (3.1.86). In terms of Protestant Christianity, this dread would be Hell. However, the appearance of his father’s ghost set wandering due to his inability to repent before death, suggests Roman Catholic purgatory. Hamlet is conflicted in believing the apparition of his father or the most modern ideas of afterlife promoted by Protestantism.
Ultimately, Hamlet believes his conscience is making him over-think his duty, making him a coward afraid to avenge his father’s murder (3.1.91). In the end, however, Fortinbras resolves Hamlet’s conflict after his death by proclaiming the prince proved “most royal” (5.2.444). Fortinbras sees to it that the people of the kingdom respect Hamlet and gives him the funeral of a courageous soldier (5.2.44-46).
"Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments." Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+20&version=NIV (accessed November 12, 2012).
Shakesepeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Eds. New York: Washington Square Press,1992.