The Role of Providence in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Hamlet's Role in Providence
Hamlet's mind is a mind of extremes that senses corruption with physical acuteness. Within this mind of moral absolution, Hamlet takes upon himself the charge of providence given in the form of a ghost and scolds himself harshly for his inability to enact it. However, Hamlet's inaction, rather than a fault, is really the moral questioning brought on by a morally ambiguous command. If it is philosophically right, it must be physically moral. Eventually, however, Hamlet discovers that what he thought was his moral obligation is impossible to accomplish within his own morally absolute standards. It is through this struggle Hamlet learns that though his rationalities are guided by providence, he himself is not an instrument of providence. And in a mind where what "seems" and what "is" are one in the same, this realization is no small matter.
SOMETHING IS ROTTEN
Hamlet's conflict begins as he is forced to come to terms with some of humanity's darker fundamental truths which are brought to a sudden, grotesque illumination by the moral corruption evident in the actions of his uncle and mother. His struggle begins first in considering the very existence of such moral corruption. Hamlet's absolute mind grants physical repugnance to moral decay that he assumes is equally reprehensible to everyone else. Also brought to light is the disconnect between appearance and reality and man's tendency to regard the former over the latter. Hamlet explores this all within a morally absolute mind. It is when Hamlet is called to act in the context of the ambiguity in which he finds himself that the true conflict begins.
MORALLY AMBIGUOUS CHARGE
The appearance of the Ghost represents this very confrontation. Though it is undoubtedly visually real, as it is seen by multiple people on multiple occasions, it is ironically both confirmed and questioned. "Shall I strike at it with my partisan?" (1.1.140). Though it appears real enough for Marcellus to attack, it remains "as the air, invulnerable" (1.1.145). And though it may be his father or it may be a demon, Hamlet is led irrationally to follow and discover it. It is no surprise that this simultaneous embodiment of the angelic and the demonic is compelling to a man in whose mind the two are exclusively heterogeneous. The Ghost charges Hamlet to exact revenge for the crimes against him. He appeals to Hamlet's sense of morality as he lists Claudius's offenses. Hamlet is led to the conclusion that justice must be brought upon Claudius, and he is the one who must do it. He accepts the charge wholeheartedly and, in doing so, accepts without consideration his role as executor of providence.
As Hamlet accepts the irrational charge of the Ghost, he is led to several equally irrational conclusions that drive him until the end. If he accepts revenge as moral justice then he is forced, in the context of his morally absolute mind, to view his father as the epitome of moral sanctity and Claudius as that of moral depravity.
There are only these extremes.
Similarly, his mother, her sin sexual in nature, is made an archetype woman of grotesque extremity. These misconceptions lead Hamlet to debase himself as a vermin, his mother as frailty incarnate and Ophelia as a breeder of sinners. it is his adherence to this absoluteness that causes Hamlet to accept the charge of his father, "Hyperion" (1.2.140) and exact vengeance upon the "satyr" Claudius. As Hamlet erases from his mind "all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past" (1.5.100), revenge takes the shape of moral absolution and supplants all else.
Hamlet also takes it upon himself to act as his mother's moral conscience despite the Ghost's warnings to leave her to providence. The Ghost tells him, "Leave her to heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge" (1.5.86-87). However, there is a disconnect here that Hamlet cannot quite come to grips with.
How can he leave Gertrude to providence while at the same time be an instrument of providence?
If he is truly the executor of justice, how can he leave such sin unreckoned? Just as the poison poured in Claudius's ear silenced the king, so the tale of murder and cry for revenge poured out to Hamlet has rendered him effectually bound to silence. The problem here is that he is simultaneously summoned to action.
The disconnect that Hamlet begins to struggle with is inherent in the Ghost's command (Mack 207). To Hamlet's absolute mind, there is no distinction between appearance and reality--what seems and what is. To him, Denmark is a diseased place, so it is manifested within his mind as physically so. It both "is" and "seems" as a poison. Appearance and reality are as inseparable as the mind and the will:
What devil was't
that thus hath cozened you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears wihtout hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame, where is thy blush?
Hamlet does not understand how others are blind to what is, to him, a physically evident rankness and disease. Similarly, when his mother questions his depression based on his appearance, Hamlet retorts that his appearance is but a dim reflection of what he truly is (1.2.76-86). His mother essentially suggests that though his grief is natural, it is unnatural to let it be shown so long physically. However, Hamlet cannot comprehend this sort of disconnect.
- Act II, Scene ii, Lines 560-617
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
This conflict becomes most charged as Hamlet begins to examine the disconnect within himself. In his soliloquy in act 2 scene 2 lines 560-617, Hamlet begins to perceive this very sharply. He is called to revenge but seems to be unable to do anything bout it. David Scott suggests that Hamlet remains unable to act until he can convince himself that "revenge is a mode of restoration rather than reprisal" (113). For now, however, Hamlet is unaware of this differentiation and arguably never is. He translates the moral impossibility of his task to an irresoluteness descendent of some moral deficiency within himself. "My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites" (3.2.405). Though Hamlet may consider morality in absolute terms, it is impossible for him to successfully marry thoughts and actions in the area of morality if he is indeed to remain a truly moral character.
UNDERSTANDING, OR SOMETHING LIKE IT
As the gulf between "seems" and "is" widens in Hamlet's mind, his self-depreciation transforms into a greater understanding of the impossibility of an absolute marriage between will and actions. His famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy is an obvious grappling with death and life. Similarly, it is a struggle between whether it is better to allow injustice or take action against it. For the first time, Hamlet is beginning to consider on a fundamental level action as a matter of ambiguous morality. Self-depreciation is supplanted by intense questioning and doubt.
As Hamlet recognizes the discord of passion and action within himself, he begins subconciously to question the charge instigated by the Ghost. He even sees in the ambitious Fortinbras something that strikes a chord:
Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at stake.
Hamlet wonders why such a vulgar motivator as ambition and honor inspires so great a charge while his divine appointment cannot. Hamlet is again condemning himself for his inaction, but his claims are more dubious now than in previous speeches. Hamlet admits Fortinbras's action has no meaning or substance, yet he chooses to compare himself to him anyway. Though Hamlet may appear to value Fortinbras's single-mindedness, it is evident that he, at least subconsciously, is aware of its emptiness (Westlund 246). Just as Hamlet wrestles against this inaction, he is brought back to question his faculties of reason.
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, give us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused.
Hamlet is beginning to recognize reason as providentially inspired. However, he still remains confident in his own ability to look "before and after" and is confused that his use of reason has not allowed him to carry out the action he has taken for granted as his moral resoponsibility.
AN OBJECTIVE LOOK
Thus far, Hamlet's struggle between what "seems" and what "is" and the beginning of his doubts have been examined on primarily subjective terms. That is, the lessons that Hamlet seems to be coming to grips with have arisen based on his own reaction to the ambiguity of his existential circumstances and are, in themselves, ambiguous. It is therefore only fair to examine how some of the other characters face and respond to similar circumstances and from there gain a more objective look at the lessons that Hamlet is learning.
THE PLAYER KING
The first speech of the Player King in act 3 scene 2, when viewed in the light of Hamlet's current situation, gives remarkable insight into the ambiguities he faces:
But what we do determine oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity,
Which now like fruit unripe sticks on the tree,
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
Most Necessary 'tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
Hamlet's purpose was to demonstrate how the Player Queen protests and enact some sort of providential guilt on his mother; however, there is something important in the Player King's words. The baser truth is that often what people intend to do, never gets accomplished as loss of will parallels the natural process of waning passion (Westlund 246-247). Though the speech is not presented in the light of providence, its equality to natural order gives it a similar tone of inevitability. "Purpose is but the slave to memory," stands in direct opposition to the Ghost's charge, "Remember me" (1.5.91). While Hamlet's passions persist, so does his memory. However, passion like the mellow fruit inevitably falls and so does the resolution founded upon it. It is a natural process, but Hamlet has irrationally attached moral repercussions against it. The Player King does end in a vaguely providential tone saying, "Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own" (3.2.219).
Claudius's bedroom prayer soliloquy adds another dimension to the objective consideration of ambiguous fate:
Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect
What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engaged!
Claudius recognizes the conflict between will and action. Though he sadly mischaracterizes the truth of grace by assuming he must free himself of his sinful trappings, he nonetheless recognizes that intent to act morally does not necessarily mean one will. Claudius knows he does wrong; he knows he has the power to make it right and also the power to choose not to (Sheldon 358). To be morally convicted is not to be morally absolute. Hamlet does not understand this.
A CHANGED HAMLET
Until his departure for England, Hamlet remains poised in his ambiguous state between seems and is, will and action. The Hamlet that returns, however, is different. Not fundamentally different but changed, developed. Even the glimpse gained of him in his letter to Horatio shows a Hamlet only hinted at previously in his sudden, mistaken killing of Polonius which was the first action that Hamlet truly engaged in. And now aboard the ship, Hamlet is portrayed as a determined and quick to action individual, much different than expected. When he returns, he praises the rashness of his action.
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and what should learn us
there's a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will."
But this is a different kind of action altogether than what has henceforth been demanded of Hamlet. Rather than being an executor or some almighty arm of morality, providence presented him with a situation, and Hamlet reacted to it. This is not to say that rashness is always wise, but it seems at least in some part neessary to explore freedom of will, a freedom which had previously been bound from Hamlet in the providential directive of a ghost. It is necessary and indeed inevitable to a fallible human who would otherwise be caught in the impossibility of enacting absolute morality. Nor is this the only instance of rash action as Hamlet, against his own better judgment, agrees to cross rapiers with Laertes. Hamlet has effectively freed himself of the demans of the ghost. This makes his eventual rash killing of Claudius much more meaningful than if it had been a premeditated exacting of revenge. It is rash and free willed.
Even with his dying breath, Hamlet Comes to grips with the fact that he cannot know or control what is beyond him.
"the rest is silence" (5.2.359)
Hamlet, a man of infinite reason and moral certitude, is forced to come to grips with the ambiguous existential truths of a corrupt and diseased world (Mack 205). Through self-doubt and questioning and in struggling with and against providence, he is able to recognize more completely his role in the context of the special providence that directs the world. He is neither led blindly by it nor can he act independently of it. It is not man's nature to remain ripe on the tree, but rather to fall and accept humanity for what it truly is, a rough-hewn edge arranged by an infinitely superior providence.
Kastan, David Scott. "'His semblable in his mirror': Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge."Shakespeare Studies. Vol. 19 (1987): 111-122.
Mack, Maynard. "The World of Hamlet."The Yale Review. 41 (1952): 502-523.
Shelden, Michael. "Imagery of Constraint in Hamlet."Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 28, No. 3 (1977): 355-358.
Skulsky, Harold. "'I Know My Course': Hamlet's Confidence."PMLA. Vol. 89, No. 3 (1974): 477-486.
Westlund, Joseph. "Ambivalence in the Player's Speech in Hamlet." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 18, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (1978): 245-256.