Hamlet - Cultural Identity
In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the concept of cultural identity is explored through Hamlet’s isolation which is created by the conflict between his duty to his father, and his duties to the monarchy and society. Hamlet is isolated from his society due to his turbulent emotions which result from his indecision on how to respond to his father’s murder. Hamlet’s duty as a son is to avenge his father’s death and he would be supported in his actions by society if the murderer was believed to be guilty. Hamlet’s duty as a citizen and a Prince is to protect the King and to ensure stability in the monarchy. In order for Hamlet to revenge his father he would have to kill the King which creates a conflict between his two primary duties. Because of this, Hamlet finds it difficult to decide how to proceed and which duty takes precedence, and Hamlet decides to gather evidence as proof of Claudius’ guilt so that his revenge is justified to society and to himself. The ‘unholiness’ of murdering a king who is also a close relative is highlighted by Claudius and this allows the audience to better understand the conflict and the indecision facing Hamlet.
Hamlet’s duty as a son, in his social context and circumstances, is one which encourages him to seek revenge for his murdered father. For Hamlet to be perceived as a noble and worthy son, he would have to kill his father’s murderer, and his actions would be supported by society as long as the murderer was believed to be guilty. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy after the encounter with the ghost early in the play, when the ghost tells him that he must seek revenge, Hamlet quickly acknowledges his duty as a son.
Hamlet: I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past…
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. (I.5.99-104)
Hamlet seems to decide with determination that he will “wipe away” all of his memories of “youth”, and all “past pressures” so that the ghost’s “commandment” to seek revenge would be his only focus, without the distraction of “baser matter”. Hamlet’s duty as a son is shown clearly at this point where he accepts the ghost’s words, be it from fear or loyalty, and he appears to decide that he must fulfil his duty and kill Claudius. If he were to do otherwise, Hamlet knows that the values he believes in, and therefore the values of the society which raised him, would not permit him to live as a noble and worthy son and citizen.
Hamlet’s duty to the monarchy and his role in society are in direct conflict with his duty as a son. Hamlet’s duty to the monarchy is to protect the King and Hamlet’s role in society as a Prince is to show leadership, live an honourable life and ensure stability in the kingdom. It is socially expected of Hamlet to protect the King and his position as Prince determines his need to obey society’s moral values to remain a noble and worthy person. A direct conflict would occur if Hamlet were to kill Claudius because he would fulfil his duties as a son but society would view his actions as betraying the society and the monarchy. He would be acting against his own socially enforced values and in the opinion of society, and perhaps in his own mind, he would be committing the highest act of treachery. This is very important with respect to Hamlet’s indecision and resulting isolation since his duty to the monarchy and to society is in direct conflict with his duty to his dead father.
Society’s view of murdering a king as the most sacrilegious crime of all is illustrated by Claudius when he reflects on his own actions in killing his brother, King Hamlet. An understanding of the conflict facing Hamlet that leads to his isolation occurs because there is a direct link between Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet and Hamlet’s planned murder of Claudius. In both situations, a man kills a king, who is also a close relative, albeit