Hamlet: The Theme of Having A Clear Conscience

Hamlet: The Theme of Having A Clear Conscience
The most important line in Hamlet is, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch
the conscience of the king.” (II, ii, 617). In the play, the issue of a clear
conscience forms a key motif. When the conscience of the characters appears, it
does so as a result of some action; as in the case of the aforementioned line,
which follows Hamlet’s conversation with the player. This line is of particular
significance because it ties action and its effect on the conscience of the
characters. The nature of Hamlet is conscience, and action plays an important
role in creating the development of the plot.

No where is this development seen clearer than with Hamlet. The Prince’s
development comes as a result of the self-evaluation of the actions that have
taken place, and the ensuing actions that he takes are a clear result of this
self-evaluation. So, in essence, the actions cause him to think of his
conscience and then act upon these feelings. Hamlet’s several soliloquies are a
testament to this method. His first soliloquy, following a conversation with
his recently wed mother and uncle reflect the uneasiness he feels. He feels
betrayed. “O, most wicked speed, to post, with such dexterity to incestuous
sheets. . . but break my heart, for I must hold my tounge.” (I, ii, 156-159).

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Hamlet’s conscience tells him what is wrong-in this case, the hasty marriage-but
he is ambivalent as to how to approach it; before he meets the ghost, silence is
his method. When Hamlet meets his father’s ghost however, he feels sure of
himself, and knows what he must do. As a result of the dialogue with the ghost,
Hamlet’s conscience makes him feel that revenge is the best method to deal with
the problems that face him.

The consciences of Hamlet, and to a lesser extent, Claudius, affect their
decisions in the play. However, both characters only question themselves after
they have been prompted by some specific action or dialogue. By self-evaluation,
the characters then make the conscious decision to take action with their
feelings. An example of this is at the end of act II, following Hamlet’s
conversation with the player. In the soliloquy to end the act (whereupon the
most important line is derived), Hamlet questions his passion for the plot he
has planned, and his conversation has clearly affected this ambivlance. However,
after mulling over his passion- or lack thereof-towards his plot, Hamlet ends
the soliloquy determined to carry out the play. Hamlet is questioning his
allegiance to the “pact” he made with his father in Act I, but by the end of the
soliloquy, he has a clearer conscience and knows what action he is to take.

Claudius is prompted by the Murder of Gonzago to do penance for his sins. He
does this to absolve himself of his guilty conscience, and it is the first time
we see the king show any penitence towards the sins he committed, and it offers
a different perspective towards Claudius. Although he is a man who is crafty
and wicked in the play, and his actions following this confessional do little to
offer anything to the contrary, it is possible to say that the penance is the
action which follows a conscience mulling action by the king.At the beginning
of Act III, Claudius states, “How smart a lash that speech doth give my
conscience.” (III, i, 49-50). The remark is made in response to a statement by
Polonius speaking of “sugaring the devil”, which Claudius alludes to himself.

By doing this, the king’s conscience is brought up because this is the first
time he confesses to comitting the “crimes”. With a little insight, even the
actions of the king follow suit with the conscience to action motif.

All of the soliloquies in Hamlet are prompted by some sort of action, and they
all serve to clear the Prince’s conscience. From the aforementioned first
soliloquy to his last soliloquy following his conversation with the captain of
Fortinbras forces, Hamlet’s conscience is affected by some action. Hamlet’s
decision’s are keyed by pondering over his conscience and it is the decisions he
makes which further the actions of the play. It is action which prompts Hamlet
to mull over his conscience, and the clearing of his conscience which prompts


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