Hamlet: The Theme of Having A Clear ConscienceThe most important line in Hamlet is, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catchthe conscience of the king.” (II, ii, 617). In the play, the issue of a clearconscience forms a key motif. When the conscience of the characters appears, itdoes 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 particularsignificance because it ties action and its effect on the conscience of thecharacters. The nature of Hamlet is conscience, and action plays an importantrole in creating the development of the plot.No where is this development seen clearer than with Hamlet. The Prince’sdevelopment comes as a result of the self-evaluation of the actions that havetaken place, and the ensuing actions that he takes are a clear result of thisself-evaluation.
So, in essence, the actions cause him to think of hisconscience and then act upon these feelings. Hamlet’s several soliloquies are atestament to this method. His first soliloquy, following a conversation withhis recently wed mother and uncle reflect the uneasiness he feels. He feelsbetrayed.
“O, most wicked speed, to post, with such dexterity to incestuoussheets. . . but break my heart, for I must hold my tounge.” (I, ii, 156-159).Hamlet’s conscience tells him what is wrong-in this case, the hasty marriage-buthe is ambivalent as to how to approach it; before he meets the ghost, silence ishis method.
When Hamlet meets his father’s ghost however, he feels sure ofhimself, 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 withthe problems that face him.The consciences of Hamlet, and to a lesser extent, Claudius, affect theirdecisions in the play. However, both characters only question themselves afterthey have been prompted by some specific action or dialogue. By self-evaluation,the characters then make the conscious decision to take action with theirfeelings. An example of this is at the end of act II, following Hamlet’sconversation with the player.
In the soliloquy to end the act (whereupon themost important line is derived), Hamlet questions his passion for the plot hehas planned, and his conversation has clearly affected this ambivlance. However,after mulling over his passion- or lack thereof-towards his plot, Hamlet endsthe soliloquy determined to carry out the play. Hamlet is questioning hisallegiance to the “pact” he made with his father in Act I, but by the end of thesoliloquy, 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. Hedoes this to absolve himself of his guilty conscience, and it is the first timewe see the king show any penitence towards the sins he committed, and it offersa different perspective towards Claudius.
Although he is a man who is craftyand wicked in the play, and his actions following this confessional do little tooffer anything to the contrary, it is possible to say that the penance is theaction which follows a conscience mulling action by the king.At the beginningof Act III, Claudius states, “How smart a lash that speech doth give myconscience.” (III, i, 49-50). The remark is made in response to a statement byPolonius speaking of “sugaring the devil”, which Claudius alludes to himself.By doing this, the king’s conscience is brought up because this is the firsttime he confesses to comitting the “crimes”. With a little insight, even theactions 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 theyall serve to clear the Prince’s conscience. From the aforementioned firstsoliloquy to his last soliloquy following his conversation with the captain ofFortinbras forces, Hamlet’s conscience is affected by some action. Hamlet’sdecision’s are keyed by pondering over his conscience and it is the decisions hemakes which further the actions of the play. It is action which prompts Hamletto mull over his conscience, and the clearing of his conscience which promptsaction. English