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Sympathetic but Guilty By Conscience
People are sometimes forced to live with feelings of guilt that not only affect their conscience, but can also potentially lead to destroying their own life and even the life of others. This characterization tends to humanize such people, while some may simply dismiss them to be malevolent. Some may show remorse, which may suggest that they are misguided rather than purely evil. However, this remorse may not deter them from making future mistakes. In Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, although Claudius’ and Hamlet’s guilt make them appear sympathetic towards the audience, the effect of their conscience does not prevent them from becoming destructive in how they bring about death, ruin Gertrude, and struggle for power.
Although Hamlet weighs many contemplative questions in his mind that prevent him from taking revenge on his uncle Claudius, it does not prevent Hamlet from becoming destructive. This is because he is responsible for the deaths of many characters in the play. First of all, he frames Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to be killed and exhibits no remorse for it, thus indicating how Hamlet’s conscience has turned destructive. Secondly, Hamlet’s rash, murderous and destructive actions come about again, when he stabs Polonius behind the curtain. This shows his inability to harmonize his thoughts and actions. It is as though Hamlet is so distrustful in the likelihood of being rational that he feels his revenge will come about as an accident rather than as an intended act. When Hamlet sees the corpse of Polonius, he looks at his offense in terms of retribution and vengeance: “…But heaven hath pleased it so, to punish me with this, and this with me…the death I gave him” (III. iv 174-178). Even though Hamlet has not yet taken revenge for his father’s death on Claudius, God has used him as a tool of retribution to punish his sins by staining his soul with guilt for murdering Polonius. With Hamlet, feeling little remorse for killing Polonius, he inadvertently kills Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, by driving her into madness. Ophelia, throughout the play, is very dependant on men, so once her father is killed by the man she supposedly “loves,” her world crashes into madness, which soon leads to her death. When Hamlet returns to Denmark to see Ophelia’s funeral in procession, he explodes in grief and rage and his assault on Laertes allows the audience to view his true feelings for Ophelia: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” (V. i 271-273). Hamlet’s guilt for indirectly killing her comes across when he tells Claudius and everyone at the funeral, that he will do anything for her, even buried alive with her. The audience can see from both situations that Hamlet’s mind is clouded with rage. Hamlet’s thoughts consume him so much that he is unable to see how his actions will lead to destruction; his guilty conscience also leads to the death of several innocent characters. Therefore, the audience can sympathize with Hamlet’s plight, but recognize how his conscience does not prevent him from bringing out these deaths.
Secondly, Hamlet and Claudius do not hold a guilty conscience in their ruin of Gertrude. This is apparent when Hamlet goes to Gertrude’s chamber to speak to her. Hamlet does not feel remorse for his cruel treatment of Gertrude in this scene. Even after the ghost of King Hamlet tells Hamlet not to blame Gertrude for marrying Claudius, he does not listen and is destructive in how he berates her for her quick marriage of Claudius. In the end of the bedroom scene, Gertrude asks Hamlet what she should do. Hamlet’s response to Gertrude is to not allow Claudius to touch her. Hamlet is guilty of using Gertrude to satisfy his own thoughts by not having to watch or think about his mother with the man who killed his father. With this, Gertrude agrees to what has been asked of her by her son. For Claudius, his ruin of Gertrude comes when he marries her simply for power. Although it can be argued that Claudius does love Gertrude – in the beginning, it is proven by the end of the play that Claudius is indeed guilty of not loving Gertrude, because he does not prevent her death. This becomes apparent when Laertes and Hamlet are set to duel, and Claudius and Laertes come up with idea of poisoning Hamlet’s drink to ensure his death. However, when Hamlet refuses to drink from the cup, Gertrude claimed that she would drink to him and his victory. Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup, and Claudius murmurs under his breath: “It is the poisoned cup; it is too late.” (V. ii 294). With no effort to physically stop Gertrude from drinking the poison, it is obvious that Claudius really does not have much concern for her life as much as he values his own. His ruin of Gertrude is done in order to protect himself. With both Hamlet and Claudius’ ruin of Gertrude, it allows the audience to realize that they both carry on their destructiveness, but aim it towards Gertrude in order to protect themselves from what their conscience is telling them.
Like Hamlet, Claudius’ guilt also proves to be destructive in his struggle to maintain power. Claudius’ action of poisoning the King of Denmark, who is his own brother, not only leads to “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” (I. iv 90), but also his own eventual demise. The “rotten” thing in Denmark is Claudius himself. Claudius has forgotten about protecting Denmark, which is seen to be an “unweeded garden.” He has also forgotten the role a King must take because he has been focusing too much on himself. Claudius becomes increasingly focused on protecting himself after viewing the play that “reenacted” the death of King Hamlet, made by Hamlet. With Claudius’ guilty reaction to the play, he realizes that he has just proven to Hamlet that he is indeed guilty of the death of King Hamlet. Claudius now begins to feel threatened by Hamlet, and his conscience is telling him to plot Hamlet’s death in order to survive. With Claudius’ main weapon being manipulation, he uses Polonius and Laertes as pawns in his little game of cat and mouse. Polonius is used to find out if Hamlet was “madly in love” with Ophelia and not simply feigning his madness, whereas Laertes is used in the plan to kill Hamlet. With both plans going into effect, each ultimately pave the path for the deaths of Polonius and Laertes. Therefore, Claudius’ guilty conscience to secure his power brings out the deaths of several innocent characters. It is in this scene that Claudius is similar to Hamlet. By this point in the play, since the actions of Hamlet and Claudius lead to many innocent characters dying at their hand, the audience no longer sympathizes with them precisely in how they have become so destructive in their actions. Clearly, then Hamlet and Claudius build a guiltier conscience in how they prevent destructive happenings in the play and do not exhibit any remorse. Finally, both Hamlet and Claudius regard their actions as a means to an end and lose sight of their original purpose. In effect, they can no longer earn sympathy, but only a personal conscience tainted with death and responsibility.
The audience can now begin to see how Hamlet and Claudius are presented as “guilty characters” in the play. With Hamlet, when given time to think about the after math of situations and the consequences of his actions, or just listening to his conscience in general, he does not act; however, when put into situations where he becomes impulsively irrational, his reaction becomes destructive resulting in death/murder. When looking to the character of Claudius, his guilt comes from murdering the King, his own brother; however, with trying to maintain the power given to him as King of Denmark, his guilt of manipulation and lustfulness became more apparent to the audience. Both Hamlet and Claudius lose all respect from the audience because they become so wreckless with their guilty thoughts and actions towards many innocent characters in the play.