Shakespeare’s Moral Conflict of Revenge

While staying true to moral principles is admirable, it can end in tragedy. In analyzing two pieces of classical literature, the morally certain protagonists both share the distinction of tragic heroes. Their stories are different, but they are connected in that they are both defenders of what is right.

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Sophocles’s Antigone and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrate the theme of listening to the moral conscience. The morality theme is developed by analyzing Antigone as her values mandate following human sentiment over the laws of man, while Hamlet struggles with the moral conflicts surrounding his desire to avenge his father’s death.

The moral conflict of family and law is illustrated in the play Antigone. Antigone’s brothers kill each other in a duel, leaving Creon as King of Thebes. Creon orders an honorable burial for the older brother, Eteocles, but leaves Polynices’ body to rot. Antigone, disobeys Creon’s order, and attempts to have a burial for her brother. The conflict lies between King Creon and Antigone’s beliefs. As king, Creon feels justified in depriving Polynices of his burial because he believes Polynices betrayed his homeland. Antigone has a sense of moral family duty to bury her brother and considers her values more important than life itself. A burial with dirt and pouring of holy water is directly related to her soul and being. She says, If I had suffered him who was born of my mother to lie in death an unburied corpse, in that case I would have sorrowed…it is nothing shameful to revere those…from the same womb.” (Antigone 465 511). This moral duty to her dead brother is so strong that she states:

Gladly will I meet death in my sacred duty to the dead. Longer time have I to spend with them than with those who live upon the earth. Seek not to argue with me nothing so terrible can come to me but that an honored death remains. (Antigone 1028-1064)

While both Creon and Antigone are right, neither can use reason or logic to see the other’s point of view. Instead, there is a confrontation, and Antigone is sentenced to death by Creon for disobeying his orders. In talking with her sister, Ismene, Antigone makes her choice to die for her brother:

ANTIGONE. No, save thyself; I grudge not thy escape.
ISMENE. Is e’en this boon denied, to share thy lot?
ANTIGONE. Yea, for thou chosed’st life, and I to die. (Antigone 544-556)

The moral obligation of Antigone to choose family and sacred law over a man’s law is one of self-sacrifice that cost her life.

The moral conflict of revenge is illustrated in Hamlet. Claudius kills his brother, King Hamlet, then takes the throne. Prince Hamlet is visited by his dead father’s ghost, where he discovers his father’s deceitful murder. King Hamlet’s ghost wants revenge on Claudius, Prince Hamlet must plan and carry out this revenge. However, Hamlet’s moral conflict is weighing the belief that avenging his father’s death is the heroic against the belief that killing a person is wrong. This moral struggle is seen in when Hamlet delays his revenge. In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet says:

Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, and can say nothing no, not for a king, Upon whose property and most dear life A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward who calls me villain breaks my pate across Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face Tweaks me by the nose gives me the lie I the throat, As deep as to the lungs who does me this (Hamlet, 2.2)

In the same scene, Hamlet also shows doubt regarding his task and the ghost that he saw as he considers:
The spirit that I have seen May be the devil and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me. (Hamlet, 2.2)

Another scene where Hamlet shows his hesitation in killing Claudius is when he catches him alone and praying. In Act 3 Scene 3:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying And now Ill dot. And so he goes to heaven And so am I revenged. That would be scannd A villain kills my father and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. (Hamlet, 3.3)

In his most famous speech in Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet questions his plan, as he weighs whether to proceed with murder or to just let justice run its course:
To be, or not to be that is the question Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them Thus conscience does make cowards of us all And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied oer with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. (Hamlet, 3.1.)

While Prince Hamlet questions his moral reason for revenge, Claudius is repeatedly the villain helping to secure sympathy for Hamlet and his cause against his uncle.
In conclusion, the role of morality in the thoughts and actions of the protagonists in Socrates Antigone, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet contribute to their tragic deaths. One acts on moral obligation while the other questions and hesitates. This defines moral duty and moral conflict. The desire to do right is what prompts the protagonists into action, and personal and social perspectives must be considered when defining what is right.

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare,William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: Cambridge
    [Cambridgeshire]; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  2. Sophocles, Antigone, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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