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Human Morality In Hamlet And The Oresteia

1511 words - 7 pages

When placed in a situation out of one’s control, the individual freedom of choice is apprehended, often leading to cognitive dissonance followed by a resolution in which an ultimate decision is made based on a consolidation of personal ethics. However, such resolutions are not achieved easily. In both William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet and Aeschylus’ classical trilogy The Oresteia, the progression of human morality is examined through the protagonists, who are subjected to psychological conflict as they struggle to consolidate their own sense of morality in their pursuits of vengeance.
In Hamlet, the motif of a young prince forsaken of his father, family, and rationality, as well as the resulting psychological conflicts develop. Although Hamlet’s inner conflicts derive from the lack of mourning and pain in his family, as manifested in his mother’s incestuous remarrying to his uncle Claudius, his agon¬1 is truly experienced when the ghost of his father reveals the murderer is actually Claudius himself. Thus the weight of filial obligation to obtain revenge is placed upon his shoulders. However, whereas it is common for the tragic hero to be consistent and committed to fulfilling his moira,2 Hamlet is not; his tragic flaw lies in his inability to take action. Having watched an actor’s dramatic catharsis through a speech, Hamlet criticizes himself, venting “what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father murdered, prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell… [can only] unpack my heart with words” (Hamlet 2.2.611-614). Seeing how the actor can conjure such emotion over simple speech, Hamlet is irate at his lack of volition and is stricken with a cognitive dissonance in which he cannot balance. The reality and external obligation he faces does not coincide with his personal morality—his belief against outright murder, which is why he experiences stagnation. Hamlet’s delay however proves that he is an outstandingly moral character, as it seems that he is the only one that doubts hasty revenge as a solution, contrary to men of action such as Fortinbras and Laertes. Furthermore, Hamlet is constantly seeking “moral approbation [from his] moral referent groups” (Ryan, Ciavarella 179), and since his own morals conflict with society’s morals, he cannot bring himself to act, exacerbating his psychological conflicts. As a result, Hamlet truly struggles with his indecision. He must modify his personal morals and extract revenge on his uncle, or seek a different route to set things right without going against his moral code. Both of which prove very difficult to choose between and execute.
When Hamlet does finally resolve to resort to violence, he has consolidated his moral decision and the tragic consequences follow. Hamlet experiences an anagnorisis3 when he discovers that Fortinbras and his army will go to war over an insignificant plot of land, afterwards vowing that “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”...

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