“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the oft-repeated saying goes. It's a cliché and perhaps overly pithy, but the aphorism still has some merit, as has been shown countless times throughout history. It's a saying thoroughly, though ambiguously, explored in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Those in power and those near it, alike, act with little regard to morality. The title character himself commits three murders by the end of the play. While some of them could possibly be claimed a justifiable, they were murders nonetheless: crimes against the state, against humanity and against religion. Hamlet's uncle acts with even greater moral vacuity, as do his advisors and their relatives. It seems that anyone even closely related to the throne in Hamlet is as at least corrupt, if not evil. However, friendships permeate the narrative, and while some of them are superficial marriages of circumstance, glimmers of true friendship (“conformity, affinity, correspondence, aptness to unite
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” (OED)), or a true brotherhood of humanity occasionally appear. As the blood bath at the end of the play illustrates, friendship and morality often lead to some kind of redemption, even in the face of great wrongs.
Perhaps Hamlet is best explained by the relationship between the two potential princes in the play. Fortinbras and Hamlet find themselves in very similar situations as they cross paths. Both are born into power. Certain expectations have been set for each of them for their entire lives, but these come to a head almost simultaneously. Hamlet finds himself expected to avenge his father's death at the hands of Claudius as Fortinbras “go[es] to gain a patch of ground that hath in it no profit” (Hamlet 4.4.19-20), apparently to avenge his father's death and defeat. They were born into fortune, meaning both luck and endowment, which immediately warped their perceptions of the world around them. Hamlet is left impotent as a result. He's an indecisive man, capable of complex thought and moral judgment, but unable to act on these ideas and impulses. “Morals are all relative to him” (Warhaft 199) according to Sidney Warhaft in the essay “The Mystery of Hamlet.” His sheltered
upbringing did not shield him from the frequent ugliness of the world, but it did leave him powerless to do anything about it, one way or another. This aspect of his character is best illustrated by the famous soliloquy beginning with “To be or not to be” (3.1.56). The Prince of Denmark is so ashamed of his cowardice and inability to take action that he contemplates suicide, but in the ultimate paradox is unable even to act on those impulses, even after deliberating for a few minutes (and presumably he'd been considering this before he came close to acting on it). Hamlet illustrates that any action can viewed as unnecessary, or at least unattractive, when brooded over for too long. The personality traits he displays are the direct result of the constraints of power and fortune.
Fortinbras is nearly a polar opposite of Hamlet. Instead of pondering options until suicide seems a viable route, Fortinbras is a man of action, doing what he feels is right, or what he wants, without thinking too much about the consequences. His father was killed by the King of Denmark, and so he immediately set out, trekking across nations and seas with an army in tow, to take back land, and possibly murder those who did him wrong. Perhaps the most interesting thing said about him is that Fortinbras is “Of unimproved mettle hot and full” (1.1.96), which suggests that he is no better (thus “unimproved”) than his father, and is something of a hothead. Essentially, while Hamlet was sheltered as a child of fortune, Fortinbras was perhaps allowed unlimited freedom, turning him into the quick-tempered reactionary that he is, always following his knee-jerk response instead of thinking things through. Fortinbras is often considered the more “correct” character of the two, but
both have been warped by their positions in life, and both are horrifyingly selfish, with Fortinbras willing to sacrifice thousands in war for glory and Hamlet acting like he's the only person in the world at times. It is a loud statement that the two are able so easily to come to friendship from death, with Fortinbras saying “For he was likely…to have proved most royal….. Speak loudly for him” (5.2.376-379). Their similar and intertwining fortunes (meaning both endowments and destinies) bring them to some kind of mutual respect: an understanding and sympathy for one another's plight. Fortinbras' sympathy brings him one step closer to humanity; a kindness to even out his mad bloodlust. Hamlet, in naming Fortinbras the King of Denmark, acts decisively without coercion for the first time in the play. His friendship, his respect, for his princely equal helped allay his one glaring fatal flaw before it was too late to correct it.
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The family of Polonius is perhaps the worst group of fortunate offenders in Hamlet. Polonius himself is a spy, a servant to whatever lord happens to be in power at any given time. First he gives slanted advice to his son and daughter, in “what would appear in a snapshot, say, to be a normal sunny bit of familial concern, becomes in the context of the play a nasty reflection of a general pollution” (Warhaft 197). Essentially, the very minds of these people are corrupted by the mentality of life they are surrounded with and born into. They are so far removed from the rest of humanity that any seemingly normal deeds need to be explained with context. Polonius trusts not even his son; he sends spies to check on his offspring, because he fears “wanton, wild, and usual slips as are companions noted and most known to youth and liberty” (2.1.22-24) and condemns “drabbing” (2.1.26), or associated with loose women. While a dislike of prostitutes is not a unique human characteris
tic, Polonius seems to denounce relationships of all kinds, yelling at his daughter for a seemingly appropriate association. And, of course, Polonius is involved in a number of murder plots in his quest to near the throne, forgoing any moral aptitude for a bit more power. His death is sudden and unexpected, and he is left no time in the end to change his ways.
Polonius' raising of his daughter, Ophelia, renders her almost a non-character in Hamlet. She seems the one character devoid of any corruption or madness, and yet is the tragic figure of the play, committing suicide as a direct result of the inconsiderate, inhumane decisions being made around her. While her integrity escapes unscathed, her body and her innocence do not, and it is once again the fault of the fortunate acting with no regard to friendliness and brotherhood.
Her brother is a different matter. Laertes is a man of appearances, as dictated by his power and rank in society. He is obsessed with the idea of not shaming his name or his family's, for fear of somehow losing the influence it brings, going as far as to say “I forbid my tears” (4.7.186) at hearing the of the death of his sister, only loosely disguising it as a gesture of respect. It is thusly not surprising that he vows revenge for his father's death, in order to preserve a sense of honor. His intentions are often good, but his character is undermined by his concern with appearance and by his father's influence. “[By] my will, not all the world” (4.5.137) illustrates a trait Laertes shares with Hamlet and Fortinbras. Like them he is more concerned with himself than with any cohesion with the rest of humanity. He takes shortcuts, poisoning his sword instead of facing Hamlet fairly. Ironically, this deprives Laertes of the true honor with which he is so concerned. Be
ing born into fortune, being around the throne and being influenced by Claudius and Polonius removes any public morality Laertes may have otherwise expressed. He redeems himself in the end, however, asking Hamlet for forgiveness, forging a kind of respect and friendship in his last moments. Again, after being “justly killed with [his] own treachery” (5.2.287) Laertes' moral fiber is able to shine through, as he no longer has any appearances to uphold or any name to hold on to.
Most of the characters in Hamlet are corrupt, from King Claudius on down. They are children of fortune, born rich, powerful and influential. With unique responsibilities and unusual freedoms and constraints, these otherwise normal people are transformed into immoral and irrational beings. They fight amongst themselves until most are dead, and are only able to come to grips with their own weaknesses when all is over. They are suddenly faced with their own mortality and tend to repent. With no tomorrow to look forward to, they cleanse their souls as quickly as possible, in what probably is not just a superficial preparation for an afterlife. By forming bonds with one another in the face of death, the characters are admitting their own humanity: acknowledging that they are not special because of their fortune, but irrevocably similar because of it. It could be seen as tragic that the ties between Hamlet and Fortinbras, and Laertes and Hamlet did not come until a bloodbat
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h took place, but it was the only way. As the rest of the play showed, when corrupt children of fortune are involved, the deaths of others just aren't enough of a wake-up call.
"The Mystery of Hamlet”
ELH, Vol. 30, No. 3. (Sep., 1963), pp. 193-208.
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