The Role Of Conscience In Hamlet English Literature Essay

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William Shakespeares play, Hamlet, is the single longest play that he ever wrote and the one play acclaimed for some immortal literal lines such as 'To be or not to be: that is the question' and 'To thine own self be true'. The play begins in the King's palace in Denmark, when the news of King Hamlet, the then king of Denmark had died recently. This means that the state of Denmark is in a high alert transition state (Welsh, p. 34 - 46). The state is further compounded by the fact that they are preparing for potential war with Norway where Norway's Young Fortinbras is adventurous and threatening to conquer Denmark incognito at moment of confusion (Welsh, p. 34 - 46).

It is at this point that the ghost of late King Hamlet appears to set in motion the events of the play. Encourse, it is learnt that King Claudius, was now ruling Denmark and had already married late King Hamlet's wife, Queen Gertrude, a month after the late king died. King Claudius is also suspected of having poisoned the late king by the young Hamlet, his nephew. These events set off a very thrilling and provocative play, the Hamlet (Welsh, p. 34 - 46).

This is a brief expository paper that explores the occurrence and usage of the word 'conscience' in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. The paper explores several key passages in Hamlet, a play set at and about the Prince of Denmark. Specifically, the paper explores the etymology of the English word, conscience, before examining the assorted meanings of the word and its range of associations. Having clearly explored the meanings of the word in contemporary and historical discourses, the paper proceeds to provide a list of the eight times that the word conscience has been used in Hamlet.

For each of these citing of the word, the paper discusses the character of the play who uses it and the context in which he or she uses it. This allows for the major part of the paper, which discusses the roles, intended purposes and relevance that can be attributed to the usage of the word conscience in Hamlet, in all the eight cited occurrences. As will emerge from the paper, the word conscience, how and where it is used, has a central role in the development and delivery of the core themes of the play.

The Etymology of Conscience

Etymology refers to the study of word's history, its origins and how its use has changed with time. In this instance, the word 'conscience' as used by Shakespeare in Hamlet denotes several meanings as will be explored in the preceding section. The earliest trace of the word in English discourse is in the thirteenth century as a direct borrowing from French. In this occurrence, conscience referred to the innermost thoughts, inner desires, personal intentions and covert feelings. The word in French that experts believe to have been transmuted to conscience is 'conscia' which refers to knowledge that lies within oneself or the sense of right and wrong. The word could also have originated and borrowed from Latin, where the word 'conscientia' means 'knowledge within oneself'. It was used in the first English contexts to denote a moral sense (Welsh, p. 34 - 46).

From then on, the word appeared in various forms such as 'conscientem' from the root 'consciens' and 'conscire' meaning being mutually aware. The morpheme 'com-'denotes 'with' and or 'thoroughly'. The morpheme 'scire' denotes 'to know'. Other linguistic theorists have purported that the word 'conscience' was probably a loan-word from Greek (Fendt, p. 64). Greek's 'syneidesis' literary means 'with-knowledge'. Some version of early English discourses has nativized the term to denote 'inwit'. The Russian language also employs the word 'so-vest' in the same semantic sense as 'conscience' literary, meaning 'with-knowledge' (Fendt, p. 64).

The Meaning and Associations of Conscience

There are several senses/meanings that were attributed and associated with the word conscience in Shakespeare's England. The word has two forms namely, con + science pronounced as [kon-shuhns]. In its usage, the word was and still is regarded as a noun. The first meaning that can be attributed to the word as used in Shakespeare's texts as well as in other Elizabethan writers' texts is the inner sense a person has of what is right and or wrong. In this meaning, conscience becomes a person's conduct and or motives that impels him or her towards the right action (Lacan, p. 55 -56). The right action thus becomes following the dictates of one's conscience and the wrong action becomes negating the dictates of one's conscience. Conscience here refers to the awareness of ethical or moral aspects to a person's conduct accompanied by an urge to prefer doing right over doing wrong (Welsh, p. 34 - 46).

The second meaning and which Shakespeare seems to have been according the word conscience in most of his uses, is the complex ethical and or moral principles responsible for controlling and inhibiting the thoughts and actions of a person. There is also a third meaning that though somehow different, has a close resemblance to the second meaning explained above and that is as the inhibiting sense a person may have about what is prudent. Such a usage can be exemplified by the statement, 'I'd like to slap that woman but my conscience will not let me'. Conscience here becomes a pronouncement, a moral and ethical judgement and a standard of conformity to a person's own judgement of conduct (Stoll, p. 54).

In psychoanalysis, the word conscience is used to refer to a central part of a person's superego, charged with the responsibility to judge the ethical and moral nature of his or her thoughts and actions and then to transmit such determinations and judgements to his or her ego for further consideration (Lacan, p. 55 -56).

Besides the meanings achieved in its nominal form, the word conscience is also used as an adjective with the addition of several suffixes to become 'conscientious or conscientiousness' (Oxford English Dictionary). There are also several associations such as having something on a person's conscience which denotes the feeling of guilt about an occurrence, action or something else that he or she considers wrong. An exemplification of this association of guilt is, 'Tom is behaving as if he has something on his conscience' (Stoll, p. 54).

Another association common with the word conscience is in such an expression as 'in all conscience' referring to fairness and reasonableness (Lacan, p. 55 -56). Saying 'in all conscience' means in all fairness and reason' (Lacan, p. 55 -56). Further, the word conscience can be associated in discourse to intone certainty and assurance (Stoll, p. 54). Here, by saying 'in conscience' or 'consciously' one may mean 'certainly' or 'assuredly'. The word conscience also appears in English discourse in various derivative forms such as conscienceless (an adjective), consciencelessly (an adverb), consciencelessness (a noun) and subconscience (a noun) (Oxford English Dictionary).

Use of Conscience in Hamlet

The word conscience has been used in the play be three characters (Young Hamlet, King Claudius and Laertes) in various incidences and contexts. The first occurrence is in Act II Scene Two (Line 1620) and it is used by Young Hamlet as he exits the scene whereby he says, 'Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds, more relative than this. The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King".

The second occurrence of the word conscience is from the reigning King of Denmark, King Claudius, in Act III Scene One (Line 1740). King Claudius speaks to himself (in an aside) just after the Queen Gertrude exits and before exiting himself saying, 'How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it Than is my deed to my most painted word. O heavy burthen!' The third occurrence of the word conscience is in Act III Scene One (Line 1749) wherein, Young Hamlet again says, "… Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution, Is sicklied o'er 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. Soft you now! …"

The forth occurrence of the word conscience in this play is in Act IV Scene Five (Line 3002) and features Laertes first mention of the word in the entire play. Laertes says, "How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with: To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil, Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the world, I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I'll be reveng'd, Most throughly for my father". The fifth mention of the word is by King Claudius again, while talking to Laertes immediately after entering the stage, in Act IV Scene Seven (Line 3131). He says, "Now must your conscience my acquittance seal, And You must put me in your heart for friend, Sith you have heard, and with a knowing ear, That he which hath your noble father slain, Pursued my life".

The sixth mention of the word is in Act V Scene Two (Line 3710) and this time by Young Hamlet speaking to Horatio. He says, "Why, man, they did make love to this employment! They are not near my conscience; their defeat, Does by their own insinuation grow. 'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes, Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites". This is closely followed by the seventh mention in the same act and scene but seven lines later, (Act V Scene Two - Line 3717), where the Young Hamlet again addresses Horatio by saying, "Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now upon, He that hath kill'd my king, and whor'd my mother; Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes; Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such coz'nage- is't not perfect conscience, To quit him with this arm?" The final occurrence of the word is in the same Act and Scene (Act V Scene Two - Line 3949), where Laertes mentions the word for the second and last time saying in an aside, "And yet it is almost against my conscience".

The Role, Purpose and Relevance of Conscience in Hamlet

Then word conscience plays four distinct thematic roles in the play. The first role is that of a yardstick used to condemn others for wrong doing (Fendt, p. 64). In this role, some characters use the word conscience in reference to the guilt of others, where the accused persons are said to be placated, judged or moved by their conscience for having done the wrong thing. This is true of the first incidence in which the word is used by Young Hamlet in Act II Scene Two (Line 1620). When Young Hamlet says, '…wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King …" he means that he will use the play to placate or infuriate King Claudius' sense of guilt for having killed the Late king Hamlet (Fendt, p. 64).

Young Hamlet is not sure whether his uncle, the reigning king, was responsible of poisoning his father to death. Thus, he inserts some sections and words in the play so that as the king watches the play, Young hamlet can study his face for a sense of guilt. Here, the word conscience is used by Young Hamlet to denote the sense of guilt in Claudius for a foil murder (Stoll, p. 54). The same is evident in the seventh mention of the word, again by Young Hamlet, in Act V Scene Two - Line 3717. Young Hamlet says, 'Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such coz'nage- is't not perfect conscience, To quit him with this arm?". While in this context Young Hamlet is speaking of the King and he begins by listing the King's wrongs such as, 'kill'd my king', 'whor'd my mother', Popp'd between election and my hopes' and attempted to kill him. For these wrongs, Young Hamlet declares that the king's conscience is 'not perfect conscience'.

The second role of the word is where characters denote their unwillingness to make the wrong decision, to do the wrong thing or fail to do the right thing now, only for their conscience to trouble them later. In this role, conscience represents the obligation to embrace duty and the resolve to avoid after-regrets of not doing the right thing at the present (Elliot, p. 95 - 103). As one would say, 'the only reason I am doing this is to ensure that my conscience will not trouble me later on, for having failed to do what I should have done'. This is very evident when in the third occurrence of the word conscience in Act III Scene One (Line 1749), Young Hamlet says, "… Thus conscience does make cowards of us all'. Hamlet sticks to the resolution of avenging his father because he would not like to live with the knowledge of not having obeyed his father's request (Stoll, p. 54). He moves into action and embraces the responsibility of the moment if only to satisfy his conscience that he did what he was supposed to do when he was supposed to do it, i.e. "And enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.- Soft you now! …".

Closely related to the role of depicting unwillingness to make the wrong decision as discussed above, is the role in which conscience becomes an aftermath of doing the wrong thing willingly. In this role, characters embrace the consequence of their actions even before they execute such actions, by showing a willingness to bear a conscience of having done what they did. A perfect example of this is Laertes charges into the Kings palace demanding for his father in Act IV Scene Five (Line 3002). He is wreathing with pain of being fatherless and his mother being a widow. He believes that it is King Claudius fault that his father has died and before the queen confirms otherwise, he rages on about the vileness of the king. He curses the king as the 'the blackest devil'. It is this believe that makes him damn both 'his conscience' and would-be 'grace' 'to the profoundest pit!', embraces 'damnation' for as long as he avenges his father. Laertes says that he is negligence of whatever comes (conscience or no conscience), as long as his 'most thoroughly for my father' is avenged.

The last role, and perhaps the most dominant one (Elliot, p. 95 - 103), of the word conscience is where conscience impersonates guilt perse. In this role, conscience represents guilt of the character for having done something wrong, having not done the right thing (Elliot, p. 95 - 103). The perfect example of this role is by the King, who is in all intents and purposes, guilty of a foul murder as well as incest. So when in the second occurrence of the word conscience, the reigning King (Act III Scene One - Line 1740) speaks to himself in an aside, saying 'How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!' He is speaking of his guilt for the aforementioned wrongs (Lacan, p. 55 -56).

The second instance in which conscious refers to guilt is when Young Horatio tells Horatio that he has no guilt for having killed Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. This is in the sixth mention of the word in Act V Scene Two (Line 3710). Young Hamlet says, "They are not near my conscience; their defeat'. He knows that he killed and yet he doesn't concede to the guilt of that murder (conscience as he calls it), since he was defending his life (Elliot, p. 95 - 103). Young Hamlet in this accord reasons alike to Laertes in the final occurrence of the word in Act V Scene Two - Line 3949. Laertes mentions the word for the second and last time saying in an aside, that he is almost guilty of his actions, that it is "against my conscience" to kill Young Hamlet.

Conclusion

This expository paper explored William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, the single longest play he ever wrote. The play as seen in the paper begins in the King's palace in Denmark, when the news of King Hamlet, the then king of Denmark had died recently. Preceding events are thrilling and provocative. The paper explored the occurrence and usage of the word 'conscience' using several key passages in play. It emerges from exposition that the word conscience, how and where it is used, has a central role in the development and delivery of the core themes of the play. First, the paper concludes that the etymology of the English word, conscience, has its earliest trace in English discourse during the thirteenth century as a direct borrowing from French.

In contemporary use, the word has several senses/meanings and associations now and in Shakespeare's England. The word may mean the inner sense a person has of what is right and or wrong or the complex ethical and or moral principles responsible for controlling and inhibiting the thoughts and actions of a person. It may also denote the inhibiting sense a person may have about what is prudent. In psychoanalysis, the word conscience is used to refer to a central part of a person's superego, charged with the responsibility to judge the ethical and moral nature of his or her thoughts and actions and then to transmit such determinations and judgments to his or her ego for further consideration.

As the paper has detailed, the word conscience has been used in the play be three characters (Young Hamlet, King Claudius and Laertes) in various incidences and contexts. In these occurrences, the word plays four distinct thematic roles. The first role is that of a yardstick used to condemn others for wrong doing while the second one is conscience represents the obligation to embrace duty and the resolve to avoid after-regrets of not doing the right thing at the present. The third role of the word conscience in Hamlet according to the paper is to depict the willingness to make the wrong decision and as the aftermath of doing the wrong thing willingly. The last role, and perhaps the most dominant one, of the word conscience is where conscience impersonates guilt perse.

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