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The Role of Duty In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Killing a person is not something that anyone can take lightly. In the story of Hamlet, the uncle of the play’s focus character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, has murdered the prince’s father, stolen the crown, and weds his mother. The ghost of king Hamlet comes to the prince and tells him that he must avenge his murder. The play follows Hamlet’s quest of revenge against his murdering incestuous uncle. The question that’s left to the reader to answer is whether or not the final killing of Claudius was an act of duty or desire for young Hamlet.

Some may suspect that the reason he went through with his act of revenge was because he wanted to, but the majority of readers seem to come to the conclusion that his final act was an act of duty. Hamlet’s first thoughts on the revenge he has to perform went as follows: I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there; and thy commandment all alone shall live.

This statement makes it perfectly clear that Hamlet views what he has to do as a job that he has to do for his father. In act 2, scene 2 Hamlet meets an actor who easily displays intense emotion and passion on matters that have just come to his head. Hamlet asks himself in the soliloquy that followed if he was a coward for not completing his task yet. This makes it obvious that killing Claudius isn’t something that Hamlet wants to do.

Hamlet is so weary of killing his uncle that he questions the intentions of the ghost. It was said earlier in the play that the ghost may only be the devil in a pleasing form. Hamlet decides to test his uncle’s guilt by reenacting the murder in a play that is to be performed, thus delaying the execution, and proving once again that Hamlet does not want to kill Claudius. In the next scene, Hamlet even questions life itself.

He contemplates suicide in the following lines: 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. To die: to sleep: No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

To die, to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come… If this was an easy act for him to complete, he would have done it already and it would be over with. But since he doesn’t, his conscience gets the better of him. He is so upset about fulfilling his father’s request he thinks about taking his own life. It is blatantly obvious to most readers now that if the act of murder is to be followed through, it is only because he does it as the last request of his dead father. In Act 3, Hamlet’s scheme has been a success.

Hamlet now has no reason not to kill Claudius since he has undoulbtedly proved his guilt to Hamlet. Hamlet is about to finally put Claudius to rest in Scene 3. The only thing is, he comes upon Claudius while he is praying. Hamlet doesn’t commit the crime yet, though. He says that because he killed his father without his last rights, and he wasn’t given a proper burial, Claudius should be killed at a time when he would be sent to hell, like when he was drunk or gambling.

Hamlet holds off, and if he were out to kill Claudius for pleasure instead of duty, the act would have been followed through with and Hamlet’s father would have not received a just revenge. Skipping to Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet’s procrastination has resulted with Leartes and his mother both dead, and himself mortally wounded. Had his quest of murder been for desire and not for duty, he wound have killed Claudius before any of this had happened.

But since he had to first test the ghost, and then wait to kill Claudius when he wasn’t praying, Hamlet ends up dying in this scene, along with a host of others. On the slightly brighter side, Hamlet finally gets the revenge his father needs. The answer to the question of duty or desire arises another question. If we arrived at the same circumstances as Hamlet, could we have acted quicker? Although it seems like Hamlet went about this the wrong way because everyone ended up dead, I don’t suspect that there are many of us that could have performed this still-villainous act at the drop of a hat.

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