JULY / AUG 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
Early in the first act of Hamlet, Claudius chastises his nephew for continuing to mourn his dead father, the late king. He says, “‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father.” He acknowledges that sons are “bound In filial obligation for some term To do obsequious sorrow.” But enough is enough, Claudius insists. Hamlet has fulfilled his obligations and should move on with his life now.
Hamlet, of course, disagrees.
Duty. How that word affects all the players in Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Certainly Gertrude, Polonius, and Claudius have various duties to perform, but it is the three sons and what they feel it is their duty to do for their fathers that drive the story forward. In that early passage, Claudius tells Hamlet he has done his duty, and that’s enough. But Hamlet still mourns his father deeply, not only out of a sense of duty, but because he revered and perhaps loved his father. And when The Ghost charges him with revenging the king’s murder, Hamlet feels duty-bound to comply. He is certain a son should avenge his father’s wrongful death.
Hamlet is not the only one who believes so. Not far away, another young prince is anxious to right a wrong done to his father: young Fortinbras of Norway wants Denmark to return the land they gained when King Hamlet killed King Fortinbras decades earlier. Why did Fortinbras wait all this time to regain what he thinks was stolen from his father? Probably because he feared the man who killed his father. But now that King Hamlet is dead, and Claudius has taken the throne, he sees his chance to fulfill his duty to the father he probably never really knew.
Closer to home, a third son seeks to avenge a dead father. When Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonious, the courtier’s son Laertes rushes home from France, bent on vengeance. All three of these sons struggle with knowing how best to do what they believe is necessary, though of course, Hamlet struggles the most. How much do the dead owe the living, after all? Should these three sons risk their own lives to avenge what their fathers lost? Is it truly their duty to try to kill the person who killed their father, or to take back what he lost when he died? Is it society who expects this of them, or what they expect of themselves? And how can you tell when you’ve done all you need to do?
Where does duty end, and personal desire begin? Is seeking vengeance out of a sense of duty “sweet and commendable,” or is it an act of hubris?
Hamlet wrestles with these questions for much of the play, alternately puzzling over what he should do, berating himself for not doing what he thinks he ought to, and railing against the fate that forces him into such a difficult situation. Fortinbras and Laertes seem to have no such conflicted thoughts. Fortinbras brings an army to back up his claims, so convinced he’s right that he’ll put not only his own life, but the lives of others on the line. Laertes joins forces with Claudius to get his vengeance through trickery and cheating. He’ll risk not just his life, but his reputation to do his duty, because he knows exactly who killed his father. Queen Gertrude witnessed the murder, and Hamlet confessed to it.
But Hamlet has only the word of a ghost and his own intuition to guide him. While the Ghost appears to other characters, it speaks only to Hamlet, and this son never finds real evidence to back up the apparition’s claims. In the end, I think it’s his desire to put an end to the uncomfortable situation at Elsinore once and for all that guides his actions more than his sense of filial duty. He realizes, in the end, that he needs to act not because he owes something to the dead, but because he needs to protect the kingdom that should have been his from a murderous usurper. It’s his duty to the living that drives him in the end, and he succeeds in freeing Denmark from his uncle’s reign. But in the process, Laertes wreaks his own vengeance, and by the end of the play, Fortinbras too has done his duty—he has regained not only the land his father lost, but all of Denmark as well.
Three dutiful sons, two dead and one a conqueror. Without their insistence on avenging their father’s deaths, we would have no play, but by the end of Hamlet, we can see that doing what you believe to be your duty is not always commendable, and definitely could not be called sweet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s story “The Man on the Buckskin Horse” appears in the Five Magic Spindles anthology available in paperback and Kindle editions at the end of July. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com