Hamlet's Burden

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Hamlet's Burden

Hamlet's burden is not his conscience alone. It is, in fact, the consciences of his dead father as well as of Denmark. Throughout the play, Hamlet must struggle with his own guilt in killing Polonius, his command to fulfill his father's revenge, and the uncertain state of Denmark as a country. As the play draws to a close, Hamlet must duel with Laertes for the ostensible purpose of satiating Laertes' desire for revenge. However, when Hamlet goes to request Laertes' forgiveness, he finds himself really requesting the forgiveness of his father and all of Denmark as well; for, it is clear when he says earlier to Horatio, "It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman," (Hamlet 5.2.198-199) that Hamlet possesses a premonition of the tragic end to his plans. Thus, Hamlet desires not only to be absolved from the blame of murdering Polonius, but also from the disorder Denmark will experience in the complete loss of its royalty and Hamlet's failure to fulfill his father's revenge.

The obvious purpose of Hamlet's pre-duel speech is to ask Laertes to pardon him for killing Polonius. At the end of the speech, Hamlet says, "That I have shot my arrow o'er the house/And hurt my brother" (5.2.225-226). The use of the term "my brother" is critical in that is draws a parallel between Hamlet and Laertes. As Hamlet says earlier:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his.... (5.2.75-78)

In Laertes, Hamlet sees himself, for Polonius' son is only exacting the revenge that is his due, as Hamlet attempts to exact his. When Hamlet uses th...

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...ness and the use of the word "punish'd" (5.2.210) seem to indicate his acceptance of fate and his lack of control. It even suggests Hamlet as a victim of destiny in that he is "wronged" (5.2.220) by his madness. The line "But pardon't as you are a gentleman" (5.2.209) reinforces the sense that Hamlet wants to lessen the harshness of judgment around him. In this light, Hamlet seems a coward in his desire for sympathy for the madness with which he pretended to be afflicted. However, for me, these lines before the fatal duel are Hamlet's last rites. In them, he requests the absolution of everyone he has wronged. Before he dies, he implores Horatio to tell his story; he does not make confession. It is here, in this earlier speech, that Hamlet relieves his conscience of the three-fold burden that has motivated him, tormented him, and brought him to his tragic end.

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