The Problem of Moral Agency in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Problem of Moral Agency in Hamlet

In order to be a moral agent, a person has to have a good sense of self, they have to know exactly who they are and how they must act according to the decisions they make. In Hamlet, the moral task at hand is revenge for the murder of Hamlet the elder. The murdered King's son, also of the same name, must be the one to avenge the murder. Before Prince Hamlet finds out the true story behind his father's death, he has his mother's "incestuous" remarriage to his uncle Claudius (who is now the King of Denmark) on his mind. Long after Hamlet learns the truth, he still does nothing. Hamlet is unable to act even though he has decided to seek revenge. One reason he does not act is because he cannot get past the fact that his mother is not, in his mind, adequately mourning old Hamlet's death. The second reason the Prince has problems with moral agency is because he does not really decide why he is planning to seek revenge on Claudius. His task is twofold, he wants to avenge the murder of his father and he wants his mother to reveal her guilt about her hasty and incestuous marriage. Finally, Hamlet does not truly know who he is, and what he is to do until the very last act of Hamlet. This essay aims to explore why Prince Hamlet has trouble becoming a moral agent.

When we first encounter Hamlet, his concerns are about his mother's remarriage to his uncle Claudius so soon after his father has died. The Prince is angry because Gertrude is not adequately mourning old Hamlet's death, and due to the insistence of Claudius that Hamlet consider him his father and king:

O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason

Would have mourn'd longer-- married with my uncle,

My fathe...

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.... When Hamlet is doomed to die, he goes through with his revenge, but not for his father, nor for his mother-- The Prince finally kills the King when he finds out that it he, Claudius, who is responsible for the poisonous foil. This final reason to kill Claudius is most important of all.

Works Cited

Calderwood, James L.. To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. --New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Shakespeare, William. All's Well That Ends Well. --In: The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. --Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974; pp.504-541.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. --In: The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. --Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974; pp. 1141-1186.

Tirrell, Lynne. "Storytelling and Moral Agency." --In: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. --V.48, Spring 1990; pp.115-126.
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