Free Will in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Free Will in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Free Will of Hamlet


Choices made by Hamlet, which ultimately lead to his death, are all guided by his own free will. In mourning his father's death, Hamlet chooses to do so for what others consider to be an excessive amount of time. “But to persever/ In obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness”(I.ii.99-100), according to Claudius. During this period of mourning, Hamlet meets his father’s spirit and promises to avenge his father’s death.  However, upon reflection, he questions the validity of the ghost’s message.  At this point he carefully goes about choosing a plan of action that will inevitably show that “the king is to blame” (V.ii.340) In following his plan, Hamlet freely chooses to kill Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius and himself.

Following the performance of “The Mousetrap”, Hamlet is summoned to his mother's chamber. Upon arguing with Gertrude over the intentions of his play, and his reasons for wanting to distress the king so openly, Hamlet kills Polonius.  “How now? A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead (III.iv.27-28)!  Perhaps Hamlet did not know whom he was killing.  “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy better”(III.iv.38-39)!  Perhaps Hamlet thought he was killing the king.

In any case, the point is that Hamlet kills by his own hand, thought, and action. It is his choice. "To be" the tool of vengeance "or not to be" is the dilemma that faces Hamlet throughout the play.  

Hamlet does not have much time to mull over his choices, for time is not on Hamlet's side. The king has his own plans to be rid of Hamlet.  He sends Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England for “My head (to) be struck off”(V.ii.27). Hamlet revises the sentencing papers, fully aware that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be executed instead.

Arriving at Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet is faced by Laertes' rage. Laertes justly blames Hamlet for the death of Polonius and the subsequent suicide of Ophelia. Again both deaths were due to choices made by Hamlet, Polonius' murder and driving Ophelia insane.

Finally we arrive at the sword match between Hamlet and Laertes. Hamlet is unaware of Claudius’ poisoned goblet and the poisoned tip of Laertes’ sword. When Laertes cuts Hamlet, he makes the choice to stab Laertes, who would see him dead as well.

When the queen dies after drinking the poison and Laertes confesses the whole deed, implicating Claudius, Hamlet finally kills the man who killed his father.

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Though he had had several opportunities prior to this, he chose to wait for the right moment so that his revenge would be sweet.  Having completed his mission, Hamlet, mortally wounded, asks for the remainder of the poisoned wine to speed his death along. He is able to die in peace knowing that his vengeance has been taken and Claudius will burn as a sinful man. Hamlet's revenge and death are both tied to choices he has made in executing the plan to kill Claudius.

Using his God-given free will, Hamlet made choices that resulted in the loss of many lives, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, and himself.  How many of those will be written off as self-defense and divinely forgiven, only the Divine knows.  However, this play should make everyone think before they act, realizing that the ramifications of their actions, be they good or evil, can be felt far and wide.
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