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“Hamlet” and connections to courage, risk, and sacrifice

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Courage by definition is “state or quality of mind and or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery,”(Word Dictionary). In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, we compare and contrast the two characters, Claudius and Hamlet, and study how each does and does not portray courage. By comparing Claudius and Hamlet we can see that courageous traits each held according to our world impression and according to Shakespeare. We can also see how Shakespeare has shown us what courage is not.

Hamlet shows courage strongly in one aspect of his personality. We can see how he presents himself in a courageous manner based both in contemporary views and in Shakespeare’s view of courage. When Hamlet is confronted with a ghost he immediately shows courage by not being frightened by the ghost. He was “as hardy as the Newman lion’s nerve,” (I, IV, 83) when it came to facing his fathers disturbed ghost. He showed courage and bravery telling those who accompanied him to let him confront the ghost alone. Hamlet showed no fear. We see how Shakespeare shows us his opinion of what courage is again when Hamlet swears to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet shows us that “true courage” comes with determination and drive. He feels contempt and resents his uncle for being “A little more than kin, and less that kind” (I, ii, 65). He swears, and dedicates himself to avenging his father’s death without being deterred. His “[father’s] commandment all alone shall live” (I, v, 103) in his life until justice and vengeance are served.

Shakespeare portrays to the reader in the play Hamlet exactly what is not courageous. Hamlet hides behind insanity as a mask for his vengeance. With this mask Hamlet feels he will be able to seek vengeance and yet come out without blame or fault to his name. He used insanity as a tool since he is somewhat unsure on how to go about achieving revenge over Claudius. Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition” (I, v,173) as a way of hiding from reality. Hamlet reveals to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is not truly mad “but mad north-north west… [he] know[s] a hawk from a handsaw” (II, ii, 376-377). Hamlet shows his lack of courage in hiding his actions behind a mask of madness. Shakespeare also shows us that courage has no place for procrastination.

Hamlet starts off beginning of scene two with such determination and purpose, after speaking with the ghost. However, this dwindles throughout the play. Hamlet procrastinates in taking the life of Claudius. Even when the opportunity was right at his fingertips, he finds a reason not to kill Claudius. Hamlet sees his chance and is focused on the ultimate goal “and so [King Hamlet is] revenged” (III, iii, 76). When Hamlet thinks again and realizes that he would send “this same villain…to heaven”, (III, iii, 78-79) he backs out and gives up the opportune moment. Hamlet feels that vengeance should send Claudius not only to his death, but hell as well. At the end of the play, although Hamlet is able to kill Claudius, he has killed himself by a tragic flaw: procrastination.

Shakespeare gives the reader another example of traits that are and are not a part of courage in Claudius. Shakespeare portrays that courage involves seeing what you want and pursuing it. We see this idea in Claudius when he killed King Hamlet and took the throne of Denmark on his own. Although killing was not noble, was selfish, and was an act of treason, there is a ring of courage in it. Claudius does not wait to get what he wants, he reaches out and grabs it without thoughts of consequence. Claudius has a “spirit that enables him to face the danger, and fear” (Word Dictionary) of what consequences may come from stealing the throne from both King Hamlet and Young Hamlet. Although we can see this trait of courage in Claudius he then proceeds to act as a coward.

He hides behind lies. His lies are as a web, they are spun larger and larger capturing all who come near. He leads “the whole ear of Denmark” (I, v, 36), to believe King Hamlet was by “A serpent stung” (I, v, 36). The people of Denmark “by a forged process of [King Hamlet’s] death [are] rankly abused” (I, v, 37-38) by Claudius. Claudius hides behind this lie so that he may “Now wear [King Hamlet’s] crown” (I, v, 40). Claudius never admits to his sin and treason until the very end of the play. It is proved that Claudius is guilty and yet he denies the truth. Another trait that Claudius shows is procrastination as Hamlet did. Claudius does conclude that Hamlet “put on [his] confusion” (III, I, 2), and yet he fails to act on this knowledge. Claudius realizes that Hamlet’s “liberty is full of threats to all” (IV, I, 14), and yet continues to allow Hamlet to carry on untouched. Through Claudius’s procrastination harm directly affects many people including, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and himself (Claudius) and indirectly affects Ophelia and Gertrude. This procrastination is due to a lack of courage as seen by Shakespeare.

We can see that both Claudius and Hamlet portray courage in how they initially react to situations. They confront the situation with determination, dexterity, and drive. However. They are quickly hindered. Hamlet masks his lack of courage by acting mad. On the other hand, Claudius masks his own cowardliness with lies. Although Hamlet begins with noble intentions he eventually commits the death directly or indirectly of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Laertes. It is not until the end of the play that Hamlet succeeds in the mission that has been set before him. By finally completing his task Hamlet regains the approval of the audience and of the characters in the play. Claudius begins as a traitor and murderer, killing King Hamlet for self gain. Claudius does not regain any dignity or distinction by the end of the play. He is untruthful and deceiving until his last breath. Claudius’s own deceit and deviousness brings him to his own downfall.

Although Shakespeare does not write down directly what he believes makes a courageous man, he gives us a clear indication of what courage is not through Claudius and Hamlet. Courage is not deterred by any means of distraction, courage does not procrastinate, and courage does not deceive. From this we can decipher what qualities Shakespeare believes are a part of a courageous man’s life. A courageous man shows honor, respect, honesty, and integrity.

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