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Moral Questions in Hamlet Conscience and Responsibility Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character have always attracted the attention of critics with a strongly moral bent This is inevitable The play deals with crime and its punishment with complex questions of right and wrong moral decisions moral responsibility for actions questions of conscience Critics and readers must respond accordingly Most of the moral issues raised in Hamlet arise from the role imposed on its central character the role of revenger To appreciate the full implications of these issues we have to remember that the play confronts us with two starkly conflicting moralities two radically opposed views of the task which defines Hamlets role in the play to be the avenger of his fathers death On the one hand Shakespeare presents his characters against an obviously Christian background a background much more distinctively Christian than that of any of the other tragedies The outlook of the characters has been conditioned by Christian teaching and the play itself is based on an acceptance of the Catholic teaching on the after-life the Ghost returns from Purgatory for example Marcellus celebrates miracles at Christmas and the burial of Ophelia is in accordance with prescribed Christian ritual in relation to a woman in her circumstances Claudius at prayer clearly believes in traditional Christian teaching on sin and repentance without atoning for his crimes he knows that he cannot earn forgiveness Hamlet like his father accepts the Christian teaching on adultery and the Christian prohibition of suicide The world of Hamlet then is a Christian one and the characters view themselves and the significance of their actions and beliefs against Christian teachings and practices On the other hand the totally antiChristian ethic of revenge is proposed as an imperative for Hamlet by the ghost of his father a saved soul returned from Purgatory This makes the moral effect of the play extremely confusing and ambiguous Hamlet embodies two
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