McNair Scholars Journal

Volume 2 | Issue 1 Article 3

Winter 1998 The Role of Decalogue in 's and Holly J. Braun Grand Valley State University

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Recommended Citation Braun, Holly J. (1998) "The Role of Decalogue in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth," McNair Scholars Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 3. Available at: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/mcnair/vol2/iss1/3

Copyright ©Winter 1998 by the authors. McNair Scholars Journal is reproduced electronically by [email protected] http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/ mcnair?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Fmcnair%2Fvol2%2Fiss1%2F3&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages The Role of the Decalogue in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth

Holly J. Braun Shakespeare's characters Hamlet and less. In Hamlet, prior to his "conversion" McNair Scholar Macbeth both confront the internal transi­ to believing himself a deity (in II, tion from human to superhuman or deity scene ii), when he speaks of God his tone Kathleen Blumreich, Ph.D. status. These transitions result from is reverent. An example of his irreverence Faculty Mentor different sets of circumstances, but the is found later in Act III: '''S blood, do you outcome for both characters is essentially think I am easier to be played on than a ABSTRACT: the same: each sees himself as acquiring pipe?" (IIIji.355) After his turning point The Decalogue, thecollective termfor God-like qualities. In both the first in Act II, ii, Hamlet no longer sees the Ten Commandments, plays a major step for the is the breaking of any reason to hold the idea and name of role in both character development and the First Commandment, "I am the Lord God sacred. plotstructure in two of Shakespeare's thy God. shalt not have strange The breaking of the Second greatest , Hamlet and gods before me." Commandment is clearly defined in Macbeth. In these two works, nineof Hamlet makes a transition to seeing Macbeth. After Macbeth commits his first the Ten Commandments are broken himself as a deity in Act II. Although in murder, he speaks with through thecourse of each . The the first two acts of the play, he has been and the following dialogue occurs: Decalogue serves as a plot device; reverent in his attitude towards God, because the Ten Commandments are when his father is killed, Hamlet MACBETH: embedded in thesubconscious ofmostof becomes angry with God. He doesn't One cried 'God bless us!' and 'Amen!' the other Shakespeare's audience members and, as understand why God doesn't punish As they had seen me with these hangman's hands, moral rules, they are used as a para­ Claudius immediately Hamlet reveals List'ning their fear. I could not say 'Amen!' digm ofwhatis right orwrong, good or that he is motivated to seek by When they did say 'God bless us!' (II.ii.26-29) evil. In this way, Shakespeare's audi­ heaven; that is, since Heaven has not LADY MACBETH: ences, although notconsciously aware, taken control of the situation, he must, Consider it not so deeply use the Ten Commandments asa means "Prompted to my revenge by heaven and MACBETH: ofjudge thecharacters. hell" (II.ii.569). But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'? In Act I of Macbeth, the witches I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen' greet Macbeth as King. When this Stuck in my throat. (II.ii.30--33) occurs, he sees it as a sign that he should take matters into his own hands, and Here Macbeth is trying to say a blessing truly attempt to usurp the throne. to himself and repent to God by saying Macbeth does not feel that his situation "Amen," but he is not able to utter the is prompted by Heaven, but by a moral word. If he were able to, it would cer­ manifestation of fate embodied in the tainly be breaking the Commandment, Apparition that appears to him in Act IV which he truly desires, but is unable The Apparition states: to do. In Hamlet, the relationship of the Be Bloody;bold, and resolute! Laugh to scorn hero to the Fourth Commandment, The pow'r of man, for none of woman born "Honor thy father and thy mother," is Shall harm Macbeth. (IVi.79-81) twofold. First, there is the matter of Hamlet and his honor toward his dead Macbeth is told that he cannot be harmed father; then, there is the matter of his by anyone "of woman born," which sug­ mother . The entire play is con­ gests that Macbeth himself has "become" structed around Hamlet's desire to honor God. If no one can kill him, he reasons, his dead father by revenging his murder. he must be immortal, just like God. Yet Hamlet also honors his mother. The instance of Hamlet breaking the Although his father's apparition in Act I Second Commandment, "Thou shalt not tells Hamlet to "Leaveher to heaven" take the name of the Lord thy God in (I.v.86), in Act III, Hamlet beseeches vain," is not obvious, but visible nonethe- Gertrude to repent:

12 The Role of the Decalogue in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth Mother, for the love of grace, HAMLET: The Seventh Commandment, "Thou Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, A bloody deed-almost as bad, good mother, shalt not steal," is more overtly broken, as That not your trespass but my madness As kill a and marry with his brother. is the Tenth Commandment, "Thou shalt It will but skin and film the ulcerous not covet thy neighbor's goods." In Whiles rank and corruption, mining all within, Hamlet takes no responsibility for his Hamlet, Claudius, the brother of the King, Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven, actions. For him, his own "bloody deed" covets the Queen and the throne. Repent whats past, avoid what is to come, is justified by the murder of his father. Ultimately he steals both from his brother. And do not spread the compost on the weeds Later, the murder of Claudius is a vindica­ Macbeth also covets the throne: "...I have To make them ranker. ... (III.iv.145-152) tion for Hamlet, rather than a sin, and he no spur / to prick the sides of my intent, takes no responsibility for the action. but only / vaulting ambition... " In spite of what the has said, Conversely; Macbeth makes several (Lvii.25-27). His "vaulting ambition" Hamlet still feels that he must attempt to statements acknowledging that he has makes him feel as if he deserves to be save his mother. committed murder. Beforehe murders King, simply because of the magnitude of In Macbeth, the Fourth Duncan, he muses on what he is about his desire for the throne. Commandment is broken by Macduffs to do: The Ten Commandments serve an son, as he speaks to his mother about the important purpose in Hamlet and death of his father I go, and it is done. The bell invites me. Macbeth. They make the characters and Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell the plot structure of the tragedies accessi­ SON: That summons thee to heaven, or to hell. ble to even the least educated members of My father is not dead for all your saying. (II.i.62-64) the audience. The Ten Commandments WIFE: constitute a common knowledge that Yes,he is dead. How wilt thou do for a father? Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth acknowledges everyone, from royalty to beggars, shares. SON: his action: "I have done the deed" Therefore, all members of Shakespeares Nay, how will you do for a husband? (ILii.13) audiences, regardless of the level of their WIFE: The breaking of the Sixth Command­ education or sophistication, could be Why, I can buy me twenty at any market. mant, "Thou shalt not commit adultery;" depended on the have much of the same SON: with the attendant Ninth Commandment, basic understanding of right and wrong, Then you'll buy 'em to sell again. (IV ii. 30-41) "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife," good and evil. In Hamlet and Macbeth, the occurs in both plays. In Hamlet, the . Ten Commandments serve as signposts, The blatant lack of respect that is shown Ghost speaks of the adulterous intrigues helping the audience follow the moral to Macduffs wife by his son is the same of Claudius on Gertrude: path of the play argumentative tone that Hamlet takes with Gertrude in her private closet. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterous beast. .. Examples of transgressions of the o wicked wits and gifts, that have the power Fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not So to seduce!-won to his shameful lust kill," are numerous. However, while The will of my most seeming virtuous queen. Macbeth openly admits to his acts of mur­ (I.v.42-46) der, Hamlet hardly speaks of them. When Hamlet stabs in Gertrude's clos­ The Ghost believes that Claudius seduced et, he is hardly cognizant of the deed: Gertrude while her husband, the King, was yet alive, and that this adultery led to QUEEN: the King's murder. In Macbeth, adultery is Oh me, what hast thou done? not so easily recognized. However, Lady HAMLET: Macbeth schemes to distract Duncan's Nay; I know not. It is the king? chamberlains from his service by sitting QUEEN: and drinking with them in his chambers, Oh, what a rash and bloody deed is this! and this plan relies on at least the appear­ ance of adultery

GVSU McNair ScholarsJournal VOLUME 2. 1997-1998 13 Bibliography

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14 The Role of the Decalogue in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth