Thursday, May 17, 2012


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Since the very dawn of time, idealism has been simultaneously a great asset to man, and a great enemy. It has enabled him to aim for the greatest heights of perfection, but has also resulted in disillusionment and even destruction. Such is the case with Hamlet, an apparent victim of this idealism. In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Hamlet’s idealism brings about his downfall by forcing him to act in a manner he believes is absolutely right. This idealism can be seen in Hamlet’s decision to pursue vengeance for the death of his father; in his delaying to make an attempt on the life of Claudius until he is perfectly certain of his guilt; and in his failure to slay Claudius when he has the chance, even when certain of his guilt. Each one of these events is a direct cause of Hamlet’s final undoing.

The first example of Hamlet’s idealism as it relates to his downfall occurs early in the play, wherein he makes the decision to undertake revenge for the death of his father. Although this is not something that he wishes to do, he feels it is his responsibility to go through with it, as is shown in Act I, Scene V, where Hamlet says “The time is out of joint�O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” Clearly, Hamlet is not overjoyed at the prospect of killing Claudius, even though Claudius did slay his father. However, Hamlet takes an idealistic view of things, seeing this task as one which must be accomplished, in order that all will be made right and good. The decision which he has made here sets in motion the whole chain of events that eventually lead to much ruin, including the demise of Hamlet himself.

More of Hamlet’s idealism is apparent in his actions after he vows to take revenge. While he does believe that Claudius is guilty of murdering his father, he will not act on this until he is perfectly certain of Claudius’s guilt, making sure the revenge is carried out perfectly. In order to do this, he devises a plan to trick Claudius into giving himself away as being the assassin. He does this by staging a play in which a scene similar to the king’s actual assassination is played out, which will be viewed by Claudius, who will presumably exhibit some visible reaction upon seeing this. In Act II, Scene II, Hamlet declares, The plays the thing, wherein Ill catch the conscience of the king. This catching of the Claudius’s conscience is necessary to satisfy Hamlet’s idealistic mind that he is in fact pursuing the correct course of action in making an attempt on the life of Claudius. The significance of these events in terms of the downfall of Hamlet is that, while removing any doubts about the proper course of action, they destroy Hamlet’s practical chances of slaying Claudius by alerting Claudius to the fact that Hamlet is likely dangerous.

A final example of the idealism of Hamlet is displayed in Act III, Scene III. The play has ended, and Hamlet, having satisfied himself that Claudius is in fact guilty, goes into the chambers of Claudius with the intent of exacting his revenge. However, as he arrives, he finds Claudius praying for forgiveness for the crime of murdering his brother, which hath the primal eldest curse upont. Hamlet at this point suddenly wonders whether he ought to kill Claudius at this particular point in time, believing that as he is praying his soul will go to heaven if he is to die now. “A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven,” says Hamlet, unsatisfied with this revenge. He therefore decides to let Claudius live for now and kill him later, while he is doing something less virtuous. This idealistic decision, seeking a more perfect vengeance than simply killing Claudius, deprives Hamlet of his final chance to successfully exact his revenge.

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And thus, through a string of decisions motivated more by idealism than pragmatic considerations, the downfall of Hamlet is secured. By accepting that killing Claudius is something which should be done, and therefore will be done, Hamlet sets in motion the sequence of events that lead to his demise. By delaying any attempt on Claudius’s life until he can be perfectly certain of his guilt, Hamlet denies himself the advantage of surprise in executing his revenge, reducing his chances of success. And by finally failing to kill Claudius when he does have the opportunity, in the name of seeking a more ideal revenge, Hamlet gives up his last chance of success, ensuring his downfall.

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