In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, the main character, Hamlet, is burdened with attaining revenge on his murdered father’s behalf from the king of Denmark, King Claudius. In attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks enduring estrangement occurring within himself at multiple psychological levels. The levels of estrangement that risk Hamlet’s psychological sense of identity are religious estrangement, moral estrangement, estrangement from countrymen, estrangement from his mother, and estrangement from women in general.
Hamlet feels self-actualized from following basic religious principles of living. This is shown by Hamlet’s refusal to commit murder thus preventing Hamlet from committing suicide at a time when he felt like doing so to avenge his father’s death because both murder and suicide are considered sins (Cahn 97).
“ To be, or not to be, that is the question:/ Whether’ tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ or to take arms a sea of troubles…”, (Act III, I.)
Hamlet is questioning if it is worth living in such misery or not as everyday he is burdened with trying to avenge his father’s death. At this stage Hamlet is suicidal and risks himself being estranged from his religious principals as he begins to think of suicide. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius, he would be violating a central religious principle against murdering another human being. Both suicide and murdering King Claudius would make him feel guilt at having violated religious coda, thus representing estrangement at the level of his religious consciousness (Knight 14). As Hamlet has the duty to avenge his father’s death by killing his father’s murderer, the King, Hamlet risks estrangement at the religious level.
Hamlet is also principled in a moral sense. To kill a king would mean violating his internal conviction against committing crimes that might harm the hierarchical order of a state’s government (Scott 56). This is one of the reasons that Hamlet with a sword in his hand does not kill Claudius while he finds him in an act of praying. Deceit is also one of the main moral issues Hamlet has to face in order to avenge his father’s death that violates his moral conviction of being loyal. Hamlet risks estrangement from his moral sense as he decides to put on an antic disposition in order to trick the King of thinking that he is insane. With everyone around Hamlet, except Horatio, being deceitful, putting on an illusion to protect the King, like Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet is forced to also become deceitful and lose his attachment to his moral sense. Hamlet is forced to change the letter that initially ordered for him to be killed to having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death. Hamlet demonstrates deceit here to save his own life and avenge his father’s death thus risking estrangement from his moral sense.
It is true that Hamlet has both the capacity to organize a mob of supporters to overthrow Claudius and is loved by most of his countrymen to the point where, as Claudius admits, Claudius cannot openly think, feel or act in a hostile manner towards Hamlet (Knight 103). However, Hamlet is unable to organize such a mob for this purpose due to his principled nature, which prohibits him from doing so (Cahn 101). Without this option, the only way for him to avenge his father’s death is by himself alone taking action against Claudius. Essentially, then, he is one man up against a king and his army of soldiers, spies and friends (Sterks, “Enstragement”). Against such odds, he faces the serious risk that “palace intrigue” could work against him according to L.C Knight. A suspicious Claudius could, for example, have some of Hamlet’s colleagues in the royal household go out and spy on him, or assassinate him. Thus, in attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks estrangement in the form of his former colleagues of the royal household turning against him (Knight 123).
“ Beggar that I am, I am even poorer in thanks;/ but I thank you; and sure, dear friends, my thanks/ are too dear a halfpenny…/ Why, anything, but to the purpose. You were / sent for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough/ to color.” (Act )
Claudius could also have some of Hamlet’s friends try to kill him thus having the household turn against him. This represents Hamlet’s risk of feeling estrangement from having his former friends turn against him similarly as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Also, According to Mark Scott, “Hamlet’s friends and colleagues do not know why Claudius deserves execution; they have no knowledge of his crime, and Hamlet either lacks the proof or the nerve to inform them of the crime.” Thus, in trying to kill Claudius, Hamlet faces an estranging sense of unease from engaging in an endeavor of which his friends and colleagues feel is gravely immoral and unacceptable (Knight 44).
One of the most important forms of estrangement that Hamlet risks feeling in attempting to kill Claudius is estrangement from his mother. In order to kill Claudius, Hamlet must, of course, realize that Claudius killed his father. In doing so, however, he must also realize the self-unsettling fact that his mother fell in love with such a vile man, a man who not only is immoral but also has successfully emasculated Hamlet by killing his father. In killing Claudius he also risks estrangement from her, since she might forever view Hamlet as the man who killed her lover and a just king (Cahn 77). After all, she might never believe in Claudius’ guilt, either from Hamlet not being able to convince her of his guilt, or because a sense of psychological denial might prevent her from realizing this fact about Claudius. And even if she does realize it, she will feel hurt.
“ Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear/ Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?/ Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed./ And batton on this moor? Ha! Have you eyes?”. ( Act )
Hamlet says this trying to convince his mother of King Claudius’ guilt. For this reason, Hamlet feels inhibited from deliberately destroying the man his mother loves. There is also the prospect that a suspicious Claudius could influence a naive Gertrude to hate Hamlet, or to approve of “palace intrigue” against the potential assassin (Scott 34). In this case, Hamlet would feel the double sting of his mother, who once loved him, becoming both his enemy and Claudius’ supporter. Another form of motherly estrangement that Hamlet would feel from killing Claudius would result from him contradicting his mother’s expectation of what his personality is like. Gertrude believes that Hamlet is “sweet.” But by killing Claudius, Hamlet would be cruel. This would disturb her self-actualizing conception of the nature of Hamlet’s personality, and the realization that this disturbance has occurred would be to Hamlet a source of psychological estrangement. (Sterks, “Estrangement”).
Just as Hamlet’s countrymen and colleagues might turn against him as a result of “palace intrigue”, so could his lover, Ophelia. In realizing the fact of Claudius’ crime, which he must do in order to avenge his father’s murder, he realizes some “facts” about women that disturb him.
“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp; you nickname. God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t it hath made me mad. (Act )
Specifically, the “facts” that Hamlet realizes are that women might, because of their emotional characteristics, unwittingly commit serious, immoral mistakes similarly to Ophelia. Therefore women put on psychological pressures on men that can interfere with men’s ability to do what is morally right (Cahn 23). Ophelia, as she was deceitful to Hamlet and turned her face the other way to him, betrayed Hamlet by listening to her father. Hamlet knew that Ophelia was listening to her father and was only trying to get information from him to report to her Polonius. Also Gertrude’s marriages to Claudius, the murderer, as well as how her psychological impact on Hamlet’s mind hinders his ability to kill Claudius, are manifestations of these facts. These facts disturb him by making him feel weary and estranged of women’s’ emotional weaknesses, which in turn make him feel weary of women in general. That weariness of women threatens his sense of self-actualization, because it is much more difficult for him to carry on a normal sex life if he feels estranged by women in general; a heterosexual man who is unable to carry on a normal sex life with women (Cahn 91).
In attempting to kill Claudius, Hamlet risks psychological estrangement that he will likely experience psychological estrangement occurring on multiple levels. He would feel estrangement of his bond of motherly love, his bond of womanly love, his bond of friendship, his bondage to his religious and normative principles, and his bond to his professional colleagues. Many different forms of estrangement occurring simultaneously risk his psychological sense of identity. The realization that he faces such enormous pressures shapes his seemingly bizarre behavior in the play, and makes him struggle against the awesome weight of his obligation to destroy Claudius. All of this, of course, is in addition to his basic fear of being executed if he attempts to kill Claudius.