Summary: How Shakespeare Captures Moral Ambiguity

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   “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” . This line of Hamlet’s epitomizes Shakespeare’s characterization of morality in many of his plays. The usurper Macbeth, though a villian, possesses virtuous qualities as well, while the noble prince Hamlet, though justified in his avenge, is not without flaws. Good and evil are never objective or definite terms, and humanity is almost always a paradoxical mixture of the two. Rather than generalizing characters simply with conventional labels like “hero” or “villain,” Shakespeare often presents both their merits and flaws, leaving space for the readers to give their own definitions of good and bad.

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Cautious yet impulsive, tenderhearted yet uncompassionate, Hamlet has a personality filled with contradictions. Despite Horatio’s advice and his own misgivings, he follows the ghost and accepts the duel challenge without hesitation. Jeopardizing himself multiple times, he appears to “not set [his] life at a pin’s fee,”  but at other times, he is careful with the situation and “the dread of something after death”  ultimately stops him from taking his own life. His cautiousness and thoughtfulness are also visible as he devises ingenious plans to confirm the ghost’s accusation and to escape from the fatal voyage to England. As for his co-existing tenderness and indifference, there is compassion “sweet and commendable in [his] nature” as he mourns long for his father even though others have moved on, but meanwhile he shows little regret toward the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, claiming that “they are not near [his] conscience” . Although for Polonius’s death “[he does] repent”  and apologize, his attitude suggests that he mostly remains indifferent. The polarity of Hamlet’s personality is an excellent representation of the complexity of humanity – often times, two seemingly opposing qualities coexist and are deeply entangled. There can never be utter good or utter evil; in fact, even as two contrary attributes in a person are clearly identified, it is hardly possible to assert one of them to be good and the other bad, like many so often do. When juxtaposing Hamlet’s contrasting traits, cautiousness and compassion may appear to be his merits, especially in relation to recklessness and indifference, but it is exactly his cautiousness which has led him to miss several chances of killing Claudius, and his compassion which has overwhelmed him with the thought of revenge. Indeed, recklessness and indifference are Hamlet’s flaws, but so can their opposites be, making him indecisive and over-sentimental. A person cannot be all good or all bad, not only because of the complexity of his personality, but also because not a single trait can be desirable or undesirable at all times. As Hamlet discerns, good and bad are not innate characteristics of anything. They are always relative and subjective, and it depends on the person interpreting to give their own distinct definition in their mind.

The conflicting nature is not lost in the character Macbeth either. His tragic flaw, the “vaulting ambition,” spurs him to commit a series of murders and he eventually buries all the “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends” he has once had with his own hands. Nonetheless, his conscience has never escaped from the guilt of murdering. Haunted by nightmares and hallucinations, he wishes things could be undone, but is also aware that he has “in blood stepp’d in so far that”  he can never restore the past. Often times, a character’s fatal flaw is seen as the cause of his downfall, but usually, it is the combined effect of the flaw and the stimulation of unexpected events causing the tragedy. The flaws themselves are not fatal; they are natural and human. Nor are the characters themselves always evil; circumstances magnify their shortcomings and lead decent people astray. What makes the two characters Hamlet and Macbeth truly tragic is that they have both been respectable, upright figures before some unexpected happenings, despite some minor flaws which all humans may possess. In Hamlet’s case, the murder of his father and the betrayl of his mother ruin him, fixing his mind solely on revenge and magnifying his faults. Despite his intended or unintended madness, a glimpse of his brilliance still shows: he is clever, mannerly, and virtuous; “the great love the general gender bear him” (is out of good reasons. Indeed, “had he been put on,” he would “have prov’d most royally” . For Macbeth, the witches’ prophecies and his wife’s manipulation stir his ambition over and over again, finally causing it to triumph over morality in his internal struggle. He has been a valiant captain loyal to the king, the thought of usury possibly passing his mind temporarily but ultimately suppressed, until the sudden temptation leads him astray. The complication of the situation is yet another factor contributing to the moral ambiguity: flaws are an unavoidable part of humanity, but whether or not they become fatal and bring about one’s downfall also depends on the circumstances he is in. Depicting two characters from opposing perspectives and with both merits and flaws, Shakespeare shapes the two not simply as a villain and a hero, but as real, touching human beings, in whom the battle of good and evil is constantly occurring. Essentially they are no different than any other ordinary people, which is why the readers feel for them and can hardly hate them in spite of their wrongdoings.

Shakespeare insightfully captures one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: its moral ambiguity. One cannot be deemed as all good or all evil because of the complexity in one’s personality, in the circumstances, and in the two terms themselves. Good and bad are always relative and subjective; Shakespeare perceives this and merges it into his plays, thus making his characters vivid and tangible. By presenting them from multiple perspectives and purposely leaving a blank in the definite black and white in humanity, Shakespeare invites the readers themselves to fill in the space with their own definitions. 

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