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Remy Orans

Ms. Reid

AP English

15 November 2010

Honor

In his masterpiece !  William Shakespeare explores the role a male¶s honor

plays in influencing his actions. Prince Hamlet the young protagonist of the story

discovers that his father¶s supposedly accidental death can be attributed to his Uncle

Claudius. Matters are complicated even further by Claudius¶s marriage to Hamlet¶s

mother Queen Gertrude. Hamlet undergoes an internal struggle throughout the play

vacillating between his self-doubting nature and the societal demand for him to fulfill his

duty as an honorable son and protect the reputations of both his father and mother.

Shakespeare contrasts the emotional cautious Hamlet with the fiery Laertes; he responds

with anger and swift action upon learning of his father¶s death. Shakespeare¶s use of

verbal irony and the hypocrisy of his character¶s actions express both his support of

Hamlet and his disdain for the honor males of his era must uphold.

Societal standards for honorable males dictate that they must never display their

emotions an indication of weakness. The traditionalist King Claudius expresses these

views when consoling Hamlet over his father¶s death. Claudius advises that although

Hamlet is ³bound In filial obligation for some term To do obsequious sorrow « to

persever In obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly

grief´ (I ii 95-98). Claudius¶s advice is severely flawed in that it omits any mention of

real human sorrow. He implies that men are required to express grief simply because it is
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required of them in order to show respect for their father. He then goes further and states

that any mourning expressed beyond that which is required is unreasonable and not fit for

a man. Shakespeare must recognize that true pain plays a role in expression of grief; his

intentional omission of it is in fact evidence of his support of the expression grief

regardless of honor.

Laertes abides by Claudius¶s guidelines when mourning Ophelia¶s death.

Although he admits that tears are a natural reaction following the death of a loved one he

must ³forbid my [his] tears´ (IV vii 212) commenting that ³When these are

gone The woman will be out´ (IV vii 214-215). Laertes admission of tears being an

essential part of the grieving process humanizes him and shows his genuine sadness.

Shakespeare then ridicules males of every age by acting out a common male defense

mechanism. After Laertes brief acknowledgement of the possibility of shedding tears he

must once again regain his image and diminishes crying by likening it to the weakness of

a woman. Shakespeare then exposes the hypocrisy surrounding laws governing male

emotional expression by comparing Laertes differing emotional outbursts when

confronted with the death of his sister and father. Upon learning of his father¶s death

Laertes immediately expresses incredible anger yelling his vow to ³be revenged most

thoroughly for [his] father´ (IV v 154-155). When his sister dies Laertes refuses to

shed a tear. Males are required to only show emotion when it heightens their honor; any

sign of weakness is to be avoided at all costs. Shakespeare presents this dichotomy to the

reader and ridicules its hypocrisy.

Perhaps even more important than emotion in upholding ones honor is the concept

of revenge. Society demands that a son avenge the murder of his father in order to
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protect his family¶s honor. Shakespeare again presents the reader with a contrast this

time in the differing reactions of Laertes and Hamlet following their fathers¶ deaths.

When Claudius is praying Hamlet expresses his desire for revenge stating

³When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage; Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; «or

about some act That has no relish of salvation in't Then trip him that his heels may kick

at heaven And that his soul may be as damn'd and black As hell whereto it goes´ (III iii

89-95). Hamlet¶s desire for revenge here is pure unadulterated by any notion of honor or

society. Instead he is motivated by love. Hamlet truly loved his father. His description

of his father as ³So excellent a king that was to this Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my

mother´ (I ii 142-143) expresses the genuine admiration and godlike attributes that he

attributed to the former king. Therefore the grief he expresses throughout the play is

quite real. Hamlet is so grieved he seriously contemplates suicide asking himself ³To

be or not to be that is the question´ (III i 54).

As opposed to Hamlet¶s unadulterated revenge motive Laertes¶s motives are

tainted by a societal influence. When Hamlet confronts Laertes in their duel and

apologizes Laertes responds ³I am satisfied in nature Whose motive in this case should

stir me most to my revenge; but in my terms of honor I stand aloof and will no

reconcilement till by some elder masters of known honor I have a voice and precedent of

peace´ (V ii 259-264). Laertes acknowledges that his biggest motive for revenge his

hurt feelings over the death of his father has at this point been appeased. Following this

important admission however he states that his honor has not yet been appeased and thus

his desire for revenge has not been fully satiated. This clear contradiction in Laertes

logic an example of verbal irony elucidates Shakespeare¶s true beliefs. Shakespeare


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believes that nature not honor should be the primary motive of revenge. When

comparing Hamlet and Laertes desires for revenge honor is shown to be the pathetic

force that Shakespeare believes it to be.

Shakespeare makes clear the inherent hypocrisy and weakness of stereotypical

male honor throughout ! . Hamlet can be seen as a weak character whose fears and

cautions prevent him from righting the wrong one to his father. By understanding

Shakespeare¶s views on male honor however the reader gains a distinctly different

impression of Hamlet¶s character. The fear and weakness he admits to the audience in

the famed ³to be or not to be´ soliloquy can be interpreted as signs of inner strength

demanding respect. Hamlet is ³man´ enough to forgo the traditional ideas regarding

expression of emotion and seriously deliberate on his desire to commit suicide. He is

brutally honest in his analysis of the pros and cons of the decision letting down his guard

and admitting that fear is preventing a suicidal attempt. The reader must understand

Shakespeare¶s ideas on honor and how a man should behave in order to fully comprehend

the nature of the play as a whole. Hamlets deliberations and cautious nature are rendered

by Shakespeare not to create a weak character but rather to construct a multi-dimensional

character that Shakespeare believes to be the model of a strong man.