Hamlet is probably the best known and most popular play of William Shakespeare, and it is natural for any person to question what makes Hamlet a great tragedy and why it receives such praises. The answer is in fact simple; it effectively arouses pity and fear in the audiences’ mind. The audience feels pity when they see a noble character experiencing a regrettable downfall because of his innate tragic flaw, and they fear that the same thing might happen to them. Hamlet’s speech (III, iv, 139-180) contributes to producing this feeling of pity and fear. First it explains the thought with particular emotional effectiveness. Second it conveys Hamlet’s character, both virtue and tragic fear. Lastly, it marks the beginning of the tragic discovery and Hamlet’s downfall, answering the question “why does Hamlet delay?” Observing the beginning of Hamlet’s downfall and tragic discovery in this passage, which happens despite his many virtues, maximizes the pity and fear at the same time.
The first contribution is that this passage conveys Hamlet’s thoughts with poetic and emotional effectiveness. Hamlet denies his madness and urges Gertrude not to make his madness an excuse for her faults. He asserts that excuses would only cover the superficial faults and the soul would be corrupted deep within. He further asks Gertrude not to commit any more sins that make past faults even worse and to confess herself to heaven. After all, Hamlet sarcastically begs her pardon for his reproach. Hamlet explains that during the extremely rotten time, Hamlet, who is good and of virtue, must beg pardon to and get permission from Gertrude, who represents vice by committing many sins, to do good things such as urging her to repent. As a method for salvation, Hamlet asks her not to go to Claudius’ bed. Then he apologizes for the death of Polonius and admits his own fault. However, he insists that Polonius and he both are punished because God has made him the agent to punish Polonius with him and him with Polonius. He takes the responsibility, and explains Gertrude that he is cruel only to be kind to her and warns that worse things are yet to come.
Through out the passage, imageries are used to add poetic emotion to Hamlet’s thought. One example is “unction” in Hamlet’s speech “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul…It will but skin and film the ulcerous place whiles rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen.” (III, iv, 145) This is a metaphor; flattering unction on soul designates an excuse for her past faults. Unction is scab that only covers the superficial wounds; inside the body the wounds would not heel but infect the flesh and cause more serious damage. Here, making excuses would be same as putting unction on the ulcerous place on skin. Making excuses would only cover the past faults; it does not correct them but only bring more pain in the future. Hamlet is warning that if Gertrude tries to make an excuse for her past faults, her inner soul would corrupt and suffer more pain later. This metaphor not only conveys Hamlet’s thought but also adds more emotion to the speech, arousing fear in the audience’s mind for many ordinary people do tend to make excuses for their mistakes. There is a similar metaphor in the passage just few lines below; “And do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker.” (III, iv, 152) The compost designates more faults that Gertrude may commit if she does not repent, and the weeds means the past sins. What Hamlet means in this line is that Gertrude should not commit any more sins because more sins would worsen the past faults. Composts are fertilizers, which in the days of Shakespeare probably made of excrements. Here is a brilliant poetic comparison; compost, which is made of excrements, equals to Gertrude’s faults. The audience gets the feeling that her faults are as dirty as excrements. Use of these dictions not only provide these emotional effects on the audience but also reveals Hamlet’s thought – his anger, passion, and anxiety to lead Gertrude to the right direction.
In addition to Hamlet’s thought, this passage further reveals many aspects of the character Hamlet, contributing significantly to the pity and fear aroused by the whole play; his virtue produces the pity, his tragic flaw the fear. Hamlet’s virtue revealed in this passage that makes him a noble character is his moral stand, especially his honesty and hatred against Gertrude’s adultery and lust. Passages like “Mother, for love of grace, lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks” (III, iv, 145) and “Confess yourself to heaven, repent what’s past…” (III, iv, 150) show that Hamlet denounces Gertrude’s dull sense of honesty and urges her to be honest with God, revealing that Hamlet puts importance on the virtue of honesty and loathes dishonesty. He himself practices honesty, saying “For this same lord, I do repent….I will bestow him and will answer well the death I gave him.” (III, iv, 173) He could have blamed Polonius for spying on him, but he takes the full responsibility and admits his fault; it is clear that he is very fair and just, compared to Gertrude.
Another moral virtue in this passage is his hatred against the evil, or Gertrude’s adultery and lust in this passage. He openly asks her to “go not to my uncle’s bed. Assume a virtue, if you have it no.” (III, iv, 160) For a character like Hamlet, who values morality as one of the most important virtues, Gertrude’s adultery must have been a great pain and inhumane act. These two virtues, honesty and hatred against adultery and lust, make Hamlet the noble character in this passage, and the audience feel pity for him because they regret the downfall of such moral man.
However, a tragic hero should have a tragic flaw that makes him more like ordinary people, for only then the audience feels the fear that the same thing might happen to them. In this passage, the same lines that describe Hamlet’s virtues also convey his tragic flaw; “his excessive morality becomes morbidity.” His innate tragic flaw is excessive disgust for Gertrude’s adultery and obsessive pursuit of honesty. His excessive loathing is indicated in other lines as well; “rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty-” (III, iv, 93) “a murderer and a villain…and put it in his pocket.” (III, iv, 96) He is so enraged and concentrated on Gertrude’s immorality that the ghost has to step in to remind him of his ultimate goal of killing Claudius; “Do not forget. This visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose…step between her and her fighting soul!..Speak to her Hamlet.” (III, iv, 111) This shows that Hamlet has gone off track because of his excessive disgust of Gertrude’s sin.
Surprisingly, in the middle of his tragic flaw lies Hamlet’s another virtue. Hamlet says at the end of the confrontation “I must be cruel only to be kind.” (III, iv, 179) This is an evidence that Hamlet, although extremely disappointed and enraged, still wants to help Gertrude. His manner might be too cruel and violent, but his intention is to help her to escape from immorality. It is contradictory that his obsession of morality, which is the tragic flaw that causes his death, can be another virtue. Yet because of this, the audience feels even stronger fear. When a virtue can be a flaw and a flaw can be a virtue, the confusion produces more fear. And in reality there are many people who are too moral to do anything and after all miss the point of their life, like Hamlet. Those “moral” people are so concerned with living “morally” that they cannot do anything in the real life. This fact arouses fear among the audience who may be one of those morality-obsessed people. Both Hamlet’s virtue and tragic flaw are well revealed in this passage, and it is obvious that this is one of the most essential passages of the play in producing the feeling of pity and fear.
The passage has more significant impact on the production of pity and fear when it is evaluated in the larger structure of the whole play. In the larger context, this passage serves two important purposes; it confirms and clarifies the descriptions about Hamlet’s character and thoughts made in prior passages, and answers the question “Why does Hamlet delay?” Hamlet’s honesty is already revealed in his speech “I know not ‘seems.’….” (I, ii, 76) and even his enemy Claudius admits this; “He, [Hamlet] being remiss, most generous, and free from all contriving, will not peruse the fills….” His hatred against the evil and pursuit of perfect morality have also been introduced several times before; against drunkenness “Ay, marry, is’t, but to my mind…the pith and marrow of our attribute.” (I, iv, 14) and against the wicked Rosencrantz and Guildensten “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!….you cannot play upon me,” (III, ii, 349) “These tedious old fools!,” (II, ii, 217) and several others. This passage makes the final assertion that convinces the audience of Hamlet’s honesty and morality, concreting the notion that Hamlet is indeed a tragic hero.
Yet the greater significance of this passage is that marks the beginning of his regrettable downfall, answering the question that has been raised by the audience throughout the entire play; “Why does Hamlet delay his revenge?” In fact, the answer has been foreshadowed several times before this passage, but those passages were preludes for this one. In the play-within-the-play, “In second husband let me be accurst! None wed the second but who killed the first” (III, ii, 171) and “A second time I kill my husband dead when second husband kisses me in bed” (III, ii, 176-177) suggested the Hamlet’s play-within-the-play is aimed more to Gertrude than to Claudius. Hamlet’s saying ““[T’is brief, my lord.] As Woman’s love,” (III, ii, 145) “Mother, you have my father much offended,” (III, iv, 11) and “Look here upon this picture, and on this…and reason panders will.” (III, iv, 54) indicate that Gertrude’s adultery and betrayal of love has hurt Hamlet’s conscience deeply. With these lines, the audience can easily suspect that Hamlet delays his revenge because he has to take care of Gertrude first. This passage confirms this suspicion; ““go not to my uncle’s bed.” (III, iv, 160-161) Hamlet simply asks her to stay away from Claudius for her own salvation. The revenge against Claudius must be delayed to punish and save Gertrude’s soul, whom Hamlet still loves and wants to help in spite of overwhelming disappointment and disgust.
Now the audience knows a good and just reason of delay, and sympathizes him even more because Hamlet’s good intention to help Gertrude, which rooted from his virtue of morality, sets the beginning of his tragic discovery and downfall. Hamlet has been the righteous person before, but now having killed Polonius, he has made himself a “scourge,” or a sinful person, just like Claudius, and in fact he admits this; “For this lord, I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so, to punish me with this, and this with me, that I must be their scourge and minister.” (III, iv, 173) He finds that his fate is sealed here and his downfall begins because the murder of Polonius gives a good reason to open fire against Hamlet. Even now, Hamlet’s another virtue shine once again; although he became a scourge by killing Polonius, he still wants to be a minister, or an innocent person, by repenting in the future. In this passage, the audience observes the turning point of the play, and they feel the greatest sympathy and fear because his virtues turned out to be the trap that marks his downfall and starts the tragic discovery, despite his desperate desire to hold on to his virtues.
There are many other important passages that contain beautiful poetic dictions and convey Hamlet’s thoughts and character masterfully. However, this passage makes very significant contributions to the pity and fear produced by the whole play. Containing poetic dictions and devices such as imageries, it conveys Hamlet’s thoughts thoroughly with particular emotional impact on the audience’s mind. Then it reveals Hamlet’s virtues and tragic flaw to promote the audience’s understand of Hamlet and provide the necessary information to feel pity and fear. Finally it provides the audience a chance to observe the critical turning point of the play, where Hamlet’s tragic discovery and downfall sets off it’s way toward his death, despite his many virtues and desperate attempt to hold on to them. The understanding of Hamlet’s thoughts and virtues arouse pity for Hamlet, and the knowledge of his tragic flaw and the reason of delay bring about the fear, which together make Hamlet one of the greatest tragedies in the history of English literature.