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"Vows to the Blackest Devil": Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.

The Renaissance was a period in which the honor code underwent a significant metamorphosis. The medieval, chivalric code of honor, with its emphasis on lineage, allegiance to one's lord and violence, evolved into an honor code that was both more moral and political in that it began to emphasize the individual conscience and allegience to the state. Analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in particular its characters' use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into the evolving Renaissance codes of honor, for Shakespeare creates characters in Hamlet that represent various stages in the evolution of a changing honor system.

Contemporary Shakespearean scholars have demonstrated a renewed interest in both Renaissance concepts of honor and the historical context that surrounds these concepts. [1] In practical terms, this means that critics attempting to understand a literary text by placing it within the context of its creation must cross the constructed boundaries that exist between literary texts and historical documents, whether they be sermons, tracts, government papers, private letters, published or unpublished works, all of which are themselves texts. The study of honor in Shakespeare's drama, then, must include an examination of the way that honor was referred to in a multiplicity of texts. This is not to say that an historical context can be entirely recreated and thus provide a definitive meaning or interpretation that is ascribable to Shakespeare's plays. The recognition that history cannot be completely knowable is, in part, what separates New Historicism from former historical approaches to literature. However, an exam ination of the way honor was written about in other texts of the period allows for some general conclusions regarding the evolution of the honor code and Shakespeare's role in representing and defining that code. Moreover, analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in particular its characters' use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into evolving Renaissance codes of honor. [2] The heretofore unexplored relationship between honor and promise in Hamlet deserves attention for it is through the use of promise that Shakespeare's characters define rival and evolving conceptions of what it meant to be an honorable man.

Honor, like other intangible and abstract terms such as love or faith, is difficult both to define and to discern. In fact, the OED contains over ten main definitions of honor that are applicable to the Elizabethan period. Yet, integral to the early modern honor code was, and is, the word, and Shakespeare's use of the word of honor -- of promise -- can be examined in order to discern the shifting concept of honor itself. Specifically, according to Mervyn James, "the importance of 'promise' was that this gave the essence of honor, will and intention (340);" Shakespeare's characters' concepts of honor can be perceived in the ways in which they use, and respond to, promise. Thus, a close examination of Shakespeare's use of promise in Hamlet yields some valuable conclusions regarding the honor codes that both shape Shakespeare's works and are shaped by them.

The Renaissance was a period of transition in the evolution of the code of honor. One of the most complex changes in the code of honor was a move from an external code to an internalized concept of what it is to be an honorable man. Men were no longer considered honorable simply by right of birth, nor were they able to claim to be men of honor by producing a long list of heroic deeds. Rather, honor was becoming, by the seventeenth century, a matter of conscience; honorable men needed to seek, in every situation, to behave in such a way as to please both their state and their God. That is not to say that there did not exist a residual chivalric sense of honor which emphasized the importance of blood and lineage as well as martial prowess. Rather, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this medieval concept of honor both co-existed and overlapped with a more modern code of honor which simultaneously emphasized both godliness and political allegiance to the collective state. [3]

This new code, in turn, created tensions of its own precisely because of its demand that men act both in accordance to the dictates of their conscience and their duty to the state. Put simply, Renaissance men had to cope with both an old, medieval code of honor and the tensions of a new one, tensions that were created, to a large degree, by the contemporary insistence on the importance of the individual conscience. [4]

In 1599, the anonymous writer of a pamphlet entitled Fancies Ague-fittes, or Beauties Nettle-bed finds it necessary to aver that "Honour is nothing els but populare reputation, it is no parte of the conscience" (16). This enters a Renaissance discourse of the conscience, and it enters against the proliferation of courtesy literature that urged men to examine their consciences before taking any act, or to act in consultation with God's "counsell." [5] For example, William Perkins writes in 1612 that "whatsoever is not done of a setled perswasion in judgement and conscience out of Gods word, howsoever men judge of it, is sinne" (1:537). In particular, by 1597 John Norden was urging in his address to the reader that

all militaire men ought to haue continuall councell and consultation with the God of armies [the Christian God], disclayming their owne wisdomes, judgements and valeur, and to followe what is commanded in, or agreeth with his word. (2)

For Norden, as for many writers of this period, all men, even military men, should examine their conscience to ensure that their actions, even in battle, coincide with the Word of God. [6] That is not to say that medieval soldiers and chivalric knights were unconcerned with virtue. But, according to Maurice Keen, "it is as an essentially secular figure that the chivalrous knight steps onto the stage of history." [7] By 1630, as Richard Braithwaite noted, the exhortations concerning honor and conscience had transformed the notion, for some, of honorable behavior:

we have in these declining dayes, among so many proud Symeons, many humble Josephs, whose chiefest honour they make it to abase themselves on earth, to adde to their complement of glory in heaven, so much slighting the applause of men, as their only aime is to have a sincere and blamelesse conscience in them. (63-64)

That the Elizabethan concept of honor came to encompass the internal conscience is well-documented. [8] This emphasis on the conscience, within both drama and society, forced men to balance obedience to the State with adherence to Christian virtues of patience and forgiveness that could be found within God's word. In other words, there exists in this period a conflict of conscience between obedience to God and to the state which often required violent military action, and adherence to an honor code that demanded Christian patience, long-suffering, and non-violent resolutions to conflict. [9] It is this attempt both to please the state and God and to remain honorable that leads to Hamlet's crisis of conscience and, ultimately, to his tragic death. Nevertheless, even with the internalization of honor the concept of promise did not diminish. One's word remained inherent in the code of honor precisely because honor as a political and moral consideration required, even more than before, a public statement of inte nt. It is the essence of honor, manifest in promise, that Shakespeare questions when he creates the characters in Hamlet.

Although Shakespeare's later tragedies, especially Othello, demonstrate a clear demarcation between several types of promise (oaths and swearing for example) in Hamlet these two terms can be taken to mean what Frances Shirley defines as "the calling to witness something, divine or otherwise, to seal vows of allegiance and promises of love or to attest the truth of a statement" (xi). An oath in Hamlet, then, is simply an invocation of a higher power to bear witness to the truth of a statement.

In Shakespearean tragedy, oaths function structurally to develop characterization and move the action toward its climax. Although Hamlet can, of course, withdraw from his oath of vengeance without a threat to his honor should he discover that the ghost is, in fact, not truthful, when he swears that the ghost's commandment to seek revenge "all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain / Unmixed with baser matter! Yes, by heaven" (1.5.102-4), the prince is, in effect, stripped of his power to stop the events. He is a man of honor, a noble man, and now that the vow is spoken he has no choice but to carry it through. Thomas points out that "Protestant teaching seems to have been remarkably firm" (702) when it came to denying the existence of the ghosts of dead men, but after the play within the play Hamlet is committed. The evidence of Claudius's guilt that Hamlet perceives in the king's reaction, which causes Hamlet to publicly exclaim, "0 good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound" (3.2.260-6 1), removes the possibility that Hamlet can be dishonored by his belief in ghosts. In fact, The Mousetrap scene in Hamlet is an example of the knightly and chivalric honorable tradition whereby a man's honor can be either lost or won by surviving an ordeal designed to determine his guilt. As Thomas explains, the "ordeal is not usually invoked until the suspect has already been identified. It is merely an additional test of his guilt, not the initial means of discovering the criminal" (260). Hamlet cleverly devises an ordeal for Claudius, the already-discovered criminal, in order to prove Claudius's guilt without having to depend on the ghost's word. In so doing, Hamlet unwittingly brings together both the chivalric code of honor and the more modern moralized one; Shakespeare exempts Hamlet from being dependent upon the word of a ghost, which in Protestant theology would define him as dishonorable, by using the chivalric concept of the ordeal. Ironically, then, Hamlet uses the chivalric code to make himself honorable in the more modern concept of honor. Moreover, Hamlet's use of aspects of both an older idea of honor and a new one demonstrates the way in which these codes overlap in an evolving honor code.

In investing Hamlet with a concern to meet the demands of this evolving honor code, Shakespeare foreshadows the events of the drama while simultaneously divesting his main character of power. Shakespeare's careful delineation of Hamlet as Horatio's "honoured lord" (1.2.221), as a man who inspires "Our duty to your honour" (1.2.253), and as a lover who has approached Ophelia "with love / In honourable fashion" (1.3.16) makes clear that if Hamlet swears revenge against his father's murderer, then as a man of honor in the chivalric tradition, he must carry out that revenge no matter the cost. But, as Anita Pacheco notes, "Shakespeare's treatment of honor develops not out of a unified perspective, but out of the cultural diversity generated by rival ethical legacies" (93). Hamlet's tragedy is, in part, that he is forced to attempt to balance these "rival ethical legacies" as he struggles to remain honorable.

It is significant that Hamlet swears revenge in soliloquy; his oath is not public, nor does it ever become so. According to William Slights, oaths express a "desire to transform a private emotion into a public bond" (151). Moreover, James points out that honor is a public commitment through the "freely given word," and that the significance of a given honorable situation arises "out of the nature of honor as a public code, the public status distinguishing it from a private morality." [10]

By keeping private his oath to gain revenge upon Claudius, by refusing to enter the public arena of oath and honor, Hamlet's honor is seemingly not dependent upon his ability to slay his father's murderer precisely because honor is a public code. But, his swearing of revenge in a soliloquy -- a dramatic element that uniquely combines both the public and the private -- does not necessarily imply that his honor is not at stake, because the Renaissance concept of honor was evolving into a more internal code; Hamlet's honor has become as much a matter of his own conscience as of public recognition. Hamlet's soliloquy underscores the tension that exists between public and private honor. His oath, known to the audience but not to the other characters, exemplifies Shakespeare's entrance into the discourse of honor precisely because it allows the audience to discern Hamlet's crisis of conscience while simultaneously publicly committing the prince to revenge; since the audience hears the promise they may expect Hamle t, a nobleman, to keep his word.

In fact, a close examination of the concepts of promise and honor in Hamlet reveals that the major characters in this play represent different stages in the evolution of a changing code of honor. Moreover, this representation would not have been missed by a typical Shakespearean audience for "to a conscientious Christian living in late sixteenth-century England, the formal oath was an especially powerful form of utterance." [11] In fact, there exists in this period a plethora of texts that emphasized the difference between careful and casual swearing in an attempt to elucidate the dishonor involved in the casual use of promise. As early as 1579 Edmond Bicknoll was indignantly asking his parishioners if there "was ever any age so outragious in Othes? So blasphemous in railing? So rooted in perjury?" (3). In 1583 Philip Stubbes advises that the "blessed word of God, is to be handled reverently, gravely, and sagely with veneration to the glorious majestie of God" (1). Gervase Babington, also in 1583, points out that "In the Newe Testement we are forbidden to sweare at all, not because all swearing is a sinne, but because forswearing is an horrible sinne" (131). Babington was not entirely against swearing. Rather, he wanted to caution his readers about the casual use of swearing, for

the thing wee sweare by, wee make it the greatest of all other, wee make it the witnesse and discerner of our trueth wee meane, and the reuenger of falsehoode and our fault if we doe not as wee sweare, all which to bee giuen to the Lorde by swearing onley by Him, is a glory to him, and contraiwise a dishonour to him to ascribe them elsewhere, since indeede they are not incident to anie creature (133).

William Perkins, writing in 1593, concurs with Babington when he advises that "Gods name should only be uttered upon a weightie and just occasion, so we may plainly see that glory will redound to him thereby" (6). This elucidation of casual and careful swearing, in turn, underscores the metamorphosis in the honor code since it demonstrates the change in the use of the word. Put simply, the discourse of honor prevalent in these texts clearly argues that promise, and thus honor, was changing, for man's word was no longer either trustworthy nor honorable.

In Hamlet, Horatio represents the chivalric, medieval concept of honor. Horatio is utterly loyal and obedient to the man he addresses as his "honoured lord" (1.2.221), Hamlet. All five of Horatio's oaths (all in act 1) are made in relation to Hamlet himself. More importantly, Horatio keeps his word to Hamlet throughout the play. Horatio uses two oaths following his encounter with the ghost. First, he attempts to force the ghost to articulate its nature and purpose in Denmark "By heaven I charge thee speak" (1.1.48). After the ghost exits, Horatio, pale and frightened by his experience, insists that "Before my God, I might not this believe I Without the sensible and true avouch/ Of mine own eyes" (1.1.56-58). While this oath does not seem, at first, to be related to Hamlet, it is important to note that Horatio's two oaths are immediately followed by a discussion of Fortinbras's advance on Denmark and the danger the country faces as a result of his incursion. [12] And, since Shakespeare painstakingly makes it clear that Horatio is not Danish, and that his only connection to Denmark is his friendship with Hamlet, it is clear that the oaths uttered by Horatio are out of a concern for Hamlet, his "fellow student" (1.2.177) and friend. Thus, after sighting the ghost a second time, Horatio determines that Hamlet must be told of the apparition immediately, and Horatio's decision leads him to the use of a third oath: "Upon my life / This spirit dumb to us, will speak to him [Hamlet]" (1.1.170-71).

Significantly, Horatio's next, and last, two oaths are uttered directly to Hamlet and at the prince's request. Following Hamlet's own encounter with the ghost, Horatio begs Hamlet to divulge what the ghost has said. Hamlet refuses, fearing Horatio will make the conversation public. Horatio quickly swears secrecy: "Not I my lord, by heaven" (1.5.118). Hamlet does not agree to tell Horatio what the spirit has said, but asks Horatio once more if he can be trusted, to which Horatio again swears, "Ay, by heaven, my lord" (1.5.123). Finally, although Horatio never takes an oath of secrecy on Hamlet's sword within the text, it is clear that the stage action calls for such an oath, for after the repeated requests of both Hamlet and the ghost itself Horatio expresses his willingness to swear when he invites Hamlet to "Propose the oath my lord" (1.5.153).

The medieval code of honor was based on loyalty and allegiance to one's lord. In fact, according to Maurice Keen, "to betray one's lord has from the earliest days of chivalry and before been held the darkest of all crimes with which the knight or warrior could be charged" (175). Not only does Horatio repeatedly refer to Hamlet as his lord, and not only does he keep his word by not divulging Hamlet's secret until Hamlet himself withdraws the request, but Horatio also expresses a willingness to die with Hamlet after the prince is wounded by Laertes' poisoned rapier. More importantly, Horatio makes absolutely clear the notion that the code of honor is changing and that he himself is representative of the old code when he attempts to drink the poisoned wine after it becomes obvious that Hamlet's wounds are fatal: "I am more antique Roman than a Dane. / Here's yet some liquor yet (5.2.320-21). Horatio emphasizes that he is an "antique" Roman; he lives by an older or "Roman" code of honor that requires the ultimat e allegiance and obedience to his lord. Moreover, he recognizes that this code is changing when he makes the distinction between the "antique" Roman and the more modern Dane, but nevertheless strongly adheres to the ancient code, even ending his own attempt to commit suicide on Hamlet's behalf when Hamlet utters an oath of his own: "As th'art a man / Give me the cup. Let go, by heaven I'll ha't" (5.2.322-23).

Hamlet orders Horatio to relinquish the cup and, significantly, bases Horatio's obedience upon masculinity for honor in this period was exclusively a male domain. Women's honor almost entirely consisted of their chastity or, if they were maidens, their virginity. This, in turn, was merely a manifestation of male honor itself as a woman's chastity brought honor to her husband or father by demonstrating his ability to command her obedience. Or, in Mark Breitenberg's words, "women are a transacted property, or their chastity is a badge of honor for their husbands, validated only when other men desire to steal it" (71). Thus, when Hamlet charges Horatio, upon his manhood, to give up the cup, he is, in effect, challenging Horatio's masculinity; if Horatio wants to be seen as masculine, he must obey his master's command.

Laertes also struggles with the changing concept of what constitutes male honor, but Laertes represents a further stage in the developing concept of honor. Laertes, unlike Horatio, swears only once in the entire text of the play; he swears revenge for Ophelia's madness when he tells her: "By heaven, thy madness shall be paid with weight / Till our scale turn the beam" (4.5.156-57). Laertes' father, like Hamlet's, has been murdered, and Laertes' instant and violent reaction bespeaks the old chivalric code of honor. According to Curtis Watson, Laertes' vow reflects "the quick sensitivity to affront which the Renaissance period had acquired from Aristotle through his numerous Renaissance disciples" (362). Likewise, Norman Council labels Laertes' reaction a "single-minded commitment to honorable revenge" (93). Yet Laertes, like Horatio, is aware that the honor code is changing. In fact, he consciously rejects the more modern, moralized codes of honor in his angry response to the news of Polonius's death:

To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,

That both the worlds I give to negligence,

Let come what comes. Only I'll be revenged

Most throughly for my father.


Laertes is willing to ignore his conscience and to burn in hell (the consequence of murder) in order to avenge (an act of honor in the old code) his father's death.

But, unlike Horatio, Laertes does not make public promises. Rather, although he tells Claudius that he would be willing to "cut" his father's murderer's "throat i'th' church" (4.7.125), he never actually swears to revenge Polonius's murder. Thus, Laertes' immediate desire for violence, coupled with his obvious loyalty to the memory of his father and his conscious rejection of an honor code that includes moral behavior, places him close to the medieval code of honor while his refusal to make his oath of vengeance publicly and his willingness to be ruled by the head of the body politic place his idea of honor further along the continuum of change than Horatio's.

Hamlet's perception of honor is neither like his friend Horatio's nor his countryman Laertes'. Rather, Hamlet's use of promise, though certainly problematic and complex, explicitly identifies him as a transitional character in the changing code of honor. In fact, both the medieval chivalric code of honor and the more modern and political and moral code are seemingly embodied in this one character. Moreover, as a transitional character Hamlet must meet the requirements of both codes. It is this attempt to find a balance in a changing code that eventually leads, in part, to Hamlet's tragic death.

According to Shirley, in tragedy, and particularly in both Hamlet and Othello, "oaths are among the most telling signs of changes in attitude in very fully developed characters" (100). A careful examination of Hamlet's use of oaths reveals the change in his attitude towards what is honorable as he struggles to find a code he can use in his tragic situation.

Hamlet begins by swearing to avenge his father's murder. Since his oath is private, it places Hamlet's honor closer to Laertes' in the changing code. Hamlet, however, soon converts to a public form of oath when Horatio becomes confused by Hamlet's words regarding his meeting with the ghost:

HORATIO: These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.

HAMLET: I'm sorry they offend you, heartily.

Yes, faith, heartily.

HORATIO: There's no offense my lord.

HAMLET: Yes by Saint Patrick but there is Horatio, And much offense too.


Hamlet, burdened with the revenge of his father's murder, attempts to use the violent, medieval code of honor as he begins to make public oaths. He swears by Saint Patrick, and although his words are confusing to Horatio (and thus Hamlet is not yet publicly committed to action) it is clear to the reader that it is the ghost's words that Hamlet finds offensive, and that he realizes that he must avenge his father.

Hamlet does not swear another oath until act 2: in this oath Hamlet swears by his faith, a faith which must have been considerably shaken by the appearance of his mighty and virtuous father, who should have been resting in peace, but who must decline to tell his tale of purgatory whose lightest word

Would harrow up the soul, freeze the young blood,

Make the two eyes like stars start from their sphere,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.


Hamlet hears that the late king, by all accounts an honorable man in the medieval sense of the word, has been sentenced to a "prison" in which he must burn until his sins are purged away. Yet, Hamlet chooses to swear in terms of Christian images; he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that "by my fay I cannot reason" (2.2.251), and later swears by "Sblood" (2.2.336, 3.2.334), "God's bodkin" (2.2.485), "swounds" (2.2.528, 5.1.240), and "i'faith" (3.2.82). Although Hamlet's initial oath swears revenge based upon lineage and familial loyalty, a violent act, he still maintains the moral and Christian image demanded by a more modern view of honor by invoking Christ to bear witness to his oaths.

The complexity of Hamlet's dilemma, of his attempt to satisfy all the demands of a changing honor code, is informed by what Weimann terms "the humanist search for possible areas of interaction between the verbal and the political." [13] Put simply, Renaissance men could no longer claim to be honorable by asserting the chivalric emphasis on violence and lineage as the authoritative account of what it is to be honorable. This shifting basis prompted some "stimulating dramatic interrogations and revisions" (110), and Shakespeare's text illustrated that the authorization of honor was one of the things being interrogated and revised. Interrogation and revision, in turn, led to what Weimann identifies as a "new fiction" (105) in which "early modern drama and prose narrative were bound to assume a more volatile and divisive space for authorization. In assimilating some heterogeneous and divisive material, the new fiction sought to explore areas of friction and conflict among competing sites of authority" (110). In Hamlet Shakespeare introduces tension or "friction and conflict" among the various and "competing" ways in which honor is authorized. The complexity of Hamlet's situation imposes upon him the need to find an adequate system of honor with which to resolve his dilemma; Hamlet's attempt to carve out a place of honor for himself leads to a crisis of conscience.

Hamlet is the only son of a murdered king. As such he, in medieval terms, is honor-bound to avenge his father's death. But, the murderer is the new king. Hamlet is thus confronted with the taboos of Christian hierarchical order -- to exact revenge he must slay a king who is, of course, God's anointed ruler. Moreover, he cannot be completely sure of his countryman's support as Claudius is an elected king. Further, Claudius is accepted by the people who have "freely gone" (1.2.15) along with Claudius's hasty marriage to the king's widow, and who give "twenty, forty, and hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little" (2.2.366-67). Perhaps more importantly, Hamlet's anguish of indecision over whether or not to kill Claudius, particularly after the evidence offered by Claudius's reaction to the "Mousetrap," [14] reflects a changing code of honor in which "the community of honor came to be that which centered on the crown, its structure that of the court and city; its service that of the state, and its mark the nobility of virtue, and the dignities which this conferred." [15] Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius throughout the play. While several factors contribute to this delay, it is significant to note that Hamlet exacts revenge for his father's murder only after Claudius's treachery has been publicly revealed by both Gertrude and Laertes. Hamlet's original oath of vengeance is fulfilled, but in such a way as to allow him to remain honorable in a new code that requires not only honor, but also acknowledgment of the political hierarchy and morality as well. Hamlet, then, stands as a transitional character who has, on the one hand, the medieval code of honor which requires him to kill a king to avenge his father's murder and, on the other hand, a new code of honor that requires both absolute obedience to the state and adherence to moral virtue. It is in meeting these codes that Hamlet is identified as both a transitional character and a tragic hero.

While it is true that Claudius does not utter a single oath throughout the play, "the cynical manipulation of oaths by a character... is a gauge of his deficient humanity." [16] Claudius stands as the epitome of the way in which a system of honor that is entirely politicized can be perverted. His Machiavellian view of monarchy is apparent in the way he manipulates those around him into promises that suit only his purpose. Hence, he plays on the honor of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he requests that they spy on Hamlet for him. Rosencrantz responds to this request with words that express his understanding of the politics of honor:

Both your majesties

Might by the sovereign power you have of us

Put your dread pleasure more into command

Than to entreaty.


This courtier understands that within the new code being honorable means acting in complete obedience to the state. Guildenstern, likewise, pledges his loyalty to the sovereigns:

But we both obey,

and here give up ourselves in full bent

To lay our service freely at your feet

To be commanded.


Although Gertrude assures the courtiers that they will be rewarded for their obedience (2.2.24- 25), and notwithstanding the use of language that has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offer their loyalty to the persons of the king and queen, Shakespeare makes it clear that these men are not mere court dandies attempting to curry favor with the monarchy:

HAMLET: 0 God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of indefinite space, were it not I have bad dreams.

GUILDENSTERN: Which dreams are indeed ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely a shadow of a dream.

HAMLET: A dream itself is but a shadow.

ROSENCRANTZ: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.


Ambition is clearly not Guildenstern's and Rosencrantz's motivation. While it is true that these two courtiers may simply be spouting court rhetoric in this passage, it is significant to note that Hamlet himself speaks for their honesty when he remarks that they have "a kind of confession in their looks which your modesties have not craft enough to colour" (2.2.281-82). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not good liars; they lack the "craft" to cover their deception. Rather, Claudius is able to manipulate both their loyalty to the state and their loyalty to their childhood friend to gain their cooperation in his attempt to spy on Hamlet.

Similarly, Claudius manipulates Polonius's sense of honor in an attempt to garner aid in dealing with Hamlet. Polonius's speeches are replete with oaths; he prefaces many of his comments with an invocation to God or heaven. Claudius, a skilled politician, uses Polonius's need to appear honorable to the public to enlist his services. Thus, when Polonius reveals the love letter Hamlet wrote to Ophelia, Polonius questions the king: "What do you think of me?" (2.2.127). Claudius, knowing that Polonius is attempting to appear honorable, replies: "As a man faithful and honourable" (2.2.128); Polonius gains honor through the questionable means of betraying both Hamlet and Ophelia but, in his mind, doing what is best for the state by helping to determine the cause of the prince's "madness."

Finally, Claudius overtly appeals to Laertes' sense of chivalric honor as the king manipulates Laertes into killing Hamlet. Laertes reacts with hotheaded violence upon discovering that Hamlet is responsible for Polonius's death. Claudius, however, uses Laertes' chivalric sense of honor in much the same way as he used Polonius's more modern concept. Claudius, attempting to use Laertes to rid the kingdom of Hamlet, appeals to the chivalric honor code that rests upon loyalty to kin: "Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of sorrow, / A face without a heart?" (4.7.106-8). Although Claudius seems to have no honor system of his own, he is aware of the various forms that honor takes in a changing world and skillfully uses them to accomplish his purposes.

Shakespeare creates characters in Hamlet that represent various stages in the evolution of a changing system of honor. Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet all indicate, by their use of promise, different concepts of honor that range from an antique system of kinship and violence to a more modern idea of Christian morality, virtue, and allegiance to the state. Claudius, who makes no promises, illustrates the way in which systems of honor can be used, and perverted, in the political arena. Moreover, Shakespeare delineates these characters, their concepts of honor, and their functions in moving the dramatic action toward its climax by a careful use of each character's "freely given word." In doing so, Shakespeare also takes a conventional stance in a period of change. Horatio, the character most representative of an old system of honor, is portrayed as worthy, honest, and likable. On the other end of the scale stands Claudius, a man who is seemingly without honor but who is capable of manipulating the honor code in th e most heinous ways. Between these two extremes lies Hamlet himself. Hamlet represents a middle point in the changing honor system, and it is his attempt to gain an antique honor in a new system that contributes not only to his own tragic death, but to the deaths of several others as well. One must not forget that if Hamlet had taken revenge immediately, as requited by the medieval code of honor, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and perhaps even Hamlet himself would have survived the events of the drama. Instead, Hamlet is caught in a changing system of honor, and it is his effort to incorporate these changes which leads, in part, to the deaths of many characters. Hamlet's difficulty in meeting the requirements of two disparate honor codes further leads to the delay that allows Claudius to become a politicized manipulator of promise, leaving one to wonder whom Laertes is addressing when he angrily exclaims "Vows to the blackest devil" (4.5.129).


(1.) One of the best examples of this renewed interest can be found in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, which contains several articles on Renaissance honor and includes Cynthia Herrup's excellent examination of the legal aspects of honor, manifest in Renaissance slander cases.

(2.) Of the three most recent studies of Hamlet -- Kerrigan's Hamlet's Perfection, States's Hamlet and the Concept of Character, and Foakes's Hamlet Versus Lear: Cultural Politics in Shakespeare's Art -- only Foakes discusses the Renaissance concepts of honor apparent in this play, and none considers the importance of the use of promise in this tragedy. Foakes's discussion, however, is couched in terms of Hamlet's association of his father and a heroic ideal of martial honor. Foakes argues that Hamlet distances himself from this ideal through the use of pre-Christian classical images to describe his father, thus both separating himself from this heroic ideal and aligning himself more closley with a Christian stoic concept of patient suffering. Foakes concludes that the play demonstrates the horrible nature of both revenge and military rule; he therefore overlooks the more positive aspects of the residual medieval honor code that can be found in the play.

(3.) States, in his important study Hamlet and the Concept of Character, persuasively argues that at the center of Hamlet lies a complex relationship between the world of value and the characters of the play. He links these values to both political and moral concerns in the Renaissance, but he describes this world as a set of binary opposites -- sanguine vs. melancholy, reason vs. madness, etc. -- which does not address the interplaying and overlapping context of Renaissance values, including honor codes.

(4.) Cust, 91, identifies these three aspects of honor in a slightly different way. He postulates that there were two opposed concepts of honor, that is, blood and lineage vs. godliness and wisdom, and that loyalty to the monarch, service to the commonwealth, and obedience to the law overlapped both of these opposed ideas of what constitutes an honorable man.

(5.) The Short Title Catalogue contains many examples of this courtesy literature indicating that how-to books were both common and popular in this period, Barnaby Rich's Roome for a Gentleman, Richard Braithwaite's The English Gendeman, William Perkins's How to Live, and an anonymous tract entitled Instruction of a Gentleman, for example.

(6.) For more on the Renaissance concept of conscience, and particularly on the way in which women's consciences were perceived by contemporaries, see Lowell Gallagher, Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance.

(7.) Keen, 43. Keen later points our that the rituals and ceremonies of knighthood were not officiated by the clergy, nor did they take place within the church. Moreover, Keen illustrates that the virtues that the medieval knight was attempting to gain were primarily still violent; the medieval honor code encompassed the knightly promise to protect the weak with the might of the sword.

(8.) For the importance of the conscience in Renaissance religious and political matters, see Camille Wells Slights, who points out that casuistry was a phenomenon in this period which arose in response to a crisis of both conscience and authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to Slights, the prevalence of this branch of theology was an attempt to aid contemporaries in reconciling religious faith with the demands of particular human situations that may create a crisis of the individual conscience. As early as 1957 Barber pointed out that there existed the "beginnings of a tendency for honor to mean an inner conscience rather than external reward" (103) in the drama of this period. Weimann concurs when he argues that "in late Elizabethan Puritan circles Puritan divines began to promulgate the elevation of human conscience over law" (88). Thomas relates this Elizabethan emphasis on the individual conscience to the use of promise when he writes that "the Protestant emphasis upon the indi vidual conscience inevitably shifted the ultimate sanction for truthfulness from the external fear of divine punishment to the godly man's internal sense of responsibility. A man should keep his word simply because he had given it" (76-77).

(9.) While Kerrigan does not specifically discuss honor, he does argue that Hamlet learns, particularly in the graveyard scene, that revenge (an important component of the honor code) need not be bloody and violent because the decay and deterioration of the body after death is itself more horrible than any human vengeance. Kerrigan concludes that in this play Christianity and revenge become compatible. The Renaissance was, however, marked by intense debate about what it was to be noble and honorable as well as the ferocious controversy regarding one's right to duel and /or commit violent revenge.

(10.) James, 339. James further notes that "consistency in standing by a position once taken was basic to the honor code. But since the latter [code] was a public one, that of a society of honorable men, there was a need to define the position to which honor was committed as a public gesture. This took the form of promise and oath, the giving of one's word, the 'word of honour.' Once this had been done the man of honour could withdraw only at the expense of the diminishment involved in dishonour" (339).

(11.) William Slights, 147.

(12.) Bristol argues that Fortinbras's actions -- his preparations to make war against Denmark -- are representative of a gift culture in which the gift of Old Fortinbras's life must be repaid. This code, which Bristol calls the "law of reciprocity" requires that gifts be repaid, that grievances be redressed, and that social continuity be maintained. According to Bristol, the law of reciprocity cannot be reproduced in Hamlet since there is no one, at the end of the play, to reciprocate or retaliate on Hamlet's behalf Hamlet is the last of his line. Although Bristol's argument does not focus on honor specifically, implicit in his study is the medieval or feudal idea of comitatus that we see in Beowulf. But, extrapolating from Bristol, this medieval code gives way to a more modern one when the complexity of reciprocity is ironed out at the end of the play. Hamlet has avenged his father; Fortinbras and Laertes have done the same, and these three childless men have broken the cycle, for all the violent deaths -- beginning with Old Fortinbras and ending with Hamlet -- have been repaid.

(13.) According to Weimann, the basis of authority came into question when "the traditional repertoire of signs and symbols offered by popular lore or the romance of chivalry ... could no longer be counted on as fixed, valid, or satisfying" (110).

(14.) In his introduction to Hamlet in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt offers various other reasons for Claudius's reaction to The Mousetrap. I would argue, however, that Hamlet himself does not consider these alternatives, and that the prince believes that Claudius's panic is concrete proof of his guilt.

(15.) James, 381.

(16.) William Slights, 148.


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----. The Instruction of a Gentleman. London, 1568. STC 4105.

Babington, Gervase. A very fruitfall exposition of the Commaundments by way of question and answer. London, 1611. STC 18743.

Barber, Charles. Honour in the English Drama 1591-1700. Gothenburg, 1957.

Becon, Thomas. An inuectyve agenst Swearing. London, 1543. STC 1732.

Bicknoll, Edmond. A Swoord Agaynst Swearying. London, 1579. STC 3050.

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Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge, 1996.

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Cust, Richard. "Honour and Politics in Early Stuart England: The Case of Beaumont vs. Hastings." Past and Present 149 (1994): 57-94.

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Gallagher, Lowell. Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance. Stanford, 1991.

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Introduction to Hamlet. "In The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al., 1659-1666. New York, 1997.

Herrup, Cynthia. "`To Pluck Bright Honour From the Pale-Faced Moon': Gender and Honour in the Castle-haven Story." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 6th Series. 137-59.

James, Mervyn. Society, Politics and Culture. Cambridge, 1988.

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Miles, Gary. "How Roman are Shakespeare's "Romans?" Shakespeare Quarterly 40.3 (1989): 257-83.

Norden, John. The Mirror of honour. London, 1597. STC 18614.

Pacheco, Anita. "Shakespeare and the Contradictions of Honour." Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of York, 1990.

Perkins, William. A Direction for the Government of the Tongue according to Gods word. London, 1593. STC 676.

----. A Discourse of Conscience. The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ... Mr. William Perkins. 3 vols. London, 1612-1613.

Rich, Barnaby. Roome for a Gentleman. London, 1609. STC 20985.

Salmon, J.H.M. "Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England." In The Mental World of the Jacobean Court. Ed. Linda Levy Peck, 169-88. Cambridge, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare. Eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: 1994.

----. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Oxford Shakespeare, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 653-90. Oxford, 1994.

----. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. In The Oxford Shakespeare, 819-54.

Shirley, Frances. Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare's Plays. London, 1979.

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Weimann, Robert. Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse. Ed. David Hillman. Baltimore, 1996.
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Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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