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Shakespeare’s Purpose in Subverting the “Moral Universe” in Hamlet Essay

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he inverted “moral universe”i in Shakespearean drama was a demonstration of the increased reality that ancestral and collective foundations were losing their sanctified nature. Key upheavals were taking place and the world of Shakespeare was evolving from a time where “the earth was still the center of the universe,ii” towards a life of societal instability.

Like all playwrights, Shakespeare’s ideas for plot were partly a reflection of the world in which he lived. The enlightenment was a time where religion was giving way to science and economic gain. It would be unreasonable for such a reflective dramatist to omit the implications and limitations of the times in his work. The regulations and boundaries for human conduct are not always clear, especially in times of fluctuation. While I would not maintain “moral universe” is a dominant theme in Shakespeare’s work, I do argue that it is a somewhat significant current running through many of his plays.

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To define any one “moral universe” in the work is folly, each play deserves many separate definitions. Collective morality goes through an alteration according to the circumstances of each group of characters. Situational ethics play a role in determining the behavior of Shakespeare’s characters, especially in the history plays. To ascribe one particular “moral universe” to any work does not take into account the perspectives of all the major characters. While we are not privy to the thoughts of all characters, some plays reveal them more clearly.

The “Moral Universe” In Hamlet

Hamlet shows Shakespeare’s belief in the potential of human beings to achieve spiritual and moral transcendence and social harmony through reasoned thought and proper action. The play presents the individual as trying to make choices in shaping his or her own fate.iii

This quote, taken from a lecture by Maria Simms, identifies Shakespeare’s intentions in the character of Hamlet. The play presents a parallel of the playwright’s objective. Mad or no, Hamlet knows the difference between ethical and unethical and is committed to shaping his “moral universe” to that end. Shakespeare, torn between the dark ages of Elizabethan traditions and the glow of enlightenment, uses this indecision in the makeup of the character of Hamlet.

The inversion of the “moral universe” takes place in the murders within the family, the ‘unnaturalness’ of the mother remarrying the uncle, and old friends turning traitor. The quote, “My two schoolfellows. Whom I shall trust as I will adders fangs,” is a clear example of Hamlet’s world. His father is dead, his mother is lost to him, he is seeing ghosts, and he cannot trust those around him.

Shakespeare’s purpose in subverting the “moral universe” was to accentuate the unnaturalness of the acts and the appearance of the ghost. In the first act of Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost character is problematic. When Shakespeare wrote it; English religious theology was not recognizing the state of purgatoryiv.

Granted, the locale of the play is in Denmark, however, it is a sensitive point and conceivably that is why after Hamlet sees the ghost, Shakespeare permits his character go wholly round the bend. The spirit becomes the influence that upsets the balance of the “moral universe.” It is the most unnatural character in the play. The accusation of murder is the real moral question, from the ghost’s viewpoint. If it were that Gertrude had remarried too soon, the ghost would have been seeking revenge for that transgression as well.

The purgatory in Shakespeare’s play is a blatant upset in the conventional universe of that era. Hamlet furthermore has a dilemma, he has to believe the manifestation and the charge made by the spirit, and he cannot have absolute belief without sufficient evidence. One can assume that the audience was also questioning the likelihood of a ghost. Only when Hamlet establishes confirmation can the play advance; otherwise, we are trapped in purgatory along with the ghost.

Other instances of inverted “moral universe” are: the mother marrying the uncle in haste, friends betraying each other, the wrongful murder of Polonius, and the King sentencing Prince Hamlet to death. These situations proceeded from the act of murder of Hamlet Senior. The inversion happens as the result of an unacceptable or un-natural act.

What often happens in Shakespearian plays (and tragedies in particular) is the disordered universe exists because of injustice, wrong choices by the protagonist, and un-natural acts of murder. When the inversions transform back to natural order, resolution can take place. The transformations emphasize the redemption of the hero and the “moral universe.”

The advancement of Hamlet marches through a troubled equilibrium of the natural world to a resolution where Fortinbras restores the element of order. An inversion of the moral universe back to order is a manifestation of the same journey that the protagonist had to go through. For example: Henry IV dies and order is restored through his son, Hamlet is killed and Fortinbras restores order, Romeo and Juliet both die and order is restored through the prince. Each of their fatalities see all of them ascend beyond themselves: that is, to become ‘righteous’. Simply put, the inversion serves for the dramatic representation of the salvation of the central character and the “moral universe.”

The “Moral Universe” in the Henriad

In Richard II, the “moral universe” still based its identity upon kingship predicated by God. Richard II is considered a moral character because of his divine rights. It would not necessarily matter if he were a proficient ruler, because his appointment as king is firmly grounded in absolutism.

According to Wayne Jackson of The Christian Courier, ” This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong.” v When Richard II usurps the line of succession as set forth in Biblical tones, the “moral universe” starts to wobble. The Duke of York cautioned Richard II that there were, in fact, limits to what he could justify to his people, “You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts,” he warned.

After Richard II disregards this good council and proceeds on his course of action, he begins to doubt himself. This hesitation is the opening Shakespeare provided for Bullingbrook and his character had limitations as well. In this “moral universe,” Bullingbrook cannot cleanly seize the throne. When Richard “came down” to the base court, he essentially abdicates the supremacy of the throne and provided Shakespeare with a “moral universe” that spins out of control. Nihilism became the new order and rules for behavior were vague from that point on.

The Henriad is the clearest illustration of situational ethics in the works of Shakespeare. In his plays, the act of killing a king or subverting a king’s power (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) destabilizes the universe. In addition, each character feels justified in his or hers own actions. There is a lack of a conventional biblical “moral universe” in Henry IV, I and II; the persistent motif in these plays is that most of the characters are bent on servicing their own ends.

The reality that an archbishop would consent to a revolt against the ruler is an obvious indication that the state of the” moral universe” is on its head. This might not have happened had Henry IV been a ruler by divine right. As the head of state, he set the tone of the universe. Since he interrupted the lines of succession; he left himself open to more of the same when his own past came back to haunt his rule. The constant uprisings are also taking place in Shakespeare’s sector. During the performance of the plays, Elizabeth was fending off rebellions of her own.

The characters in the Henriad also are deficient in morality. As in Measure for Measure, most of the characters are flawed, not just the hero. Both Hotspur and Henry fail to see their moral shortcomings. Integrity crumbles because the idea on which it is based is shallow. In Henry IV, part II, the “moral universe” is political in nature. The moral criterion of the crown is not only the progress back to proper succession, but political effectiveness as well. The individual weakness of a figure vital in the public sphere has great repercussions in society.

Hal cared about his image and coldly calculated when he would show his “true nature.” He was trickster, deceiver, and deliverer based upon the situational moral principles. It is ironic that he was revered as “The Ideal Christian King,” clearly he broke the law during his illegal activities with Falstaff. Like his father before him, he was artful in the use of his friends and then shed them when they no longer served a valuable purpose.

In the Henriad, Shakespeare allows the audience to decide upon each character’s moral behavior and whether or not it was justified. There are many facets and differing moral universes in this group of histories. Hal’s youthfulness is the agent of change Shakespeare uses in the Henriad. It is only when he sheds his youthful friends, immoral activities, and shallow ideals that he can move forward and re-unite his country in battle against the French. This is the true restoration of the “moral universe.” If he had simply assumed the crown when his father died, without the journey of shedding his past, the “moral universe” could not have reverted to its natural state.

Shakespeare also used the device of character conflict when depicting the many conflicting moral universes. Characters feel the pull in different ways. It is easy to imagine Hal as that gentleman with the angel Henry IV, on one shoulder (tarnished though is father’s image is) and the devil Falstaff on the other. Indeed, it is only through Henry IV’s realization that he has taken the crown illegally that resolution is possible. Shakespeare used this kind of introspective journey as a theme in many plays. Without his father’s epiphany, Hal would undoubtedly been easily swayed to the “dark side.” Henry IV achieves redemption through his understanding and remorse and that sets the moral universe in enough order that Hal is in a position to make his choice. Hal serves as the equilibrium between the two contradictory characters of Henry IV and Falstaff.

Comparison of the “Moral Universe” in the Henriad,

Hamlet, and Measure for Measure

In both Measure for Measure and Henry V, the rulers are not about to let social immorality be part of their rule. Shakespeare deals with Angelo and Falstaff in a like manner. It is clear that these men, who once enjoyed the ear of royalty, are going to be Shakepeare’s scapegoats for people who have strayed morally in life and in rule.

The character of Falstaff is a thorny one, He is a disgrace to knighthood, and one might say that his code of honor is simply, “CHEERS!” He receives the penalty by Henry V for his transgressions with Hal during his youth. His sideways attempt to grasp power by ingratiating himself with Hal does not serve him well. His character is a discordant note in the rule of Henry IV, and moral harmony is restored when this note is silenced in Henry V.

Again, in Henry V we see a lack of moral consciousness, or at the very least a bid for moral right. Henry V will not invade without the archbishop’s proof “with right and conscience,” that his claim to France is valid. Nevertheless, this supposedly moral outlookvi is tainted by the truth that lies beneath, in order to keep order in his country (forestall uprisings); he needs to get his subjects to focus on issues abroad.vii

Shakespeare’s characters deviate from their expected social roles. In Measure for Measure the characters are trying to either save their own skins or their virtue. Similar to the Henriad, it is all blurred confusion over what actually constitutes a collective “moral universe.” There is further complexity of characters in Measure for Measure, we observe how they each wrestle for justice in their individual ways.

Measure for Measure and Hamlet differs from the Henriad because there is more at stake ethically. The “war” in Measure for Measure is the fight to restore the values of the citizens, the justice they feel they deserve, and proper rule to the society. Each character is concerned with justice in his or her own “moral universe.” Aleksander Bobko, at a conference on Unjust Structures at the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge noted, “Justice, then, is a kind of “the objective measure of things,” its ultimate basis being Logos which, contrary to Chaos, sets the world in order.”

In Measure for Measure, when each character receives justice, the “moral universe” is set to rights. Shakespeare neatly ties up at the end of the play, with no problematic threads left out. Hamlet also seeks justice for the death of his father and receives it when he kills his uncle.


The overturned “moral universe” in Shakespearean performances of Measure for Measure, Hamlet ,and the Henriad was a display of evolution from an established religiously sanctioned rule to an enlightened time. Shifting expectations created moral ambiguity and a shared moral universe was hard to ascertain. Shakespeare used his plays as a mirror of the change his society was going through in the choice of his plots, character conflict, and moral inconsistencies.

Humanity was moving away from absolutism to relativism and nihilism. Situational ethics played a strong role in his work in the lives and choices of his characters. Instead of using magic as the weight to unbalance the universe, he used morality and ethics as literary devices to throw his created worlds into chaos. When the “moral universe” was out of order, the rules of society became indistinct. Shakespeare forced certain characters to undertake journeys for enlightenment to restore the “moral universe.” His function in destabilizing the “moral universe” was to emphasize the unnaturalness of the actions of his characters.

i Term “moral universe” introduced by Professor Tomkins, Fall 2003

ii Donahue conversation

iii Simms lecture Effect of the Reformation on the Renaissance in England

iv Tom Bishop http://www.shaksper.net/archives/1998/1276.html SHAKSPER, the international electronic conference.

v A Critical Look at Situation Ethics by WayneJackson.

vi How moral is war, consider who gains, a few titled men are the only people who will actually benefit along with a host of knights, who fight for glory and pay in their protected Armour. But the reality is that the serfs will be the one to pay- their lands taxed, their farms and villages burnt and the men killed. All because they live in the region of certain lords, they will fight, no matter what the cost. Their situation remains static no matter who wears the crown, until they get a king who knows how to avoid war, restore a collective moral universe, and rule as a political leader instead of a barbarian. (Wendt)

vii Tomkins lecture, November 2003.


Works Cited

Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com

Hacker, Diane A Writers Reference. 5th ed. Boston & New York: Bedford/ST. Martin’s 2003

Murfin, Ross and Ray, Supryia The Bedford Glossary Of Critical and Literary Terms: Second Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2003

The Riverside Shakespeare: Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston New York, 1997.

Jackson, Wayne. A Critical Look at Situation Ethics 1999. 1 Mar.


Simms,Maria. Introduction to Shakespeare lecture.


Christian Courier A Critical Look at Situation Ethics: Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston New York, 1997.

Donahue, William. Personal interview. 15 November. 2003

Tomkins, Ken. “Shakespeare Lectures.” Sept. – Nov. 2003

Bobko, Aleksander. Evolution of the concept of justice-from objective measure to aesthetic evaluation. June 2003 Conference. Transforming Unjust Structures: Capabilities and Justice. Von Hugel Institute St Edmunds College, Cambridge.

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