In Hamlet, how is evil manifested with forgiveness and/or atonement later prevailing over this evil?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That "[S]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark" is noted early in Act I of Hamlet by the officer, Marcellus.  Indeed, there is much "evil that men do" [Julius Caesar]:

  • The ghost of King Hamlet appears and tells his son that he has been murdered. Furthermore, he names his murderer:

The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown. (1.5.38-39)

  • Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother has married her brother-in-law Claudius soon after her husband's mysterious death, an act that Hamlet perceives as base and incestuous:

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! (1.5.106-107)

  • Polonius conspires with King Claudius to discredit Hamlet because the Danish people love him. So, Polonius tells Gertrude that her son is mad and he hids behind a curtain while Hamlet speaks to his mother. He also discredits Hamlet to Ophelia, his daughter, who loves him

OPHELIA My lord, he hath importuned me with love
              In honorable fashion....

POLONIUS ....Ay, springes to cathc woodcocks. I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows. (1.5.110-117)

In addition, Polonius manipulates Ophelia, coaching her on what to ask Hamlet and to report later to him.

  • King Claudius enlists Hamlet's boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to talk with Hamlet; Gertrude offers them pay for their visit to Hamlet.  Later, Claudius sends them with Hamlet to England in order to murder the prince. They take the bribe and agree, 

And here give up ourselves in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded. (2.2.30-32)

  • Gertrude conspires with Polonius, allowing him to hide behind a curtain while she talks with her son Hamlet to determine what his thoughts are and if he is mad.
  • After learning that Hamlet has killed "the fishmonger" Polonius, his son Laertes vows revenge and conspires with King Claudius, saying he will show himself in deed, being willing even to kill him in a church, "To cut his throat i' th' church" (4.7.124).
  • Before the duel, Hamlet enters with "something dangerous" in him, his desire to avenge his father's murder and his loss of Ophelia, whom he loved. However, he apologizes to Laertes for the grief caused him, but Laertes insists that his honor must be satisfied.

I am satisfied in nature...
....But in my terms of honor
I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement....(5.2.218-221)

  • As the duel begins, Claudius drops a poisoned pearl in the wine chalice. After Hamlet scores a point, Gertrude picks up the chalice to offer a toast to Hamlet. Seeing her, Claudius merely says, "Gertrude, do not drink"(5.2.293), but does nothing else to prevent her from drinking her death.

In the midst of this dangerous duel, there is the beginning of atonement

  • After Claudius tells her not to drink, Gertrude turns to her new king and responds, "I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me" (5.2.268).
  • After Hamlet is wounded by Laertes with the poisoned rapier, he tells Hamlet that when they exchanged swords in the scuffle afterwards, he himself has been wounded by the poisoned sword. As he dies, Laertes begs Hamlet to "exchange forgiveness" (5.2.308).
  • Then, in atonement for the slaying of King Fortinbras while King Hamlet reigned, the prince of Denmark, Hamlet, hands his throne to the "delicate and tender prince," Fortinbras:

But I do prophesy th'election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.(5.2.334-335)

Denmark's corrupt court is gone, replacedFortinbras.


lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hamlet, there are instances when Hamlet seems to be evil. In Act three, scene one, Hamlet and Ophelia have an interaction that portrays Hamlet as a cruel man. Following her father's instructions, Ophelia attempts to return the mementos of Hamlet's love. Hamlet becomes angry. He is cruel in his response:

I never gave you anything.

The conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia becomes more intense as Hamlet insults Ophelia, claiming he never loved her:

I didn’t love you.

Hamlet's actions are so cruel. He seems to be blatantly rude. No doubt, Hamlet appears to be evil in his words to Ophelia. Hamlet insists he never loved her. Then, he is boldly cruel as he instructs her to go to a nunnery and live her life as a nun. He does not want her. He even claims to be a wicked man:

We are wicked men, all, believe none of us. Take yourself a convent. 

Clearly, Hamlet is behaving in an evil manner toward Ophelia. He curses her and tells her that he shall slander her if she decides to marry. Even though he knows she is pure, he threatens to slander her good name:

If you do marry, I’ll give you this curse for your
wedding gift: whether you as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, you shalt not escape slander.

Ultimately, Ophelia takes her own life. In Act five, scene one, Hamlet is nearby the funeral procession when he realizes it is Ophelia who is dead. This scene seems to change Hamlet's evil attitude. He displays a loving attitude toward Ophelia. He claims to have loved Ophelia more than 10,000 brothers could have loved her:

I loved Ophelia! Forty thousand brothers
Couldn’t, even with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. 

Clearly, Hamlet has a more forgiving attitude after Ophelia's death. Truly, Ophelia's death has humbled him.  

At the end of the play, the change in Hamlet is obvious as he seeks Laertes' forgiveness. Before he fights Laertes, he makes it clear that he is not angry with Laertes. He seems to be forgiving in his display of emotion toward Laertes. Likewise, he asks Laertes to forgive him:

Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.
But pardon it, as you are a gentleman.

Clearly, Hamlet is seeking pardon for killing Laertes' father. Hamlet is apologetic for having a part in Ophelia's death. Hamlet makes atonement for the wrong things he has done. Laertes accepts Hamlet's act of love: 

I receive your offered love like love,
And won’t do it wrong.

There is definitely a change in Hamlet. He is no longer obsessed with himself and his own personal hurts. Now, he can consider others. He appears to understand why Laertes would desire to kill him. He seems to be taking responsibility for Polonius’s death. No doubt, the shock of Ophelia’s death has changed him for the better. 

As Hamlet is dying, he highly compliments Fortinbras and supports him as the new leader of Hamlet's kingdom, claiming that Fortinbras has his "dying vote."

Hamlet is no longer angry. His evil actions have subsided and he seems to be at peace with himself.