There's A Divinity That Shapes Our Ends

What did Hamlet mean when he said "there's a divinity that shapes our ends"? V.ii

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gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

This line talks about the intersection of individual free will with a specific kind of fate. We "rough hew" our ends (the end results of our actions and choices) in that we make choices about what to do and think and feel, but there is a "divinity" (a fate of a religious quality) that makes it so circumstances overpower our individual choices causing events to work out in unforeseen and perhaps negative ways.

This creates the paradox and conflict that is felt and observed between what is envisioned and what comes to be, between will and fate. This "divinity" gives unpredicted substance to the shapes our lives take.

Remember that Hamlet is about to explain to Horatio what happened at sea concerning Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. So when Hamlet speaks of "divinity that shapes our ends," he is speaking of discovering a plot against him; discovering the commission to have him assassinated in England; his forgery of a new letter to go to the King of England; and the requested assassination of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz once they arrive in England: "He should the bearers put to sudden death,..."

Remember also that very shortly Hamlet will tell Horatio that he regrets how he treated Laertes and will seek his pardon ("I'll court his favours. / ... his grief did put me / Into a tow'ring passion"). Remember also that, even while he speaks, Osric enters to request Hamlet choose a weapon while saying Laertes weapons are "Rapier and dagger." Remember then that both Laertes and Hamlet fall in death by the blades of the poisoned swords. 

Though Shakespeare has Hamlet speak of a "divinity that shapes" and a "heaven ordinant," the context of the statements--death and interrupted apologies made ineffectual and impending death--indicate that "divinity that shapes" is one of the situational ironies of the drama and that it is one of the underlying questions of the tragedy: Is the fate, divinity, ghostly importunacy, ordinate heaven that governs and "shapes our ends" benevolent or malevolent? This is a question that Hamlet never satisfactorily answers; he abdicates the question along with the throne of Denmark to Fortinbras,--who never questioned, as Hamlet did, the dominating power of the cultural norm of revenge killing--with his dying breath.

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