Faith in Shakespeare

Home Hamlet Macbeth Merchant of Venice Themes Links Contact

image (c) J.R. Dunster


Hamlet's father (King Hamlet Senior) has been murdered by his uncle Claudius who has now taken over the throne and married the dead king's wife Gertrude. Hamlet was upset enough about this marriage but traumatised entirely when the ghost of Hamlet Senior tells him about the murder. He plots revenge but is indecisive about it. In this extract we see that Claudius, like many of Shakespeare's villains, has a conscience. He feels guilty about the murder and wants to repent but doesn't want to give up his ill-gotten gains.


Claudius: O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder-
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain th' offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but 'tis not so above.
There is no shuffling; there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engag'd! Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.

Click here to hear a reading (by P.J. Sheehy) of this speech
Realplayer needed to play this -Click here for free download.
Real Player Free

Click on any of the these themes to open a new window

Student Assignments
1. Having read the speech above write a letter of advice to Claudius.
2. In what sense is Claudius a villain with a conscience?

Using the contact link above, feel free to email completed assignments which will be returned with commentary as soon as possible.