Critical Essays Free Will and Fate


For Hamlet, the consummate Christian tragic hero, fate exists, but human choices may cancel its power. Hamlet never stops choosing the paths he will take. Furthermore, his reluctance to succumb to his fate stems as much from his religious morality as from his intellectual meandering. He is aware that his father's Ghost expects him to commit murder, that the Bible dictates that murder is wrong, even when executing an evil man, and that fate desires him to violate his God's Ten Commandments.

In Hamlet, King Hamlet's Ghost, who appears to Hamlet and directs him to punish Claudius, personifies fate. The Ghost reveals that Claudius, by killing his own brother, has committed a "murder most foul" and deserves to die. Hamlet can choose to obey his fate or ignore it and then face the consequences. Hamlet consistently avoids making this choice by refusing to act. However, his need for self-determination, driven by his psychological conflicts, finally forces him to take vengeance into his own hands. He finds that the forces of the primal world (which value "an eye for an eye") and the enlightened world (which legislate "Thou shalt not kill") equally compel him. The Ghost has ordered Hamlet to act against his conscience, and the diametrically opposed commands paralyze him.

In Oedipus, the king's corruption has bred an illness among his subjects. A plague has descended upon Thebes, and only Oedipus' punishment and removal will rectify the ills that are killing the people. Oedipus knows that he can right all only by excising the enemy of the gods from the body of the city-state. He is that enemy, having had the arrogance to assume that he could choose his own path.

On the other hand, a corrupt society that threatens to compromise his integrity confronts Hamlet. The King and his cohorts drink too much, and gamble too frequently. King Claudius casts on all of Denmark the reputation of an indolent wastrel. Hamlet knows that the duty to correct the depravity that holds his country captive falls to him, but he also knows that, in order to right this wrong, he must commit the worst of all crimes. He is torn between doing God's work and doing God's bidding, and the lines of distinction are not clearly recognizable. Were he able to simply reverse his will and submit to fate, he would find peace more swiftly; but constantly exercising his human will is Hamlet's cross to bear, and he only finds peace in death. Even making no choice exercises his free will, because inaction is as much a choice as action. Hamlet cannot ask God to absolve him of choice because the Christian God requires freely chosen submission. Where Oedipus must relinquish his will and allow the gods to manipulate him, Hamlet must exercise his will and follow as his God guides him.

Hamlet is an intellectual. He rationalizes his life and all its events and accepts nothing without careful analysis. The powers of Mount Olympus, however, entirely manipulate Oedipus. Hamlet can blame neither God nor fate. No unseen hand directs Hamlet's life and death; his own free will determines the results. As Oedipus exemplifies the Greeks' religious conviction that man is a pawn to the gods, Hamlet illustrates the Christians' fervent belief that man's mind is the master of self and chooses to follow God.

Neither Hamlet nor Oedipus has the last word in the argument between free will and fate. So long as humans have the power of thought, this concern will dominate literature. The preoccupation with the way in which the two vie for control of the human psyche promises to keep philosophy and art alive with myriad possibilities.

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