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Hamlet by William Shakespeare is widely regarded as his best work. The play is a tragedy about Prince Hamlet and is struggle to gain revenge for his father s premature death. Claudius is the antagonist of the play for he murdered King Hamlet and then married Queen Gertrude soon after to the dismay of Prince Hamlet. The plot is structured around Prince Hamlet s desire to avenge his father s murder, by killing Claudius the murderer. However, there is much to say about Claudius, a man who would murder his own brother and then marry his dead brother s wife. Questions arise that would seek to reveal the conscience of this apparently evil man. Is it possible for such a man to feel guilt and conviction for what he has done? The answer is yes and lines 36-72 in Act III, Scene iii, of the play reveal Claudius heart. Claudius, a man entrapped by his own sins, indeed felt true conviction tugging away at his soul.
The first clue that reveals that Claudius is feeling conviction is a period of guilt and shame. Just before Act III, Scene iii, Prince Hamlet had put on a play of his own craft. The play was designed to lure the guilt and conviction out of Claudius so that Hamlet would know without a doubt what his uncle had done. This is the first time that the audience sees Claudius openly display his true feelings of guilt. He does so in the form of a soliloquy. The soliloquy starts with line 36 of Act III, Scene iii, which says, O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. Here Claudius is suggesting that his sin is like a foul odor, which God in heaven can smell. Claudius mentions this because he realizes how terrible his sin is. He is now speaking from his heart. Claudius goes on to say that It hath the primal eldest curse upon t, / A brother s murther. Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will (37-39). In line thirty-seven It represents the
murder of his brother and the primal eldest curse is speaking of the curse that Cain received from God when he killed his brother. Claudius feels as though God has cursed him for his deeds, and he can no longer pray to God no matter how much he wants to. Claudius then goes on to reveal how truly convicted about this he is when he says, My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent (40). He is talking here about how his guilt is so much stronger than his desire to be King. Claudius own words offer strong evidence for the conviction he now feels deep in his heart.
Further evidence that Claudius feels convicted for what he has done is his desire to repent. A person who does not feel true conviction would never feel the need to repent, for he or she could not repent if they do not know why or for what they are repenting. Claudius, however, knows he needs to repent for he is stricken with guilt. Claudius expresses his desire for repentance when he says, Is there not enough rains in the sweet heavens / To wash it white as snow? (45). Here Claudius questions whether or not his sins are even forgivable. He goes on to ponder the idea of mercy by saying, Whereto serves mercy / But to confront the visage of the offense? (46). Claudius is saying what purpose does mercy serve except to offer a pardon to those who do not deserve it. Claudius knows that he can be forgiven and desires to repent for his deeds. The problem for him is he does not want to give up his crown. He speaks of this saying, My Crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. / May one be pardon d and keep th offense? (55-56). Claudius is fighting a battle inside himself. He feels the conviction that drives him into deeper fits of guilt and shamefulness, but at the same time he enjoys the fruits of his sin.
The last sign that Claudius feels conviction is his inability to pray. Claudius knows because of the conviction he feels so strongly that he is not fit to pray to God. He expressed this earlier in the soliloquy when he said, Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will. (38-39). Claudius also speaks of prayer again when says, And what s in prayer but this two fold force, / To be forestalled ere we come to fall (48-49). Claudius confirms his feelings of conviction here by saying how his prayers now are hopeless because he is fallen. Claudius knows that the only way to end this overwhelming guilt is to repent and turn from his sin, but he cannot and tries to reason another way. He asks the question, My fault is past but, O, what form of prayer / Can serve my turn? (51-52), to which he replies, Forgive me my foul murther? / That cannot be since I am still possess d / Of those effects for which I did the murther: (52-54). Claudius knows that repenting to God will do him no good as long as he continues to enjoy the prizes for his sin. Although Claudius feels conviction, he is determined to try to live through the guilt.
In a way I can relate to Claudius for there have been many times in my life that I have done things the Lord has convicted me about. I have dealt with the same feelings of guilt and shame that come when I realized I could not hide my sin from God. Just as Claudius did I have felt the agony of knowing that my prayers will never be honored as long as I knowingly continue in my sins. Although I will never slay my brother for his crown I must not forget that sin is sin and God hates sin. Hidden sin in my life could destroy me from the inside out and that is why God allows me to feel conviction, so that I can stay in fellowship with Him.