In the budding humanistic climate of 16th Century Europe, men are sovereign and fortune is a strumpet. Against this backdrop, the immortal works of Shakespeare take form, commentating on tragic lessons grounded in the laws of nature and the supernatural. Of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and Othello highlight the heart-wrenching story of a righteous man’s fall into the pits of vengeance. In both works readers experience the disgust at infection, noting the knavery of both the villainous Iago who poisons General Othello with slanders against Othello’s virtuous wife, catalyzing her death, and the treachery of Claudius, who slays Prince Hamlet’s sinful father the former king, and poisons Hamlet’s mother. While both plays make the betrayal of the villains obvious, the tragic heroes maintain a nearly equal participation in the realization of the plots’ disastrous ends. A closer look at Shakespeare’s plays will reveal not only the sickness that is man’s passionate desire to assert retribution and weed the garden of disease at the cost of the good fruits, but further the necessity of these agents in tackling a greater sickness, ensuring the future of humanity and passing on the instruction that is their remnant tragedies.
Passion is presented through Shakespeare’s observant characters as an affliction upon humanity’s nature. Though every character has a flaw, as is the truth in humanity, Shakespeare presents each character as an opportunity to express an insight into human nature and to provide a network of supporting perspectives. One of these insights is the destructive force of passion. Polonius, the father of prince Hamlet’s once beloved Ophelia, observes that “any passion under heaven” can “afflict our natures” for its “violent property” destroys itself “And leads the will to desperate undertakings” (2.1.105-108). He makes this remark after being informed of Hamlet’s plunge into madness, and misinterprets the particular passion for violent love. While he attempts to prove to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude that their stepson/son is mad over his love of Ophelia, the plot of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” conversely takes the approach of trying to disprove the love between Desdemona and Othello, set on by Iago whom passionately ‘hate[s] the moor” (1.3.387). As Othello becomes mad with the idea of his wife’s infidelity, Iago notes that Othello is “eaten up with passion” (3.3.407). Later, Othello reveals his madness to commissioners from Cyprus, when he becomes angered at the thought of promoting Cassio, whom he has been led to believe has stolen is wife, and therefore strikes his wife in front of them. Observing his affliction, commissioner Lodovico is baffled and asks “Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?”, suggesting the ongoing struggle within man’s nature to override passion (4.1.270-271). Othello himself recognizes that passion should not rule one’s heart, and mistakenly thinks that Iago is an honest man who speaks from “the heart” where “passion cannot rule” (3.3.136-137). Unfortunately, however, both Othello and Hamlet become puppets through passion, losing that which is most dear to the heart.
In an attempt to assert their passionate revenge, both Othello and Hamlet lose their most valuable treasure and are un-profited. Hamlet gives up on love after becoming disillusioned by his mother’s quick marriage following his father’s death, no longer putting his heart and trust in Ophelia, and because of this absence of trust and love, feels the world is “unprofitable” (1.2.133). He is therefore easily possessed by the one-way commission to avenge his father’s death and send Claudius to hell. The fallacy in this course of action is illuminated by the other play as Iago notes “he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed” (3.3.172-174). Hamlet is not enriched by his vengeful plan to filch the title of King from Claudius (and steal Claudius’ soul from heaven by killing him in the prime of his sin), and his deathly madness results in the death of Polonius and the suicide of the only chaste element in his life, Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. Likewise, Othello trades the love of his virtuous Desdemona for the jewel of reputation, choosing to avenge his name against the threat of being a “cuckold”. In a passionate rage, he is blinded and distrusts her virtue, throwing away his most precious “pearl”. In relation to the value of Desdemona’s virtue, there is a proverb that reads:
A virtuous wife, who can find?
Her worth is more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her
Profit he will not lack. (31:10-11)
Unfortunately, Othello is unable to distinguish the inherent value of his wife and chooses to avenge his reputation, which for both men and women, is described as the “jewel of their soul” (3.3.169). Othello ultimately recognizes that he has misjudged the honor of his friend Cassio and his wife Desdemona, leading to the forfeiture his own sense of honest honor, the consequence of throwing away Desdemona — his “pearl more precious than all his tribe”, and the death of Iago’s wife, Emilia; consequently, he ends his own life (5.2.357). Acting on the premise of vengeance justified by slander and pride, both Othello and Iago become very poor indeed.
Othello felt that asserting retribution was within his rights. His pride in the “men of royal siege” from which he “fetch[ed his] life” and lineage made him feel that the transgression of being “cuckold” was even more unacceptable (1.2.21-22). “Cuckold me?” he exclaims with offense, just before avenging his honor (4.1.199). The royal right to retribution that Othello exhibits is similar to the concept of an unfaithful queen, whom in her folly is said to commit “treason” against the crown, her king. Interestingly, this had happened in England just before Shakespeare’s birth. King Henry VIII had two wives executed for infidelity and was the root of the internal strife of Shakespeare’s time. After Henry VIII, his daughter Queen Mary sought revenge for her mother’s mistreatment by Henry VIII. Bloody Mary’s revenge resulted in the death of many Protestants, before the end of her reign in 1558 and transference of the crown to Queen Elizabeth, her half sister, just before Shakespeare’s birth in 1563. Many attempts were made on Queen Elizabeth’s life, still in hopes of avenging the former royalty, and there continued to be internal strife and even widespread sickness in the 1590’s, the decade directly preceding Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Hamlet which were written around 1600. This bloody royal rite is reflected in both plays, arguing against the purity of man’s nature.
Not only have the results of Hamlet and Othello’s actions proven that justifying vengeance brings destruction upon one’s self, the very nature of their motivators brings to question the validity of their revenge commissions. In Hamlet, it may appear that revenge, commissioned by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is justifiable; however, if the ghost were a good omen, Hamlet would not have been seeking to repay evil with evil. Hamlet could have killed Claudius at one point, perhaps even averting all the other deaths in the play, but he hesitates because Claudius is praying and he does not want to send Claudius to heaven; he wants to send him to hell, because Claudius sent Hamlet’s father, whom was in the blossoms of his sin, to hell. It is in fact all about man’s attempt to exert retribution, set on by an evil force of nature. In Hamlet, the ghost in fact takes the form of a demon, serving the supernatural function of “the accuser” or “the satan”. 1 Thessalonians 5:15 says “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone”. The ghost is not bound to impart this ethic, and is therefore a force not for Hamlet’s benefit, but for his destruction. Hamlet concedes that the ghost may not have the best of intentions for him, as he soliloquizes:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me (2.2.599-604)
The satan is an allusion to biblical text, translated from Hebrew as “the accuser”, especially known for his role in the story of Job as he exacted calamity on Job, accusing him of not having true faith (Bandstra). Job ultimately passed the test and strengthened his faith in God, thus his life was spared and wealth doubled, unlike the men in Shakespeare’s plays who are controlled by the “satan” character, accepting the ill-intentioned charge of “the accuser”.
Shakespeare was raised in Catholic school, but his children attended Protestant school, and the spirit in “Hamlet” reflects both the views of Catholicism and Protestantism, demonstrating Shakespeare’s familiarity with both perspectives towards the Christian biblical belief in spirits. What Shakespeare truly believed is not known — he may not have even known, as he battled with both perspectives in his works — but his allusions are apparent. In Catholicism, ghosts are believed to be the ghosts of people, whom are not yet allowed into heaven and are to walk the earth until righting a wrong or being paid for by a family member. In Protestantism, such spirits are demons taking, as Hamlet mentions, a pleasing form to damn mortals. Both views are reflected in this ghost, who claims to walk the Earth for a set time, (though knowing that he is going to hell, not heaven), and is recognized by Hamlet as potentially being the “devil” seeking to damn him. Even though he considers this reality, Hamlet still becomes possessed by the spirit’s agenda.
The possession by an evil force is experienced by both Hamlet and Othello, illustrated in their turning-point remarks. After Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, he announces that “from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records” and everything that makes him human is replaced; everything that “observation copied” in his memory, is replaced with what the ghost wants him to do (1.5.99-102). He declares that “thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (1.5.103-104). This is the traditional definition of being possessed. It was a warring ghost “loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors”, horrors that possess and infect Hamlet’s entire being (2.1.85-86). One analyst excellently concludes that:
Hamlet, when he was himself, loved Ophelia. But then he erased himself from his own brain and there in the book and volume of his brain he wrote his warlike father’s commandment (the voice of Denmark, sent from Hell to speak of horrors, to breathe contagion, unfolding the secrets of his prison-house that he was forbid to tell to mortal ears), Hamlet was from himself taken away (Smith).
The ghost does in fact know that he will soon be sent back to hell, and is performing one last commission for vengeance by setting Hamlet on a destructive path- much like Iago does to Othello.
Hamlet’s replacement of conscience and free-will is reflected in Othello, whom after becoming possessed by the idea of his wife’s folly, announces his “farewell[s]” to all “That make[s] ambition [a] virtue” and concludes “Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone!”, symbolizing the forfeiture of his will to the retributive, “evil-for-evil”, syndrome (3.3.366 & 373). The force that sets Othello on this vengeful path is Iago, a symbol of the devil’s work. This symbol is accurately realized when in the end, Othello learns the truth and says “If that thou best a devil, I cannot kill thee”, stabs Iago, and Iago replies, “I bleed, sir; but not kill’d” (5.2.295-297). It appears that both Iago and the Ghost represent a force of evil, not subject to the rules of death for they are the inflictors of death via the incitement of violent passion in great men.
Because of limited wisdom, the men are unable to see through the violent passion that overtakes them in order to avert personal calamity. This illustrates the danger in man’s inability to distinguish “Lady Wisdom” from “Mistress Folly”, yet maintenance of pride in the right to assert retribution. Othello mistakes his wife for Lady Folly, and Hamlet tells Ophelia that “wise men know well enough / what monsters you make of them”, suggesting that she, and callously all women, are the prostitute, Mistress Folly, prone to incite jealousy and evil (3.1.141-142). The un-profited nature of men who do not put their trust in virtuous women, can be a metaphor for the will, and the source of that will. The Christian Bible does use “Lady Wisdom”, a virtuous wife, and “Mistress Folly”, a prostitute, as metaphors to demonstrate the difference between what men should pursue and what they should avoid, as well as what women should and should not spread. Within his work, Shakespeare does compare fortune to a strumpet, which would be Mistress Folly, thus revealing the way his characters are caught in a frame of mind regarding their wills, which Iago would propose is directly equated to man’s fortunes, for it is “in ourselves that we are thus or thus / our bodies are our gardens, to the which / our wills are gardeners” (1.3.322-324). Further, it can be expressed that the tragic flaw is man’s inability to distinguish lady wisdom from mistress folly, yet desire to usurp the role of divine gardener. Othello mistakes his wife for a “whore” and wants to destroy “Mistress Folly”; similarly, Hamlet speaks daggers to the women in his life, whom he sees as “breeder[s] of sinners” (3.1.123). Neither man has the granted power to take the life of the “strumpet”, nor do they have the wisdom to see from others’ perspectives. They choose to act on their limited ability to understand their situation, and this limited wisdom and lack of love is the underlying flaw that causes the personal downfall inherent in a violently love-less, yet passionately self-exerted retribution.
Former honor is corrupted by a violent passion for retributive rite, and both men demonstrate the tragedy in the fact that the great can fall, as they are transformed into instruments of pain to everyone around them. Forewarning Claudius of the danger present in the fall of a great man, such as the King, Rosencrantz says:
The cease of majesty
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What’s near it with it: it is a massy wheel,
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin’d; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. (3.3.15-22)
This fall of the head and its connected parts is illustrated in both Othello and Hamlet, and observed by Teresa Gloss who in her article “The Nature of Shakespearean Tragedy” writes that “in Shakespeare the death or ‘fall’ of the tragic hero involves the death of many of the surrounding characters and a change in the political status”. There is “method in it”; the plots reveal not only the underlying events that contribute to transition, but further the sickness that needed to be cut off (2.2.207).
Though Hamlet and Othello’s actions resulted in a heart-wrenching death for themselves and those close to them, Shakespeare does show necessity in the tragedy. Hamlet and other characters within his plot often comment on the sickness that is in Denmark. The land has been infected, and must therefore be purged. One element that is especially maddening Hamlet and informs the “sickly days” is his mother’s “incest” with his uncle, his father’s brother (3.3.90 & 96). He describes their bed as “rank” and tells his mother she lives “Stewed in corruption” (3.4.95). Even Claudius recognizes that both killing his brother and stealing Gertrude as well as the crown is a “rank” “offence” that “smells to heaven”, a sickness of which the “effects” are still “still possess’d” (3.3.37 & 53-54). Further, the scandalous, violent union is not even the inception of the sickness, it is but one of many symptoms. Hamlet’s father, the previous king, is described as sinful. Upon his death, the sin was not removed, for the blood of his family, his brother, continued the sin. Therefore, the ghost, as an accuser, arrives to question the main character’s strength and undo the current, diseased royal family and administration of Denmark.
Anne Brady asserts that the atmosphere in “Hamlet” is full of “images of sickness, disease, or blemish of the body in the play, and we discover that the idea of an ulcer or tumour, as descriptive of the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally, is, on the whole, the dominating one” (26). It was from the mouth of Hamlet himself, that Ophelia would have been a “breeder of sinners”- those sinners being those of Hamlet’s royal, warring bloodline. On the growing sickness, one analyst notes that “In the play Hamlet… one drop of evil conduct suffices to obscure all virtues” (Aguirre). Because Hamlet’s soul chooses to repay evil with evil, he allows the pollution of passion, jealousy & revenge, to make him into a stream that poisons those around him. He is focused on the idea of death, stuck in a melancholy. Proverbs 25:26 reads that “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked”, and that is exactly why Claudius remarks that “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (3.2.193). Shakespeare shows that even in the formerly righteous, a passion set on by evil can ultimately pollute, and as men of such high positions and authority, this pollution must be dealt with.
While it is often assumed that Iago is the pollution within the play of Othello, it can also be asserted that Othello, a prideful man of war, is not without his own tragic flaws which catalyze his infection. Dañobeitia, in her essay “The Inevitable Death of Desdemona”, explains that Othello’s passion in his possession of Desdemona arises from his feeling of royal rite, passed to him by the father before him, and an opposition to what the culture of Venice would expect his rights to be. Indeed, Barbantio, Desdemona’s father is outraged at the “treason of the blood”, and Othello must proceed to explain his conquest of love to the court by relaying the stories of war he had unfolded to the captivated innocence of Desdemona (1.1.173). In doing so, he effectively illustrates the nature of their union, concluding that “She did love me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (1.3.169-170). Dr. Long notes that “Othello’s love for [Desdemona] says nothing about his perception of her as a woman, his appreciation of her finer qualities, his sense that he even understands anything of her past or her present. His love for her seems derivative, secondary, like a comedian’s loving the crowd because it laughs at his jokes” (Long). The Duke even admits that Othello’s story “would win [his] daughter, too”, suggesting that the conquest of love is not that intangible feeling beyond value, but rather an achievable victory, like the spoils of war (1.3.173). There is a false veneer of calm that the possession of Desdemona gives Othello, like the honor of a precious jewel, augmenting his reputation and self-worth. Although Othello’s pride is soothed by his ability to “take what otherwise may not have been given to him: Desdemona”, upon hearing the false claim that her augmentation is instead that of making him a cuckold, not a victor, he readily seeks to do away with his incriminating treasure and reclaim the authority of his honor (Dañobeitia). It is Othello’s own passion for reputation and royal rite that rules his heart, and the mere threat to that reputation is met with swift vengeance, regardless of reality. Victor Cahn in his critique of appearance versus reality within “The Plays of Shakespeare” points out that “what strikes us is how this relationship is based almost solely on appearance”, and the falsified appearance calls to question an unaddressed danger living in his nature (17).
Though it is apparent that Desdemona expresses true love for Othello as she remains loyal throughout the play, his love represents a mere medication to his nature. He remarks “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (3.3.98-100). The chaos defines Othello’s life, and his foresight into a loss of this temporary calm is eerie. Additionally, the use of “perdition” beckons the definition of “a state of final spiritual ruin; loss of the soul; damnation”, which suggests an unnerving understanding of love, and “wretch” suggests an unfortunate person. It as though Shakespeare is hinting at something unsanctioned about their matrimony. To venture further, it is important to note that in 16th century England where Shakespeare resides, Christianity is the official religion, something so protected that even a bitter division and battle resulted over Catholic and Protestant interpretations. To have a Moor, which is a Muslim, of such authority in Venice may be for that time especially, a symbol needing to be addressed. One critic takes an even deeper contextual approach, noting that “Blackness had been associated with sin and death in a tradition extending back to Greek and Roman times, and in medieval and later religious paintings evil men and devils were regularly depicted as black. Blackamoors in plays before Othello are generally wicked” (Wells qtd. in Delahoyde). The veiled nature of Othello’s “chaos”, as a self described “malignant and a turban’d Turk”, is undoubtedly depicted as a threat to all the other characters in the play, as the tragic ending proves, and the calm that Othello has is a disguise, put on by his possession of Desdemona (5.2.363). The lack of intimate love is painfully obvious as he so readily abandons her, assuming “That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites!”, and on that note, decides to kill her (3.3.285-286).
All of this underlying passionate tension and angst is brought to the surface by Iago, who is truly an infectious source within Venice. He is infected by the idea that Othello has usurped his role of husbandry, taking his wife “Emilia” in the past, and says that the idea “Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;” and thus nothing will soothe his soul until he asserts retribution and power over the moor (2.2.298). As he inflicts revenge, he notes that “The Moor already changes with my poison” and puts Othello into a violent “passion most unsuiting such a man”, as Othello in turn decides to assert a wrongful retribution against Desdemona (3.3.341 & 4.1.79). By drawing the repulsive nature of authoritative passion, an element profoundly interwoven within human nature, Shakespeare effectively casts a shadow upon the capacities of all of human judgment. Indeed, the very goal of Iago is to put Othello into “a jealousy so strong / That judgment cannot cure”, and such passions do afflict humanity’s judgments “oft” (2.2.302-303). The idea of man’s passionate desire to assert retribution beckons the question of whom, in fact, man is answerable to.
Though man may try to justify his violence with purpose, unanswerable passion destroys the very potential of justification, i.e. “honor” or “love”. In the words of Hamlet’s play:
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose..
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy (3.2.192-195)
In the end, both men lose everything that is of meaning to them because they were afflicted by the passionate need to avenge honor, and step beyond their administrative capacities. In their assertion of authority, Hamlet and Othello operate from their destructive will and assert their own revenge: evil retribution. Hamlet repays evil with evil, and Othello destroys what was most pure. They are not operating on the premise of love or a universal law, but self-rite over others. Because of this, they are to fall, for their very vengeful nature reflects a long unchecked mode of conduct- the poisonous chaos of the fathers before them and their conceited right to authority.
The retributive assertion of authority is a dangerous conceit, and “Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons” as noted in Othello (3.3.342). The men are conceited in the fact that they believe they have the divine authority to weed the garden of those they see as strumpets. However, as humans, they lack the omniscience that justifies such a role, and for their dangerous abuse of authority, they damn themselves. The tragic consequence of propagating their conceited poison is evident, alongside the simultaneous need to cut it off.
The tragic flaw, vulnerable to an evil possession and violent passion, seems to be something that is forbidden to be passed down. The offspring of both Othello and Hamlet are defaced; in Othello, Iago remarks to Barbantio, Desdemona’s father, that “the devil will make a grandsire of you”, and Hamlet accuses Ophelia that she would “be the breeder of sinners” (Othello 1.1.93 & Hamlet 3.1.122-123). Thus perhaps it is by their own reflections that the men are vexed within their experience of love, and it is this realization that ends the continuation of their vexed royal seed.
In Hamlet, when the ghost first appears to bring condemnation against the crown, Horatio remarks that it “bodes some strange eruption to [the] state”, and indeed, the ultimate form of renewal in nature is the aftermath of an eruption, but for the reformation to take place, there must be a violent outbreak (1.1.73). Tung, in his psychoanalytical approach to Hamlet, describes that this eruption “can also refer to ‘our mental state.’ In that sense, ‘some strange eruption to our state’ will then refer to some strange, violent outbreak as seen of Hamlet’s emotion that is to come with the ghost’s appearance”. Ultimately, the administration of Denmark proves to be an “an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it” as noted within the play itself (1.2.135). The state of affairs in Denmark exist as “base respects of thrift, but none of love” (3.2.181). As noted by one critic, “By adopting the father’s infective mode and transmitting the ancestor’s disease, Hamlet seizes what the present time has denied him: he seizes power, if only the terminal power to undo the present” (Mallin). Indeed, Hamlet’s power to carry out his revenge is what leads to his own demise.
Seizing authority is an underlying motivation of man, and if not absolute power, at least the appearance of authority. The importance of the appearance of authority is evident in Othello, whose “honor” meant he was “obliged to maintain the fidelity of his wife, or at least the appearance of it, as his most valuable property”, as one critic of the social context points out (Klene). This authority is also important to Hamlet, who, in his dying words, maintains the authority of royal rite by inconsequentially naming Fodrtinbras the new King. The transition is inevitable; Fortinbras, the prince of the enemy state who had his father’s land stolen by Hamlet’s father, arrives on the scene of a dying royal family in Denmark. Similar to Hamlet, Fortinbras’ is a prince whose father has been murdered and the power has been transferred to his uncle. However, there is a difference noted by an educational website on “Hamlet Conumdrums”, in that “Fortinbras does not seek revenge. He maintains his claim, and waits for his time to come. Eventually, when it does come, it comes with greater ease and greater rewards than he could have imagined” (Elsinore). When Fortinbras marches towards the kingdom, it is with the intention of petitioning the court for the return of his father’s plot of land, but Hamlet learns that the Polacks, his people, are already “garrisoned” against Fortinbras, denoting the struggle that would have occurred in an attempt to retain authority over the land (4.5.25). Hearing of Fortinbras’ arrival on the deathly ending scene, Hamlet’s words mark his authorization of transference, allowing “Fortinbras [to have his] dying voice”, which is the voice of Denmark (5.2.358).
The power of the word is exemplified as the dying breaths of both men illustrate their inner most desires for authority in their remnants. While both men are at one point possessed by their passions, upon the death of their love, their passion and purpose ends, for their posterity has been cut off. But in the end, their purpose returns, and that is the enduring fame of their stories and the authority to instruct successive generations on the nature of tragedy. This legacy of instruction is also their redeeming moment, serving as a retribution for their stories, because in the end they value the truth and its posterity. Othello bids that witnesses of “these unlucky deeds relate / Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate” and explains how the story shall be “Set…down” (5.2.351-361). Hamlet dies asking Horatio to “Report me and my cause aright” (Hamlet 5.2.341). Both men are effectively saying “tell my story”, and exhibit the god-like desire for immortality through their names.
The tragedy is the result of man’s passionate desire to assert authority and retribution, and weed the garden of infection at the cost of his good fruits. But honesty overpowers honor; to be honest towards the situations allows instruction, and growth from a fall. As Hamlet says “reform it altogether… / …speak no more than is set down…” for there is a “question of the play…to be considered” and to laugh at that question is “villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition” (3.2.39-45). Man’s pitifully prideful ambition often leads him to minimize personal convictions and the divine, and assert his own idea of ultimatum over others. Shakespeare shows that a lack of faith in an omniscient plan leads man to assert his own means of retribution, a cause diluted by personal pain and lack of wisdom.
Limited wisdom is the reason retribution in life and love is not ours to wield; people are not omniscient, and as hurt individuals the lack of empathy on both Hamlet and Othello’s parts plays into that concept as well. It is unfortunate that through the ongoing struggle within man’s conscience and freewill, innocent lives are lost; the exerted retribution overtakes beauty/virtue. The rank weeds in the plays are hidden among the flowers, and all that is connected to the infected falls. The tragedy is necessary to “weed the garden”, thus readers indeed have the tragic heroes. The silver lining can be seen in that through Hamlet’s sacrifice and those closest to him, the royal disease does not continue to grow ranker in nature, and therefore the remnants of the people are saved. The lives, which were in danger over the land that would not hold that many graves, “fight[ing] for a plot / Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause” as Hamlet observes, are spared of the upcoming massacre, the outside retribution for the Kingdom’s deathly statehood under the administration of “drunkards” (4.5.63-65). In effect, the “spokes” are separated from the “massy wheel”, to carry on the story of the royal tragedy that happened in Denmark, and likewise the administrative tragedy in Venice. The question of Shakespeare’s plays is more than having satisfaction through an assertion of authority or the appearance of grandeur; as Othello asks, “Why should honor, outlive honesty?”, and indeed, all is reformed (5.2.254).
In his plays, Hamlet and Othello, Shakespeare artistically demonstrates how unaccountable passion can eat at the soul, creating the vulnerabilities through which great men are enslaved and those closest are poisoned. This infectious and catastrophic nature of perceived retributive rite is the result of man’s limited wisdom and empathy, yet desire for God-like power. Thus, through a lack of scrupulous insight, the greatest of the afflicted can fall. However, Shakespeare’s familiarity with biblical principles bodes the interpretation that God uses human agents to address growing problems, and though humans may be muddled, the vindictive serve their purpose upon themselves. A diseased garden does need to be weeded, and though the self-asserted gardener damns himself with the destruction of his fruits, the rest of the world is spared his infection, and learns from his perpetual reflection.
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