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Arjuna and Hamlet: Two Moral Dilemmās

Author(s): Alur Janaki Ram

Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Apr., 1968), pp. 11-28
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1398033
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Arjuna and Hamlet: Two

Moral Dilemmas

IN THIS PAPER I shall consider two classic examples of a

heroic dilemma, as embodied in the Gita and Hamlet, by juxtaposing these
two well-known and much discussed works of East and West. The Prince of
Denmark, if not Arjuna, has been the subject of varied critical comment and
discussion. Mysticized, psychoanalyzed, deromanticized, even Marxianized,l
and also castigated for an allegedly exclusive concern with negative death-
forces,2 Shakespeare's prince has lately regained his earlier position as a noble
representative of the heroic ideal.3 Even the Hamlet hero problem has now
come to be seen in its right perspective. In Peter Alexander's view, it func-
tions in the play as a conflict between "the instinctive wisdom of antiquity and
her heroic passions" (as symbolized in the elder Hamlet) and "the meditative
wisdom of later ages" (as embodied in Hamlet himself), or in other words
"the perpetual struggle to which all civilisation that is genuine is doomed"-
the need ". . . to be humane without loss of toughness" (p. 185). A more re-
cent commentator, G. K. Hunter, has offered a slightly different formulation
of the problem: "Hamlet represents an enormous and convulsive effort to move

Alur Janaki Ram is a memberof the Departmentof English, University of Rajasthan,

Jaipur, India.
1 See Arnold Kettle's "From Hamlet to Lear," Shakespeare in a Changing World,
Arnold Kettle, ed. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964), p. 158.
2 The most conspicuouscastigating criticisms of Hamlet have been those of Wilson
Knight, "The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet," The Wheel of Fire (London:
Methuen & Co., 1956), p. 45; L. C. Knights, An Approach to 'Hamlet' (London: Chatto
& Windus, 1960), p. 81; and John Vyvyan, The ShakespearianEthic (London: Chatto
& Windus, 1959). The last, in particular,is a good example of the anti-heroic approach,
which regards Hamlet as "a study in degenerationfrom first to last" and also as "a death-
play" (p. 55).
3 See Peter Alexander, Hamlet, Father and Son (Oxford: The Clarendon Press,
1955), pp. 151-185; Helen Gardner,"The Historical Approach,"The Business of Criti-
cism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 47-50; Harry Levin, The Question
of 'Hamlet' (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 82-102. See also Stratford-
upon-Avon Studies 5, Hamlet (London: Edwin Arnold Publishers, 1963), G. K. Hunter's
essay in particular, "The Heroism of Hamlet," pp. 90-109, and also Peter Ure's essay,
"Characterand Role from Richard III to Hamlet," pp. 9-28.

forward to the heroism of the individual, without abandoning the older social
and religious framework of external action."4 (Italics mine.)
There is a parallel for this in the corpus of Shakespeare's work itself-in
Troilus and Cressida, for example, where Hector, another mythical figure of
heroic integrity, seems concerned for honor both as a higher ethical ideal and
also as a received social value. Even Arjuna of the Gita figures as a hero
caught between inner personal integrity and the obligatoriness of a recognized
social code. Insofar as this baffling dilemma is occasioned in both Hamlet and
Arjuna by an enjoined feat appealing to the basic human sense of honor, their
dilemmas, and the modes of their resolution, appear to be a fruitful subject for
a comparative study.
It is helpful to state a reservation at the very outset. It is not my intention
here to contribute an expansion like Hamlet - Arjuna to a repertory already
replete with identifications like Hamlet = Self-contemplating Intellectual,
Hamlet = the Earl of Essex,5 and Hamlet = Shakespeare. Nor is this meant
to be an exercise in the familiar character study based on strained comparisons
and contrasts. Clearly the heroes in question not only belong to two different
cultural traditions and periods but also appear in works of literature different
in scope and intention: the one is a play in a tragic form while the other is a
poetical discourse on certain ethical and philosophical problems. In view of
these dissimilarities, I propose to take up in this paper only an analysis of
their moral paradoxes insofar as they hinge on a social code of external action.
The relevance of such an analysis would seem to lie in focusing certain sig-
nificant and universal aspects of the two heroic dilemmas.


The analogies that exist between the two dilemmas are obvious. It is sig-
nificant that both heroes, in their different ways, feel impelled to answer the
call to honor. The Mahabharatawar in which Arjuna was to play a prominent
role was, like most other wars in history, precipitated by an urge to satisfy
honor; for the issue in question for Arjuna and his brothers was one of regain-
ing their just share of a kingdom. Arjuna's dilemma thus arises primarily
over the question of meeting the exacting demands of the warrior code which,
insofar as it entails the shedding of his kinsmen's blood, appears to him as a
meaningless exercise in destruction. Hamlet, too, is bidden to meet the re-
quirements of a similar code of honor, although it has behind it a slightly
4 Op. cit., p. 108.
5Dover Wilson, What Happens in "Hamlet" (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1951), p. 228.

different ethos-revenge as a duty for a murdered kinsman. But the demands

to satisfy an injured honor appear alike for both and, basically, theirs is a
problem of action, of conforming to certain accepted standards of princely
To be fair, we should not strain or overstate the correspondences, for in
doing so we risk ignoring some dissimilarities that evidently exist between the
two hero-situations. The situation in which Arjuna finds himself is clearly
less complex than Hamlet's. Arjuna has only to fight an open war according
to recognized conventions and procedures; Hamlet, on the other hand, finds
himself engaged in a "private" war-an undeclared war of moves and counter-
moves against a "mighty opposite," requiring all the alertness and resourceful-
ness that one could possibly muster. Aside from the fact that the task of
revenge is laid on Hamlet by a ghost with a suspect identity, his own concep-
tion of his task as an act of setting right the disjointed Denmark adds, as it
were, another dimension to the complexity of his burden. Besides, a recog-
nition that he has to come to terms with himself and his doubts before coming
to terms with his task as such reveals only the magnitude of his tragic plight
and his moral perplexities.
Despite the apparently different motivational factors in the hesitations of
the two heroes, there would seem to be a certain likeness at the core of their
hesitancy. This likeness is significant for its bearing on the nature of their
sensibilities. The fact that some inward cause, more than an external factor,
stays them from sweeping to the actions expected of them gives us a measure
of their heroic sensibility-a sensibility that seems to have been crippled, to
some extent, by a like sense of being involved in defilement.6
Hamlet's hesitation, at least in the early part of the play, arises out of the
exigencies of the dramatic situation, out of a scrupulous intention on his part
to be sure of his victim's guilt and the validity of the ghost's report. This cause,
stemming from the ghost's questionable identity,7 is manifest in the outer

6 Hamlet'ssenseof the guilt of life is now a widelyacceptedcriticalnotion.For the

analogywith Arjuna'ssenseof defilementI am, however,indebtedto JosephCampbell's
The Hero with a ThousandFaces (New York: Meridian Publishers, 1950), p. 238. The
passagein whichthis pointis madeis quotedin full towardthe close of this essay (vide
n. 21). Whilehalfwaythroughmy comparative study,I foundit comfortingto knowthat
someof the pointsof analogyI had independently workedout havebeenhintedat in one
paragraph in Campbell's study.This is the passageI havereferredto andalso cited sub-
sequently.I haveadaptedmy thesis accordinglyin the light of whateverclarification and
illuminationI havebeenable to derivefroma morecomprehensive comparative studyof
the world'smythologicalheroicimages.
7 DoverWilson,op. cit., "Ghostor Devil,"pp. 52-86.Wilson'scontribution to a clari-
ficationof anotherenigmaticplot elementof the play, namelythe ghost and Hamlet's
doubtsconcerningit, is so well-knownthat it hardlyneedsany commenthere.As far as
possible,I have tried to acknowledgemy debtsto the well-knowncritics of the play.

structure of the play. But an examination of the play's inner structure reveals
that the causes for his hesitation are inherent in his very sensibility, which is
also at the basis of the conflict dramatized in the play's framework of action.
This conflict in sensibility is ably summed up in Hamlet's self-image as one
"crawling between earth and heaven" (III.1.127), a universal image of man
caught up between earth-born "passion" and "godlike reason." The famous
apostrophe to man (11.2.307-313)-". . . What a piece of work is a man, how
noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express
and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god . . .
and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"-adds up to this universal
aspect of the human condition. Furthermore, the central "To be or not to
be . . ." soliloquy also focuses the crucial significance of the hero's inner con-
flict. Although variously interpreted, the key soliloquy depicts not merely the
conflict of choices between a stoic endurance of life or death by a "bodkin,"
but also a scrupulous examination of the possible implications of the pursuit
or eschewal of revenge. In short, the soliloquy formulates the alternatives of
choice in their relative and widest terms of reference-life and death, action
and inaction, revenge and eschewal of revenge, the known and the unknowable
terrors of life and afterlife, resolution and enactment. In effect, the hero's
conflict, as revealed in the play's action, has then two manifest aspects, and
the inner conflict runs as a counterpoint to the outer conflict in the play's
Arjuna is, like Hamlet, caught up in an inner conflict, at the basis of his
moral dilemma and the Gitd-theme. The factors motivating the conflict are
manifestly grief, compassion, and an inner revulsion, as noted already, to
shedding the fraternal blood. But this inner revulsion seems to have more to
it than is usually recognized.

These I would not consentto kill, though they kill me, O Madhusfidhana(Krsna),
even for the kingdomof the three worlds; how much less for the sake of the earth?
What pleasurescan be ours, O Krsna, after we have slain the sons of Dhrtarastra?
Only sin will accrueto us if we kill these malignants.8

Evidently this revulsion has in it not merely the element of reluctance to shed
the blood of his kinsmen, but even a deeper sense of involvement in the guilt

Wherethey are unacknowledged and implicit,I have the alibi of what is now a critical
commonplace that it is next to impossiblefor anyonediscussingHamletto say exactly
how muchhe owesto the greatvarietyof scholarship on the subject.
8 The Bhagavadgita,S. Radhakrishnan, trans. (London: GeorgeAllen & Unwin
Ltd., 1958),p. 91 (I. 35, 36). All the subsequent quotationsfromthe Gitaare fromthis
edition.The citationsfromHamletare fromthe Yale edition,editedby TuckerBrooke
(New Haven:Yale UniversityPress, 1954).

of life for realizing limited worldly ends. And one recalls passages in Hamlet
having an undertone of a comparable sense of aversion and involvement in

The time is out of joint, O cursed spite,

That ever I was bornto set it right! (1.5.187-188)
...virtue cannotso inoculateour old stock,
but we shall relish of it... (III.1.117-119)
.. What shouldsuch fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all . . . (111.1.128-129)

The moral dilemma or the hero problem confronting these two great mythi-
cal figures is formulable thus in its quintessential form: how to reconcile with
the dictates of divine reason the received values of the social code of honor;
in effect, how to satisfy honor in a limited this-worldly sense without com-
promising with honor in its transcending sense. It would be laboring the ob-
vious, perhaps, to say that war and revenge, motivated by honor at one end of
the scale, are hard to reconcile with the concept of justice in the absolute. This
is one of the eternal enigmas of man, and it underlies the dilemmas of Hamlet
and Arjuna. An awareness that war is a wasteful exercise for realizing certain
limited ends and worldly honor is very much evidenced by the following words
of Arjuna (Gitd, I. 45), as also by the passages from the Gita quoted earlier:

Alas, what a great sin have we resolved to commit in striving to slay our own
peoplethroughour greed for the pleasuresof the kingdom!

And we may consider for a while the manner in which Arjuna comes to terms
with his dilemma before we go on to examine the Hamletian kind of resolution.


Arjuna, unlike Hamlet, is indeed fortunate in having a Divine Counselor as

his charioteer who helps him find his way out of the vexing paradox. And
Krsna, in his symbolic role of charioteer or guide through the battle of life,
resolves the paradox at first from the standpoint of the Absolute. It is futile,
Arjuna is comforted, to lament for the fate of his kinsmen, as they have an
immortal essence which transcends the ravages of war:

He who thinksthat this [soul] slays and he who thinks that this is slain; both of
them fail to perceive the truth; this one neither slays nor is slain. (II. 19)
He is never born, nor does he die at any time, nor having (once) come to be will

he again cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, permanentand primeval. He is not

slain when the body is slain. (II. 20)

This piece of advice, often enough misconstrued by the commonsense ap-

proach as an ethical sanction for killing in general, would seem to have a
meaningful function when read in its immediate context. Besides being meant
to remove Arjuna's sorrow and compassion for the kinsmen he is pitted
against, it seems to stress the neutral position of the Self vis-a-vis the gunas
("modes" or "qualities," as they are variously translated); and the gunas,
according to the Gita, are the primary source of one's action in the world. This
is clearly elaborated in chapters XIII and XIV:

He [the "Knower"-the Brahman] appearsto have the qualities of all the senses
and yet is without (any of) the senses, unattached and yet supporting all, free from
the gunas (dispositions of prakrti [Nature]) and yet enjoying them. (XIII. 14)
He who is seated like one unconcerned, unperturbed by the modes, who stands
apart, without wavering, knowing that it is only the modes that act. (XIV. 23)
He who is the same in honour and dishonour and the same to friends and foes, and
who has given up all initiative of action, he is said to have risen above the modes.
(XIV. 25)

The enigma is also resolved from the standpoint of the "relative," by refer-
ence to war for a righteous cause as an obligatory duty of a soldier. In the
context of the Mahabharata epic, the Kuruksetra war is a "lawful battle" for
the Pandavas, and Arjuna, as a member of the warrior class, is asked to con-
sider his duty as a meaningful course of action.

Further, having regard for thine own duty, thou shouldst not falter, there exists
no greater good for a Ksatriya [soldier] than a battle enjoined by duty. (II. 31)
But if thou doest not this lawful battle, then thou wilt fail thy duty and glory and
will incur sin. (II. 33)
The great warriors will think that thou hast abstained from battle through fear and
they by whom thou wast highly esteemed will make light of thee. (II. 35)
Many unseemly words will be uttered by thy enemies, slandering thy strength.
Could anything be sadder than that? (II. 36)
Treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, then get ready
for battle. Thus thou shall not incur sin. (II. 38)

The foregoing quotation admittedly strengthens Franklin Edgerton's con-

tention9 that the Gita justifies war on one of the lower grounds involving an
9 The Bhagavad Gitt, Part II. Harvard Oriental Series, Vol. 39 (Cambridge,Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1952), vide n. 37, p. 60.

appeal to honor, as also on the ground that if Arjuna avoids battle he will be
guilty of dishonor and disgrace. It needs to be noticed, though, that the in-
junction to fight is also justified later on higher levels, and one of these is by
reference to the soldierly commitment to the social code as a moral duty-as a
ritualistic enactment in a spirit of non-attachment and of submission to a
Higher Will.

He who works, having given up attachment,resigning his actions to God, is not

touchedby sin, even as a lotus leaf (is untouched)by water. (V. 10)
The soul earnest (or devoted) attains to peace well-founded,by abandoningat-
tachmentto the fruit of works, but he whose soul is not in union with the Divine
is impelledby desire, and is attachedto the fruit (of action) and is (therefore)
bound. (V. 12)

The association of "duty" (dharma) with righteous action is a recurring

theme of the Gitd. This theme is better understood in terms of the Gita-concept
of "duty" (dharma) as something related not only to one's station in life, but
also to the dominant guna in one's nature.10

Serenity,self-control,austerity,purity,forbearanceand uprightness,wisdom,knowl-
edge and faith in religion, these are the duties of the Brahmin,born of his nature.
(XVIII. 42)
Heroism, vigour, steadiness,resourcefulness,not fleeing even in a battle, generosity
and leadership,these are the duties of a Ksatriya born of his nature. (XVIII. 43)

With its connotations of obligatory action in its social and supra-social terms
of meaning, "duty" as defined in the Gitd is not just a categorical imperative
but is also, in a broader sense, a non-attached enactment of a "pure action,"
performed to further the evolution of one's inner self as well as the fellow
spirits in a given social order. The Gita has also formulated what constitutes
a "pure action" as distinguished from an action motivated merely by "passion."

10 For a fuller discussion of the Hindu social order in its earlier essential aspects and
for its universal relevance, see Radhakrishnan'sEastern Religions and Western Thought
(London: Oxford University Press, 1940), pp. 349-378. A brief reference to Radhakrish-
nan's commentsin his translationof the Gita (pp. 364-365) might clarify what I have been
constrained to state briefly in my argument. "Each individual has his inborn nature,
svabhava,and to make it effective in his life is his duty, svadharma.Each individual is a
focus of the Supreme,a fragment of the Divine. His destiny is to bring out in his life this
divine possibility. ... If each individual . .. follows the law of his being, his svadharma,
then God would express himself in the free volitions of human beings. All that is essential
for the world will be done without a conflict. ... So long as our work is done in accor-
dance with our nature, we are righteous, and if we dedicate it to God, our work becomes
a means of spiritual perfection. . . . Arjuna is told that he who fights gallantly as a
warrior becomes mature for the peace of wisdom."

An action which is obligatory, which is performedwithout attachment,without

love or hate by one undesirousof fruit, that is said to be of "goodness."(XVIII. 23)
But that action which is done in great strain by one who seeks to gratify his desires
or is impelledby self-sense is said to be of the nature of "passion."(XVIII. 24)

It is thus in relation to the agent, righteous duty and the ideal of non-attach-
ment, that the classification of action as pure or passionate is made. The same
ideal of non-attachment also governs the division of the agents into three
kinds: the sattvic (good), the rajasic (passionate), and the tamasic (dull or
ignorant). The sattvic doer who achieves a measure of freedom from self-
motivation and desires represents the normative ideal among the three kinds
of agents:

The doer who is free from attachment,who has no speech of egotism, [sic] full of
resolutionand zeal and who is unmovedby success or failure-he is said to be of
the nature of "goodness."(XVIII. 26)
The doer who is swayedby passion,who eagerly seeks the fruit of his works, who
is greedy, of harmfulnature, impure,who is moved by joy and sorrow-he is said
to be of "passionate"nature. (XVIII. 27)

At the very basis of the leitmotif of non-attachment are two fundamental

assumptions, the transcending nature of the inner self in relation to the gunas
on the one hand, and the limitations that hedge all actions on the other hand,
in the created world-order of the gunas. The ultimate ideal held up is the
beyond-ethic state of self-realization-the state in which the human soul tran-
scends the temporal chain of action and being by realizing its affinity with the
Supreme Self.

The three modes (gunas) goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and dullness (tamas)
born of nature (prakrti) bind down in the body, O mighty-armed(Arjuna), the
imperishabledweller [soul] in the body. (XIV. 5)
When the seer perceivesno agent other than the modes, and knows also that which
is beyondthe modes,he attains to My being. (XIV. 19, italics added)
When the embodiedsoul rises above these three modes that spring from the body,
it is freed from birth, death, old age and pain and attains life eternal. (XIV. 20)

Leading up to this state is the discipline of action and work (karma-yoga)

which, whether it is agreeable or disagreeable, defiling or liberating, every
embodied spirit has to go through. Insofar as all actions are "defective" from
the standpoint of the Absolute, there is no getting away from action as such
for any created being. Disinterested performance of one's duty and action,

however, contributes toward the right kind of self-knowledge and fulfillment,

as also to the maintenance of the social order:

It is indeed impossible for any embodiedbeing to abstain from work altogether.

But he who gives up the fruit of action-he is said to be the relinquisher.(XVIII.
One shouldnot give up the work suited to one's nature, O Son of Kunti (Arjuna),
though it may be defective, for all enterprises are clouded by defects as fire by
smoke. (XVIII. 48, italics added)

The emphasis then is not on the renunciation of duty or works as such, but
the renunciation of only their underlying causes-selfish desires or passions.
This makes for illumination and liberation of the spirit. The ideal doer of the
sattvic kind will attain this transcendent wisdom-and freedom from the sense
of defilement-if he performs his duties by perceiving a higher reality and
purpose behind all actions:

Verily the renunciationof any duty that ought to be done is not right. ... (XVIII.
He who gives up a duty because it is painful or from fear of physical suffering,
performsonly the relinquishmentof the "passionate"kind... (XVIII. 8)
But he who performsa prescribedduty as a thing that ought to be done, renounc-
ing all attachmentand also the fruit-his relinquishmentis regardedas one of
"goodness."(XVIII. 9)
The wise man who renounces, whose doubts are dispelled, whose nature is of
goodness, has no aversion to disagreeableaction and no attachmentto agreeable
action. (XVIII. 10)

From the foregoing discussion it should be obvious that, with its focus on
the relation of the individual doer to the outer world and the inward self, the
Gita does not see any conflict between action and spiritual integrity. Basic to
its theme and message is its well-known insistence that conformity to the
social code or ritual is not necessarily incompatible with the realization of the
inner shape of greatness. The way of social participation is only complementary
(and not antithetical) to the way of contemplation or renunciation, for both
have the same ultimate end in view: the identity of the individual self with the
cosmic or Supreme Self (Brahman):

The status which is obtainedby men of renunciationis reached by men of action

also. He who sees that the ways of renunciationand of action are one-he sees
(truly). (V. 5, italics added)

He who is trained in the way of works ... who has conqueredthe senses, whose
soul becomesthe self of all beings, he is not tainted by works, though he works.
(V. 7)

The ascetic way leads to the above end through a recognition that the spirit
in all of us is above the gunas and the outer world, although apparently at-
tached to them in its embodied form. Even the way of this-worldly partici-
pation also entails a similar recognition: the essential oneness of the individual
core with the core of society and, at the other end of the chain, with the core
of the universe. With the help of this revealed knowledge, that the purposes of
the hero and the saint have an identical end and require alike the subordination
of individual wills to a Higher Will, Arjuna resolves his moral dilemma and
eventually prepares himself for his mission with a new identity and vision.


Facing a similar conflict of choices, Hamlet arrives at similar insights by

the route of the tragic mode of experience, by going through the labyrinth of
doubt, questioning, suffering, and action. An intense experience of reality,
rather than any divine voice, helps him achieve the final perceptions of truth
and wisdom with which he accepts his task in the final part of the play.
At the present stage of Hamlet criticism, it is a fairly established notion that
the problem of reconciling reason with passion is very much at the play's
tragic center. Equally well-recognized is the idea that the play may be read
as an extended metaphor of a paradox-of action explored in its aspect of an
enigma. The enigma is part of Hamlet's consciousness insofar as it happens
to be the central consciousness of the play. Passion and reason, as lately recog-
nized, recur quite often in the drama as two juxtaposed concepts.1 Also of
some significance is the fact that Pyrrhus, early in the play, and Laertes at
a later stage, appear as two versions of revenge as a passionate mode of be-
havior; admittedly, Shakespeare has intended them to counterpoint Hamlet's
behavior-pattern in relation to the revenge code. The other relevant dramatic
fact for our purpose here is Hamlet's admiration of the ideal of moderation, of
a judicious commingling of "blood" and "judgment"-an ideal present in the
background and also adhered to, in part, by the hero at the end.

11This ideahas beenwell developedin J. K. Walton'sessay"TheStructureof Ham-

let,"pp.53-88;it is also not irrelevantto Hunter'sline of argumentin his essay,op. cit.,
p. 96. See also IrvingRibner,Patternsin Shakespearian Tragedy(London:Methuen&

. . . and bless'd are those

Whose blood and judgment are so well co-mingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune'sfinger
To soundwhat stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion'sslave ... (111.2.68-72)

Clearly there is a case for a reading of the play's action as indicating Hamlet's
inner development in a significant direction, a direction in which some sort
of reconciliation is achieved between the two pulls of the human make-up.
And the Hamlet of the last act would seem to achieve a measure of this
How does Hamlet then resolve his uncertainties and arrive finally at some
sort of certitude about his task? This question, relevant to the argument of this
paper, cannot be answered, however, without reference to a vital crux of the
play. That crux is the vexed issue of private revenge, at the center of many a
recent critical evaluation of the play. It has long been usual to regard this issue
as a master theme of the drama and to point up the contradiction between the
revenge-ethic and the Christian ethic as going against the hero's nobility and
the play's profundity of meaning. But, as Professor Sisson and others12 have
convincingly argued, it needs to be remembered that the play "does not fit into
the pattern of pure revenge," and that Hamlet is essentially a "multiple" re-
venger against a "multiple" criminal-a satyr-uncle-murderer-"cutpurse of
the empire." Belleforest's characterization of Hamlet as God's "minister and
executor of just vengeance"13and of Claudius as a despicable tyrant consti-
tutes persuasive external evidence for a proper appreciation of Hamlet's role.
The internal evidence too argues strongly against the view that personal re-
venge is central to the play's theme. The ghost's "multiple" imperative,

Let not the royal bed of Denmarkbe

A couch for luxury and damnedincest .... (1.5.82-83)

together with Hamlet's self-image on two occasions-as one born to set right
the time "out of joint" (1.5.187) and as Heaven's "scourge and minister"
12 See C. J. Sisson, Shakespeare'sTragic Justice (London:Methuen& Co. Ltd.,
1964),p. 67, andAlfredHarbage,As TheyLikedIt (New York: Harper& Bros.,1961),
p. 94. Sissontreats Hamlet'sdilemmaas a problemof justiceagainsta King of power
and quality.AlfredHarbageappliesthe epithet"multiple" not only to Hamlet'srole but
also to Claudiusandeven Hamlet'sdilemma.
13I am quotingfromCapell'stranslation,The Hystorieof Hamblet,as reprintedin
the New VariorumHamlet edition,Vol. II (New York: Dover Publications,1963),
p. 112.I also acknowledge my debthere to an excellentsourcestudyof the play,A. P.
Stabler,"Melancholy, Ambition,and Revengein Belleforest'sHamlet,"PMLA, LXXXI

(III.4.175)-only offers further confirmation of the hero's multiple-avenger

function. Such a conception undercuts the much-debated ethical contradiction
between the two injunctions (the ghostly injunction to revenge and the Bibli-
cal injunction against it), or what is sometimes described as the "muddle of
two moralities." The point of reference to this approach is to provide an ethical
basis for Hamlet's dilemma, primarily a problem of action and justice. In this
view, the inner dialectic of passion-honor-reason would assume its proper sig-
nificance as a basic constituent of the enigma; and Hamlet's progress in this
dialectic is correlative to the resolution of his dilemma.
Some of Hamlet's major soliloquies may be read as pointing up his zigzag
progress in the dialectic of honor. The soliloquy on the occasion of the player's
recitation shows Hamlet aspiring after the passionate ideal of conduct. The
player's enactment of Hecuba's passion, by forcing "his soul so to his own
conceit," is seen as an exemplary mode of behavior full of possibilities:

. . What would he do,

Had he the motiveand the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears.... (II.2.563-565)

The next "To be or not to be ..." soliloquy, however, shows him at the middle
stage of a dilemma; the wider implications of the problem of action, alluded to
earlier in part, are examined in this key soliloquy in the light of "conscience"
(or reason). But in the soliloquy following the playlet, there is a noticeable
veering toward passion at the other end of the scale:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,

When churchyardsyawn and hell itself breathesout
Contagionto this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitterbusinessas the day
Wouldquaketo look on.... (111.2.391-395)

Ironically enough, from this passionate state of readiness for "bitter business"
he relapses, in the prayer-scene soliloquy, into the state of "a neutral to his
will" or "a painted tyrant"-the state of a rugged Pyrrhus stayed for a while
from his "black" purpose by Ilium's crashing "flaming top" (11.2.476-483).
But neither this state of vacillation nor even the earlier state of readiness for
"hot blood" is reached again thereafter. Although ending on a note of resolu-
tion to be "bloody" in thoughts, Hamlet's last soliloquy (the Fortinbras solilo-
quy) does contain certain insights, important for the consideration of his
career in the dialectic of honor:

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,

Lookingbeforeand after, gave us not
That capabilityand godlike reason
To fust in us unus'd.... (III.8.36-39)
. . . Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrelin a straw
When honour's at the stake . . . (111.8.53-56)

Despite the realization that the "excitements" of "blood" and "of reason" are
not incompatible altogether, Hamlet's acceptance of the princely concept of
honor represents at best "a subjective valuation of experience" (cf. Hunter,
op. cit., p. 95). This does not represent, though, the last stage of his progress
in the inner dialectic.
Hamlet's further progress from this stage is better seen in terms of his
career in the fifth act. This development is evident not merely in the cessation
of the inner debate but even in his understanding of reality:

Does it not, thinkthee, standme now upon?

He that hath kill'dmy king, and whor'dmy mother,
Popp'din betweenth' electionand my hopes,
Thrownout his angle for my properlife,
And with such cozenage-is't not perfectconscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (V.2.63-70)

The knowledge that he is up against "this canker of our nature"-ripe in evil

as Claudius's "deep plots" have given proof-reflects the confidence he has
at last acquired in his multiple-avenger role.
This certainty in his task would have remained flawed nonetheless if it had
not been tempered by a "modesty enough" so necessary for a proper heroic
identity. The humility that goes with this certitude is in fact the outcome of a
much larger perspective-a new reliance in Heaven-itself the consequence
of a journey "of exile and return" analogous to an epic-hero experience.14The
much-discussed sea-change in Hamlet is better perceived in terms of the con-
trast between the earlier Hamlet self-image as God's "scourge" and the emer-
gent objective hero-image in the play's final movement. Despite the dissenting
notes of Tillyard, L. C. Knights, and John Vyvyan,l5 the Hamlet of the fifth
14 Harry Levin, The Question of 'Hamlet' (supra, n. 3), p. 94.
15 See Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951),
pp. 15-17; L. C. Knights, op. cit. (supra, n. 2), p. 81; John Vyvyan, op. cit. (supra, n. 2),
"There is no regenerationin the last act," p. 59.

act does seem a regenerate figure in a less religious sense of having attained
to a true heroic identity. The notable change in the hero's mood is at its
clearest in his graveyard meditations.

HAM. To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination
tracethe nobledust of Alexandertill 'a findit stoppinga bunghole?
HOR. 'Twereto considertoo curiously,to considerso.
HAM. No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and
likelihoodto lead it; as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
returnethto dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam
whereto he was converted,might they not stop a beer-barrel?(V.1.208-218).

These ruminations on the "base uses" to which the whole gamut of human
experience ultimately leads reveal, as Maynard Mack has pointed out, not just
a negative concern with the fact of death but a sober perception of "the mys-
tery of life itself"-the "mystery of human limitation."16That a hero should
acquire "modesty enough" is in fact validated by the "noble dust" of Alexander
and "imperious Caesar," the ultimate limit, both affirmatively and negatively,
of the human ambition and achievement. Such an awareness amounts to, in
other words, an acknowledgment of a vaster power than the human will,
which implies not necessarily "a personal defeat,"'7 but a new personal iden-
tity. We need only glance at the oft-quoted passages for confirmation of this

There'sa divinitythat shapesour ends,

Rough-hew them how we will .. . (V.2.10)

... we defy augury; there is special providencein the fall of a sparrow.If it be

now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it
will come: the readinessis all. (V.2.225-226)

It is indeed a far cry from the early self-image as Heaven's Justicer, a self-
righteous identity very much evident in Hamlet's oration to the Danes in
Belleforest. The importance of this confidence in Heaven may be appreciated
when we then realize the circular kind of progression of this insight running
through the familiar words of the player-king, "Our thoughts are ours, their
ends none of our own," back to the not so familiar words of Horatio at the
play's start:
16 Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," Tragic Themes in Western Literature,
Cleanth Brooks, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 57.
17GunnarBoklund, "Judgmentin Hamlet," Essays on Shakespeare,GeraldW. Chap-
man, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 134. "The acceptance of the
purposesof a Power above him implies a personaldefeat...."

HOR. Have after. To what issue will this come?

MAR. Somethingis rotten in the state of Denmark.
HOR. Heaven will direct it. (1.4.89-91)

The fact that this perception looms large in Hamlet's consciousness in the
"interim" before the duel is a significant comment on the mood of "readiness"
in which he finally comes to terms with his dilemma and destiny. And it is a
readiness which offers sharp contrast to the earlier readiness for passionate
revenge. The very process of forcing his disposition into passion is signifi-
cantly absent in this mood of readiness.18
There is nonetheless a danger of overstating the case in regard to Hamlet's
submission to Providence and his relative passivity in the catastrophe. Two
extreme "one-pointed" readings of this aspect of the hero and the play's
denouement have, however, contributed to what looks like an unending
debate. While one line of critical thinking has been disposed to view Hamlet's
submission in terms of the renunciation of a Christian-Stoic hero,l9 the other
extreme critical position has tended to regard it as a fatalistic or desperate
resignation, "the negative balance of mind which the sorely tried may achieve
by accepting the horrors of life as inevitable and natural."20Both the over-
affirmative and too-negative readings constitute an over-simplified evaluation
of what is, basically, an orientation to the mythical norm of heroism, a norm
which emerges in its universal aspects in Joseph Campbell's study of the
composite hero.21
It is in respect to this mythic-heroic submission to the cosmic will that
Hamlet's final coming to terms with his Destiny has its counterpart in
Arjuna's acceptance of his mission. As Campbell well observes, such a spirit
of surrender to the Higher Will is necessary for the archetypal hero if he is
not to lose in the world of flux and action "his centring in the principle of
eternity" (p. 239); if he is to retain, at the same time, the heroic identity
proper without the self-righteous self-image of Heaven's Justicer.

The battle-fieldis symbolicof the field of life, where every creaturelives on the
death of another. A realisationof the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the
heart that, like Hamlet or like Arjuna, one may refuse to go on with it. On the
other hand, like most of the rest of us, one may invent a false, finally unjustified,
18 See Peter Ure, op. cit., p. 27.
19 Irving Ribner, op. cit., pp. 68-82, seems to be predisposed to view the play as a
Christiantragedy and Hamlet as in the process of becoming a Christian-Stoicphilosopher
hero. Hunter, op. cit., p. 101, on the other hand, is of the view that Hamlet's character
has been purposefullydesigned as "a counterblastto the received figure of the Christian-
Stoic hero."
20 GunnarBoklund, "Judgmentin Hamlet," p. 136.
21 Campbell,The Hero with a ThousandFaces (supra, n. 6).

image of oneself as an exceptionalphenomenonin the world, not guilty as others

are, but justified in one's inevitablesinning becauseone representsthe good. Such
self-righteousnessleads to a misunderstanding,not only of oneself but of the nature
of both man andthe cosmos.The goal of the myth is to dispel the need for such life
ignorance by effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the uni-
versal will ... 22

Neither a joyous and self-righteous nor even a fatalistic surrender to the

unknown, Hamlet's final trusting to Providence is to be viewed, then, as a
sober acceptance of the human condition with all its inherent dualities-of
man's dualities, in particular, of angelic "apprehension"and "noble reason," and
also of the other limitations of his being a "quintessence of dust." As the
culminating point of a search for a heroic self-identity, for a certitude about
man in relation to the world of action, Hamlet's resignation sets thus the
framework of evaluation for his progress in the dialectic of honor. Significantly
enough, it is only when he has arrived at this insight of submission that he
finally accomplishes his mission.
It need not be labored how Hamlet's behavior in the duel divagates so
strikingly from the behavior-pattern of a Laertes-revenger. All through the
duel, the range of Hamlet's action remains outside the pale of "passion" or
"deep plots." But the rhythm of action operative during his encounter with
Laertes culminates on a note of false cadence which only extends the duel
on to a more meaningful level. The spirit in which the satyr-king, the back-
ground duellist all through the play, is despatched is evidently human-heroic
rather than saintly:

Here, thou incestuous,murd'rous,damnedDane,

Drink off this potion! Is thy union here? (V.2.328-329)

Rather than regard this as an instance of a capitulation to the "inhuman code

of duty" as Boklund tends to do,23 we might more appropriately consider
it as a subtle and just ritualistic execution of an arch defiler of the state. The
exercise of a certain amount of passion in the service of a just and greater
cause is justifiable as coming closer to the norm of human experience. A
further extenuating factor in favor of Hamlet is the fact that, accomplishing
his mission at the very moment he is himself killed, he measures up to a
tragic sacrificial role or what has been called "his dual role as punisher and

22Ibid., p. 238.
23 Boklund, op. cit., p. 137.

punished."24It is this which makes him, in a sense, the focal point of man's
dual nature.
The dialectic of Honor, then, may be said to culminate with the tragic end
of a conscience-stricken prince. Hamlet meets the "fell sergeant" Death, not
as a saint-prince, but as a soldier-king, having vindicated honor in both its
relative and absolute senses, and having also reconciled in part the dual pulls
of reason and passion in the human make-up. The epilogue speeches of Horatio
and Fortinbras reinforce this impression. The impression is further strength-
ened by our awareness at the end of a vaster design, sustained by a suggestive
analogy in the final lines between the battlefield and the Hamlet-world:

. . . Such a sight as this

Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go bid the soldiersshoot. (V.2.404-406)

It is, in effect, a metaphoric summing up of the tragedy: of a soldierly soul

in this world up against the battle of life. This symbolic image of the soldier
engaged in combat (literally and metaphorically) on the "field" of life, a
Renaissance commonplace metaphor for the human soul, as Helen Gardner
reminds us,25 also has relevance for Arjuna, in that he too suffers a similar
moral anguish on another symbolic battlefield, even though he manages to
survive the resolution of his dilemma.


To sum up, the purpose of this study has been to trace certain common
and significant patterns in the moral enigmas of the two well-known mythical
heroes of East and West. I have attempted to show that Hamlet and Arjuna
seem to be baffled by a similar moral paradox turning on the code of "honor,"
a code that had almost become a ritual for one born into the princely class.
In Helen Gardner's view, Hamlet is the representative European man in
respect to his tragic dilemma and the mode of its resolution:

... Hamlet is the quintessenceof Europeanman, who holds that man is "ordained
to govern the world accordingto equity and righteousnesswith an upright heart,"
and not to renouncethe world and leave it to its corruption.By that conceptionof
man'sduty and destiny he is involvedin those tragic dilemmaswith which our own
24HarryLevin,The Questionof 'Hamlet,'p. 101.See also HaroldJenkins,"Hamlet
ThenandNow,"ShakespeareSurvey18 (Cambridge:Cambridge UniversityPress,1965),
p. 45.
25 Helen Gardner,The Business of Criticism,p. 49.

age is so terribly familiar. For how can man secure justice except by committing
injustice, and how can man act without outraging the very conscience which de-
mands that he should act?26

Arjuna of the Gita, I have tried to demonstrate here, is the analogical heroic
image in the East of a similar "tragic" dilemma as well as the spirit in which
it is sought to be resolved. Evidently the dilemma's universal frame of refer-
ence is related to the basic conflict of dualities in the human situation, a
predicament in which action for securing order and justice means some sort
of involvement in guilt in the absolute sense. We have seen that the way out
of this perplexing tangle the two heroes finally find, in their different ways,
is not by the abandonment of action as such but by a pursuit of it, albeit
with an "upright heart" and without renouncing the world to "its corruption."
It is this near identity of their attitudes vis-a-vis an enduring code of "external
action" that makes them the archetypal images of a heroic dilemma. This
convergence of attitudes reflects, incidentally, the coalescence of certain strands
of thought in the East and the West, in respect to the answers suggested to
the paradox of action underlying the so-called "righteous" wars and revenges
-a paradox we often come up against in our confrontation with man's in-
humanity to man.
26Ibid., p. 50.