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Moral Obligation…in Hamlet & a Fetus

By Lulu Eastman, V Form

Moral Obligation…in Hamlet & a Fetus

Hamlet, a Shakespeare play, follows the tragic tale concerning a deeply troubled Danish prince of the same name. Hamlet is forced to confront his traitorous mother and uncle in order to avenge his murdered father, who, as a ghost, has requested Hamlet takes his uncle’s life in order to bring him justice. However, Hamlet is distressed by the thought of committing such a bloody deed. As he wavers through indecision regarding his proposed mission, he also struggles against the drowning weight of his depression, as the toxic environment of the palace causes him to lose faith in the goodness of people. In the novel, Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, the story of the fetus is based off of Hamlet. With the reflective fetus entangled in the plotting of his traitorous mother and uncle, he finds himself in a predicament similar to that of the Danish prince. Although he has yet to even experience life for his own, the fetus has already lost hope for the vitality and decency of humanity. Every moment of his being is spent listening to conversations that only reveal more and more of the villainous and duplicitous ways of his mother and uncle, Trudy and Claude. Both Hamlet and the fetus reach a point where they contemplate committing suicide, as it seems to be the only way to put an end to their pain. However, both decide to live instead. Though both Hamlet and the fetus have cynical views of the world, and both consider suicide, they continue living through their suffering because they have moral obligations, beliefs, and fears that bind them to life.

The play, Hamlet, begins when Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father. He is told that the king was murdered by his own brother, Claudius, a greedy man who succeeded in usurping the throne and stealing his brother’s wife, Queen Gertrude. The ghost of the king, unable to divulge his sins before his passing, has been eternally trapped in purgatory due to the malevolence of his sibling. Thus, the apparition provides Hamlet with a weighty task: He is to  achieve vengeance for his sorrowful father by murdering Claudius. The idea of such a brutal task may not incite any hesitation for an individual motivated by righteous anger, however, Hamlet is an introverted philosopher, not a bloodthirsty killer. To be charged with such a burden only contributes to his torments. Hamlet is a severely depressed man, harrowed by the treachery of his mother and uncle, suffocating under the weight of his pessimistic surroundings. His “deeply passionate nature is complemented by a relentlessly logical intellect, which works furiously to find a solution to his misery” (Hamlet). Hamlet reaches the point where his vision has become so clouded with grief that he ceases to see the point in living, to see any reason to suffer through such a miserable and calloused existence. He asks himself, “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time…when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” (Shakespeare 3.1.71-77). Hamlet desperately grasps to understand: What is the point in living, bearing “the whips and scorns of time”,  and enduring mortal suffering when one could easily end their life, and potentially all their pain? Hamlet is so tired of being, weary of torment, he wishes nothing more than to embrace the quiet numbness of the afterlife, the “solution to his misery” (Hamlet). However, he is unable to put an end to his pitiful life, as he has yet to deal with the affairs that chain him to his mortal existence. He is unable to commit suicide because he knows he must avenge his father. If Hamlet were to leave his life behind, there would be no one left to seek justice for the murder of the king, and Claudius would rule Denmark without a shred of trepidation or guilt. Akin to his father, Hamlet is trapped within his own purgatory, unable to seek refuge in the peace of the afterlife, while also unable to conquer the blights that plague and torment him as he lives.

In Nutshell, the fetus is conscious of his surroundings through his keen auditory senses as well as his remarkable perceptive abilities. Thus, as it unfolds before him, he is dangerously aware of the vile plot to murder his father, constructed by his mother and uncle, Trudy and Claude. The fetus sometimes feels unloved and betrayed by his mother, to whom he is so devoted. Helpless in his situation and hopeless towards the world he is fated to live in, the existence of the fetus is riddled with afflictions. Due to his dire situation, as well as his fiery hatred for his murderous uncle, the fetus considers and almost goes through with his suicide. He reasons, “to be stillborn -a tranquil term purged of tragedy- has a simple allure” (McEwan 127). The “simple allure” being that to kill himself would swiftly end all his pain and worries. Wrapping the umbilical cord around his neck, the fetus crafts himself a makeshift noose. However, as the life drains from his body, he ends up backing out of his attempt, as he decides that killing himself would not suffice towards getting revenge on Claude. If he were to end his existence before leaving the womb, his father’s death would be only “half avenged” (McEwan 127).  His unfinished business is to exact revenge upon his uncle, and he can only do this properly if he remains living. Despite his desperate wishes to end his suffering, the fetus is bound to his life by the vengeance he owes his father.

Both Hamlet and the fetus are profound thinkers, suffering by the hands of murderers and treachery. They contemplate the significance of life and question why human beings suffer through the drudgery and pain of existence when they could easily end their misery. United by their desires to end the anguish life provides, both consider suicide as a way to escape the cold realities that ceaselessly torment them. However, they also share a common moral obligation. Hamlet and the fetus both feel that they owe justice for their fathers, by ending Claude the way he heartlessly ended his own brother. Thus, when they reach the moment of decision, the chance to end their hardships, they hesitate. If they are dead, who will provide their fathers with peace? Who will tell their story? Hamlet and the fetus both know the answer to this inquiry. Nobody would. And there befalls the dilemma. Hamlet and the fetus are both compassionate creatures, both impelled by their moral obligations. They are unable to abandon life, as they both have a sense of virtue that renders them unable to forsake the task of avenging their fathers.

The protagonists from both Hamlet and Nutshell display an aspect of human character possessed by most people. This facet is moral obligation. It is something that plays a part in almost every person’s life, the degree to which depending on the values of the person. Whether it is a feeling of responsibility towards an individual, a larger cause, or even one’s own self, the sway of a moral commitment is potent. When one feels a strong sense of duty, debt, or guilt towards something or someone, it can change his or her life entirely, for the better or worse. Humans are ultimately governed by our emotions. At times, these obligations that stem from our personal values can hold us back from achieving what we want the most. Hamlet and the fetus both desired to break away from the pain life inflicted upon them. However, due to the liability they feel towards avenging their fathers, they repress their desires and instead continue to live, writhing in pain, in order to fulfill their function. Hamlet succeeds in this task, but as for the fetus, the book ends and he remains just as helpless as he was in his mother’s womb. The obligations we create for ourselves can prevent us from fulfilling what we truly desire. Perhaps Hamlet and the fetus would have ultimately been better off if they had succeeded in their self-destructive endeavors. Perhaps they would not. It is impossible to know. However, when Hamlet and the fetus decide they must continue living, they irreversibly alter not only their fates, but the fates of those they touched by continuing to exist as well. By remaining alive, Hamlet is able to fulfill the request of his father and murders his uncle, but at the cost of not only his life but his mother’s as well. The fetus still is not old enough to exact revenge, however, he carries the dormant potential to do so. In the meantime, he presents an undeniable liability for his mother. Both Hamlet and the fetus irreversibly alter the stories they inhabit due entirely to their unwavering values and the inescapable liabilities which they present.

Lulu Eastman is V Form boarding student from Winchester, MA.  She loves art: particularly painting and pencil drawings. 






Works Cited

“Hamlet: Important Quotations Explained.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.

McEwan, Ian (. Nutshell. London: Jonathan Cape, 2016. Print.

Swerner. “Hamlet.” Folger Shakespeare Library. N.p., 02 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.


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