One of my favorite things about literature, and there are many, is that it serves as a mirror for us as humans. After all, “we read to know we are not alone” ~ C.S. Lewis. We are not alone in the human condition. Unfortunately, while that elysian mirror can show us our strengths, our power, and our beauty, it also shows us our faults, our selfishness, and our depravity. A meaningful work of literature, like a pure mirror, cannot extol the strengths without illuminating the flaws. As is so in Hamlet. The other fascinating quality about this mirror is that it is universal. The acute social commentary of revered works like Wuthering Heights, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Great Gatsby remain impeccably relevant to present society just as much as they were to their own paternal decades, albeit from a slightly different angle. Though perhaps that says more about humans and culture than it does about literature.
Through King Claudius’ Cain-and-Able betrayal of his brother, Shakespeare’s Hamlet acts as a mirror to human greed, reflecting the selfishness of human nature. The ghost of the king tells Hamlet of Claudius’ “shameful lust [that won] The will of the most seeming-virtuous queen” (I.iv.52-53). The ghost condemns his brother’s motives as shameful and foul, and illuminates the man’s character as soured by greed. In addition, the queen’s honor has also been tainted by her greed and lust, as she fell to Claudius’ intentions. While she was once considered virtuous, especially by the one who loved her dearly, she is now defiled and dishonorable. Instead of retaining her virtue and faithfulness, Gertrude gave in to the lure of greed and its glittering, beguiled promises, even though it made her traitorous.
Claudius’ labored confession further exposes the depraved power greed can hold over the human heart. He anguishes that his repentance “cannot be, since [he] is still possessed/ Of those effects for which [he] did the murder” (III.iii.57-58). His greed and unrelenting desire for the crown, his ambition, and the queen prevent him from repenting of a sin which he himself admits to be most rank and condemned. He sacrifices immensely to satiate his greed: his clear conscience, his moral standing, and his relationship with his nephew, to name a few.
Shakespeare shamelessly and tangibly illustrates human nature’s capacity for greed through multiple characters: the greed of Claudius, killing his brother for his wife and crown, the greed of the ghost, sacrificing Hamlet for his revenge, the greed of Gertrude, turning a blind eye to her husband so quickly. Shakespeare condemns the raving power of selfishness, driven by lust or greed. But this raving power is mirrored in present culture. How often do we sacrifice for selfish desire? How often do politicians sacrifice honesty, kindness, and selflessness for their own personal gain or the downfall of a rival? These defenders of the people betray and slander and smile for money, prestige, or ambition. How often do we ourselves sacrifice empathy for our own personal interest? Compassion or understanding for ego and gain? We give backhanded compliments for personal pleasure, and call it kindness. We inconvenience and selfishly demand of others, and call it love. We talk to and help others only to gain a favor for ourselves, and call it respect. We take advantage of others’ pain to present our own need for attention, and call it sympathy. Greed is indifferent; it plays with people’s hearts, both offender and victim. Although our own greed may not lead to murder, its sins are just as condemnable as those of Claudius.