Mercy and forgiveness

Changing emphasis

The Bible clearly states that God, who created the world and entrusted its care to humankind, will judge all according to the way they have lived. The Old Testament frequently shows God punishing individuals for sinful behaviour. However, both the Old Testament and the New Testament also show God offering mercy and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even when individuals or nations have previously ignored and refused to obey him. In the New Testament, God's love is emphasised as he is shown sending his son Jesus to die on the cross, making the sacrifice necessary to wipe out, or redeem, people's sins and making forgiveness and a new start available to all.

Confession and repentance

In order to gain forgiveness, individuals need to recognise their failure to live in obedience to God, confess their sins, and repent (turn their back on that way of living), thus accepting the forgiveness and new life made possible through the death of Jesus on the cross. In response to true repentance, God will wash away all guilt of sin.

  • Claudius knows this. In Act III scene iii he says:

    ‘What if this cursed hand
    Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
    Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
    To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
    But to confront the visage of offence? …
    Try what repentance can. What can it not?'

    The audience would realise that this is a direct echo of Isaiah 1:18:

    Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. AV.

    However, while he knows about the power of repentance, Claudius cannot bring himself to feel sorrow for the murder of his brother, or turn away from what he has done, because he still wants to hold on to what he has gained as a result: the throne of Denmark, and Gertrude as his queen. So, although there is nothing that true repentance cannot achieve in the way of forgiveness, ‘Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?'
  • The same call to confession and repentance is made by Hamlet to Gertrude when, in Act III scene iv he confronts his mother with the sin of her relationship with Claudius:

    ‘Confess yourself to heaven
    Repent what's past, avoid what is to come.

  • In the same scene Hamlet, having mistakenly killed Polonius, says:

    ‘For this same lord I do repent.'

  • At the end of the play, when he has poisoned Hamlet, Laertes requests:

    ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
    Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
    Nor mine on thee.'
More on exchanging forgiveness: The words ‘exchange forgiveness' would have had a particular significance for Shakespeare's audience. The most well-known prayer of Christianity is known as ‘The Lord's Prayer' given by Christ. In it Christians are told that they must forgive others as they are forgiven by God for their own sins. (Matthew 6:12).
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