The Ten Commandments

The impact of the Commandments

Moses and the Ten CommandmentsIn Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the prophet Moses was given by God Ten Commandments which summed up the laws by which humans should live.

  • These commandments were often written up on the walls of Christian churches, thus they would be very familiar to Shakespeare's audience
  • In addition, the Ten Commandments would be recited by the priest and people during the service of holy communion held each Sunday (see Themes and significant ideas: Mass and Holy Communion).

Three in particular of the Ten Commandments are central to the plot of Hamlet: numbers five, six and seven. (Number nine — ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour' may also be seen as significant in Hamlet — see Themes and significant ideas: False appearances). For further information see Big ideas: Ten Commandments

Respecting parents

Commandment five is:

  • ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.'

Hamlet is in a particularly difficult situation here. He believes his mother has dishonoured his father:

How can he therefore show respect to both his father and his mother?

More on Greek echoes: This is an echo of the famous Oresteian Trilogy of plays by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in which Orestes is called upon to avenge the murder of his father — but, as the killer is his mother, Orestes cannot do his duty by both.

Hamlet contains four examples of children who feel compelled by filial duty — that is, the duty of a child to his or her parents:

  • Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras all feel compelled to avenge their fathers
  • Ophelia, as a female, has a different kind of duty; she is required more passively to obey her father's will.

For further information see Big ideas: Parents and children.

Murder and suicide

The sixth commandment is:

  • ‘Thou shalt not kill.'

Clearly Claudius is guilty of breaking this commandment, and also of inducing Laertes to do so. By killing Polonius, Hamlet also becomes guilty.


‘Self-slaughter' as Hamlet calls it, is not separately forbidden by the Ten Commandments but was held by the Christian Church to be a sin, since killing oneself is just as much taking away a God-given life as killing someone else.

  • In Act I scene ii Hamlet feels that he would be acting against God's commandments (or ‘canon') if he committed suicide:‘Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!'

Those who committed suicide were thought to have died in sin and to have offended against the laws of God.

  • In his soliloquy ‘To be or not to be' in Act III scene i, Hamlet muses that it is the fear of the after-life which prevents him from using suicide as a way to escape the miseries of the world:
‘For who would bear the whips and scorns of time …
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? …
But that the dread of something after death —
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns — puzzles the will.'
  • The same view of suicide is what motivates the priest in Act V scene i to deny Ophelia the full rites of Christian burial, since she is thought to have committed suicide. Even the scant ceremonies she has are only because the king has so commanded:
‘Her death was doubtful,
And but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet ...
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her

Condemnation of suicide is yet another example of the fact that Hamlet is set in a Christian world.

More on a pagan view of suicide: When Shakespeare sets his plays in the ancient Roman world where pagan gods are worshipped, his characters follow an altogether different moral code and set of beliefs, and suicide is seen as a noble act. In Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, for example, to kill oneself is depicted as the duty of an honourable man. Antony, having been defeated in battle, and seeing his servant Eros commit suicide, feels that this is the right course of action:

‘Thrice nobler than myself!
Thou teachest me, O valiant Eros, what I should ... ... I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.'

And in Julius Caesar, the defeated Brutus knows that suicide is the right course of action for a noble Roman:

‘Our enemies have beat us to the pit,
It is more worthy to leap in ourselves
Than tarry till they push us …
Hold thou my sword-hilts while I run on it.'

This is a totally different view from that depicted in the Christian universe of Hamlet where suicide invites eternal damnation.


The seventh commandment is:

  • ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery'.

Nowadays adultery is usually held to mean ‘the action of a married person who has sexual relations with someone other than their lawful spouse.' However, Christian theologians extended the meaning of the term since, in the Bible, in Matthew 5:27-28, Christ points out that the desire to commit adultery is as much a sin as the act itself:

‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery'. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.'

By this interpretation, Claudius committed adultery with Gertrude whether or not they had sexual intercourse before the death of Old Hamlet.

Because of these two possible interpretations of the word ‘adultery', and because there is no evidence either way in the play (for example, Gertrude is never given a soliloquy in which she might have revealed her thoughts and actions) we never know for certain whether Gertrude was unfaithful to Old Hamlet before his death, nor whether she connived with Claudius at the murder:

  • The Ghost describes how Claudius ‘won to his shameful lust / The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen,'
  • For Hamlet and the Ghost, Gertrude's hasty second marriage, and to a brother-in-law, is in itself seen as ‘shameful'
  • The play ‘The Mousetrap', if a deliberate echo of the situation in Elsinore, shows a queen ‘won to lust' after the death of her husband.

What is clear is that the Ghost and Hamlet regard the relationship as deeply immoral:

  • In Act I scene v the Ghost describes Claudius as ‘that incestuous, that adulterate beast'
  • Hamlet's vision of Claudius and Gertrude's relationship (Act III scene iv) is that they live:
‘In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty.'
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