Nature and the unnatural

The nature of humanity

Throughout Hamlet Shakespeare makes us question the nature of humanity:

More on the nature of humanity: Shakespeare considers this in many plays. In Macbeth the protagonist claims, ‘I dare do all that may become [suit] a man', and King Lear sees that, without human feeling and sympathy, mankind is merely ‘a poor, bare, forked animal'.

When Hamlet makes his first remark —

‘A little more than kin and less than kind'

‘kind' means far more than ‘pleasant'. It means ‘of the same type'. Hamlet feels that he does not share the same nature as Claudius — and this is well before Hamlet has been told of his father's murder.

Distorted natures

  • Hamlet feels (Act I scene iv) that some people are born with defective characters:
‘So oft it chances in particular men,
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth – wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin — ….
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, being nature's livery ...
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.'
  • Hypocritically, Claudius begins (Act I scene ii) by telling the courtiers that although he has felt the ‘natural' grief expected when a brother dies, he has put the welfare of the state (and his own desires) first:
    ‘So far hath discretion fought with nature …'
  • Later, Hamlet tells his mother that custom and habit can change our characters for good or bad:
    ‘Use can almost change the stamp of nature.'

Unnatural behaviour

  • When the Ghost appears, he confirms that he has died because of a ‘foul and most unnatural murder',
  • At the end of the play Horatio sums up what has happened: ‘Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts.'

Behaving unnaturally, in a way that is below the level that should be appropriate for the nature of humans (see Imagery and symbolism: The chain of being) makes us like animals:

  • The Ghost describes Claudius as an ‘adulterous beast' (Act I scene v)
  • Hamlet knows that
    ‘a beast, that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer'
    than his mother
  • He sums up these feelings about the nature of mankind in Act IV scene iv:
‘What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.'
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