The Fall and original sin

All tainted

Adam and EvieOnce Eve had eaten the fruit, she offered some to Adam and he also ate some, disobeying God's command not to. Before this they had both been innocent (i.e. not nocent; ‘nocent' means guilty or harmful). Now they had committed sin — an offence against the laws of God.

  • As this is the first sin in the Bible, it is also known as ‘original sin'
  • Since all human beings are, according to the Book of Genesis, descended from Adam and Eve, all humans share this ‘original sin'.

The descent from original innocence to sin, because of the actions of Adam and Eve, is also called ‘The Fall of humankind' or simply ‘The Fall'.

More on the Fall: Writers have sometimes depicted it as a physical fall down through the air, like the classical story of Icarus falling after trying to fly too high. It is referred to in this way, for example in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man.

Cleansing from sin

Christians believe that original sin can be forgiven by the grace of God and symbolically washed away by baptism. Baptism is a ritual washing which symbolises the removal of sin.

More on baptism: In Matthew 3, John the Baptist is shown baptising people who had repented of their sins.

The idea of water as a symbolic as well as literal purifying agent is what Claudius is referring to in Act III scene iii when he asks himself:

‘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?'

(See Themes and significant ideas: Grace; Mercy and forgiveness.)

All are sinners

There are several places in Hamlet where the audience is reminded that, because of their human nature, all are affected by original sin and are sinners.

  • In Act II scene ii Hamlet tells Polonius to look after the players and see they are ‘well used' (i.e. well taken care of). Polonius replies that he will ‘use them according to their desert', but Hamlet retorts:
‘God's bodkin [i.e. God's body], man, much better. Use every man according to his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?'
  • Despite the excellent qualities of Old Hamlet, the Ghost still has to spend time in purgatory (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement, and also Mercy and forgiveness) and refers in Act I scene v to
    ‘The foul crimes done in my days of nature'.
    This does not mean that Old Hamlet had committed what we today would call ‘foul crimes', but that he had committed sins against God's law
  • Similarly, in Act III scene iii when Hamlet speaks of his father, who was murdered when he was
    ‘full of bread, With all his crimes broad blown',
    Hamlet means that his father had not had time to pray and repent.

For further information see Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.