Moral Decline in Hamlet and the Importance Term Paper

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¶ … Moral Decline in Hamlet and the Importance of Being Earnest

Moral decline' is a term normally used to describe a particular state of the human society at a certain moment in time, characterized by a general slackening of the ethical principles and by spiritual degeneracy. When certain moral values are either ignored or deliberately flaunted, the notions of good and evil become problematic and a social crisis might ensue. The two plays in which the moral decline will be analyzed are William Shakespeare's the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Oscar Wilde's the Importance of Being Earnest. Both of these plays discuss the theme of human condition and analyze the moral state of the 'modern' society, although at two very different moments in time, the Renaissance and the end of the Victorian Age. In spite of the major differences in setting, location in time, and tone, the two plays portray the moral decline of the society and reach a similar conclusion about humanity: the trivial side of human nature usually prevails over the spiritual, ethical one.

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the state of moral decline of the society at the Court of Denmark is the main focus. Denmark is meant to figure, of course, the larger, universal context of man. The plot is somewhat simple: Hamlet is called upon to revenge (morally) the death of his father. The appearance of the ghost of the murdered king in the first act is already a sign of the moral direction in which the play goes: a dead spirit comes back to claim justice. Thus, Hamlet's own ideas about the world and about man, which are essentially idealist, meet with an obvious obstacle in the material world, where he sees the baseness of character of both his uncle and his mother who are capable of murder, adultery and duplicity. All of Hamlet's famous soliloquies oppose the idealist and the actual, real view of man as an immoral and trivial creature. The main statement about the moral decline of society is given by Shakespeare himself in his well-known line, "There is something rotten in Denmark"(Ham. I. iv. 67)

Term Paper on Moral Decline in Hamlet and the Importance Assignment

The Importance of Being Earnest is a witty play, with a plot that rounds up to ensure the transmission of its main message. The main characters are the two young men, Ernest or John and Algernon. Each of them invents a fictive double for himself, another identity that would help them do such things as the society would not permit. John invents himself a wicked brother named Ernest, and Algernon a sick and invalid friend called Bunbury, from which he derives a term called "bunburying." These counterparts best represent the idea that man has a double nature, and that he can not fit within the moral and social standards of society.

The pun on the name earnest and its main significance, "seriousness," is the main idea that Wilde gives of the suppression of morality: principles and values once held in importance are no longer taken seriously, and men are inclined to reserve themselves only for the trivial aspects of life. The subtitle of the play "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" indicates the author's play on the words and the meanings of moral triviality or earnestness.

Thus, both of the two plays point in the first place to the fact that the main preoccupations of man are in no way spiritual or moral, but rather material and limited. In Hamlet, Shakespeare shows that man is nothing else than a beast, in spite of the Renaissance humanism that proclaimed him to be a work of art. The main concerns of men are limited to their strictly material needs. The flaw here is clearly a moral one, because Hamlet observes that man is endowed with "godlike reason," but that his ethical structure is not strong enough to put it to use:

How all occasions do inform against me, / and spur my dull revenge. What is a man / if his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse,/Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason/to fust in us unus'd. [...]" (Ham. IV.iv.32-39)

In the Importance of Being Earnest the characters are also either preoccupied with trivial matters (like Algernon and his passion for eating) or concerned with absurd 'rules' about manners or ideas, that seem to have replaced all moral principles. One example would be the specific rule that Algernon provides for eating muffins, something that can not be done in an agitated manner according to him:

Algernon. Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them."(Wilde, 2000, p. 563)

If the flesh seems to overpower the spirit, it is not only a sign of triviality but of actual immorality as well, and of giving in into temptation and pleasure. Hamlet expresses his disgust for the flesh in many ways, up to the point that he despises both his mother and Ophelia for being frail and immoral in their behavior. The immoral society in which there is no distinction between good and evil is termed by him as an " unweeded garden." The weeds are clearly the seeds of immorality and baseness that he sees planted in the character of every person. The garden metaphor also indicates the sway of nature, of the animal side of man over the noble side, his spirituality. Everything is then "unprofitable," that is lacking any ethical or intellectual value:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, / Seem to me all the uses of this world! / Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely. That it should come to this!"(I.ii. 135-139)

The same argument is continued all through the play, and Hamlet's famous wavering between to be or not to be shows that he considers suicide as an alternative to the depraved life that he sees around him. The moral duplicity is one of the most important problems in the play, as the queen and the Claudius pretend to be virtuous and to mourn Hamlet's father:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, / With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,-/O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power / So to seduce! -- won to his shameful lust / the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen: / O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there / From me, whose love was of that dignity / That it / went hand in hand even with the vow / I made to her in marriage, and to decline / Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor / to those of mine!"(Ham. I. v. 47-57)

The adultery itself is the moral issue that Hamlet most broods on, even more than on the crime itself, as Hamlet sees his mother's frailty as the greatest sin. This points to the fact that men are capable of virtuous feelings but that they are too inconstant to hold on to them. The relaxing of the moral principles is seen like something done consciously, deliberately and therefore the guilt is even bigger. Hamlet focuses thus on very serious signs of immorality, like crime and adultery, and open a problematic on the solutions that could be given for these issues, like revenge or mere indifference.

In Wilde's play, the relaxing of moral principles is quite intentional on the part of the author himself, as he believed that the only true way to interpret life would be from an aesthetic point-of-view, and not from a moral one. According to him, truth is not simple and in any case is not moral. Morality in itself is boring, according to Algernon:

Algernon. The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!"(Wilde, 2000, p. 511)

Nevertheless, Wilde does paint the same portrait of the immoral society, only his main contentment regards the triviality of society in its decline, which does not take anything seriously anymore:

Jack. When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. it's one's duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one's health or one's happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple. Algernon: I love scrapes. They are the only thing that is not serious."(Wilde, 2000, p. 511)

Wilde advocates thus that the lack of earnestness is… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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