Beauty and Dust

According to the conventional plot formula, the forces of good are clearly arrayed against the forces of evil. Good and evil fight; good eventually triumphs. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare created an excellent cast of distasteful characters. The world of Elsinore is one of deception and death, a cesspool of the foulest vices of humankind. What is less clear is which main characters constitute the good side. Unfortunately for convention, Shakespeare takes the traditional "good" roles of the dashing young prince and virginal maiden, and skews them---giving them flaws. Although Hamlet and Ophelia are saved from being one-dimensional, their exposition necessarily reveals baser, more tainted personas. Readers come to recognize that in a corrupt world, the highest virtue is all too susceptible to the great fall; consequently, by the play's end they should feel no admiration for the two tragic lovers - only pity.

At first, readers identify the moral high ground with Hamlet. Though his grieving can be construed as excessive, we recognize in Hamlet a sense of righteousness and supreme humanity. When Gertrude asks Hamlet why his father's death "seems so particular" to him, he cries, "Seems, madam? Nay, it...

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