The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0617 Wednesday, 29 March 2000.
From: David Bishop <
Date: Tuesday, 28 Mar 2000 14:49:21 -0500
Subject: 11.0599 Re: Oxymorons
Comment: Re: SHK 11.0599 Re: Oxymorons
As I understand Hamlet, several oxymorons play pivotal roles in the
play. They work in similar ways.
I'm writing a book called Hamlet's Clashing Ideals, where the three
ideals that clash, in this young idealist, are called the heroic ideal,
which demands revenge, the patriotic ideal, which demands respect for
the king and the state, and the Christian ideal, which forbids personal
revenge. In this light, "craven scruple" is an oxymoron because a real
moral scruple, which inhibits a supposedly heroic action, cannot really
be craven, except from the heroic point of view. But the heroic point of
view denies the possibility of a scruple.
"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all" dislocates the mind in the
same way. To fear damnation can't be cowardly because to be cowardly is
to shrink from noble action. To shrink from damnation is to shrink from
committing a sin. For a Christian, to fear God cannot be cowardly.
Laertes' "I dare damnation" is the mirror image of the "craven scruple".
Laertes can't take hell seriously, at high heroic heat, but his "daring
damnation" shows something of what Hamlet, with his deeper moral
imagination, is afraid of. The fear of God can't be cowardly, unless you
don't really, at least at that moment, believe in God.
Hamlet's reason for not killing Claudius in the prayer scene, and his
plan to do it later, so as to damn him, might also be called oxymoronic.
The oxymoron is what he pictures as "Christian revenge". He portrays
himself as a hero intent on ultimate revenge, and at the same time as a
fully believing Christian, for whom damnation is perfectly real, even
These oxymorons show Hamlet's clashing ideals grinding against each
other like tectonic plates. You can't be craven and scrupulous, cowardly
and conscientious, at the same time. Hamlet tries to deny the disturbing
fact that his ideals clash, and that belief in one simultaneously begets
doubt in the others.