The Trials of the Noble Savage as Mentioned by Rousseau
The Trials of the Noble Savage
To analyze society and its effects on human life is common among writers, and Shakespeare is no exception. In Hamlet, Shakespeare often comments on the decay that the Danish society is facing, but could he be saying more than just this? Could be he saying that not only is something “rotten in the state of Denmark”, but in all states (I, iv, 90)? From his play, the conclusion can be drawn that human beings are, by nature, good; however, the conditions and expectations that society put on them cause them to be evil. Three of characters from Hamlet demonstrate this point with particular power, those characters being Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia.
The proposed thesis is deeply rooted in the ideologies of the Romantic period, and so, to fully understand the ideas put forward by the thesis, they must investigate these ideologies. While Romanticism was, by its nature, not a fully unified movement (due to the individualistic aspect of the movement), there still existed a number of commonalities between Romantic works (Head). The cornerstones of Romanticism include uninhibited emotionalism, individualism, and viewing nature as a model for harmony (to name a few) (Brians).
To acquire an understanding of the topic, the Romantic philosophies that must be evaluated more deeply are those on nature, specifically, that of the “Noble Savage.” The idea of the Noble Savage is first mentioned in Rousseau’s essay, A discourse on the origin of inequality among men, and it is here that the connection between Romanticism and society leading to the evils of men (Bate). The Romantics revered the Noble Savage, a being untouched by society, as they believed that only the Noble Savage could be a truly good being (Bate). The Romantics’ opinion on this matter was largely formed due to the evil that they saw in society, as the society at the time repressed individualism and emotionalism, which were highly valued among Romantics (Aers). The idea, therefore, is that in becoming the Noble Savage, one frees oneself from society’s grip, allowing for true goodness.
The first character from Hamlet that is evil when subjected to society, but good in a natural state, is Claudius. Claudius first proves his evil when subjected to society when he murders his own brother, Hamlet Sr., to take his queen and his crown. Claudius himself admits “[his] offence is rank,” however, this murderous deed has its roots in conditions created by the society that Claudius lives in (III, iii, 36). Due to the fact that one may only gain kingship through the current king’s death, Claudius is lead to murdering Hamlet Sr. as a method of earning the throne. The evil within Claudius is also revealed in his untruthful and deceitful methods used during his reign as King of Denmark. A prime example of this is when he and Polonius spy on Hamlet’s encounter with Ophelia in the Great Hall, claiming “that seeing unseen, / [they] may of [Hamlet and Ophelia’s] encounter frankly judge” (III, i, 33-34). This tendency for deceit that can be seen in Claudius can be attributed to the expectations that society has of him as the King. Specifically, the fact that he is required to control potentially volatile situations, and the expectation that he maintain a squeaky clean appearance (which, includes the appearances of those closely associated to him, as Hamlet is) lead him to this evil. Despite the evil that Claudius demonstrates, there is a moment where the good within him can be seen: when he is praying. Alone with his God, separate from society, Claudius speaks of the horrors he has committed, but knows not “what form of prayer / Can serve [his] turn” (III, iii, 51-52). This shows that Claudius, despite the extreme evils he has committed, is innately good when separate from societal conditions.
Another character that commits acts of evil under the pressures of society is Gertrude. The first act of evil committed by Gertrude is her marriage to Claudius after the death of her husband, Hamlet Sr. This act was committed with “most wicked speed,” but the reasons behind this may lie within societal conditions (I, ii, 156). As it is likely that Gertrude became queen upon marrying Hamlet Sr., she would have to wed the new king in order to maintain her position of power, which means wedding Claudius. This shows that Gertrude is not evil, but rather acts evil when subjected to society’s values. Gertrude commits another act of evil by failing to support Hamlet in the grief he feels toward his father’s death, dismissing him by telling him to “cast thy nighted colour off” (I, ii, 68). The case can be made, however, that Gertrude does this not out of a feeling of coldness toward her son, but out of her requirement as a wife to be obedient to her husband’s views. This shows that Gertrude is not evil by nature, but by condition. The good within Gertrude can be seen when she sacrifices herself by drinking the poison wine during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Upon Claudius’ warning for her not to drink the wine, it is possible that Gertrude realizes his plan to poison her son, and in this realization comes to terms with the broken nature of the society she resides in, and is able to free herself from its grasp. Because of this, Gertrude simply says, “I will [drink] my lord, I pray you pardon me” (V, ii, 269). This shows that Gertrude is, by nature, a good person.
The final character that commits evil due to societal expectations and conditions is Ophelia. Ophelia’s act of evil is her failure to stand up for herself in the face of Polonius (her father), Laertes (her brother), and Hamlet (her boyfriend). Even when Hamlet goes as far as to ask if he may “lie in [her] lap” at the public event of the play, and yet, Ophelia does nothing to defend herself from his sexual comments (III, ii, 99). This, however, is not because Ophelia is weak and unable to defend herself, but rather due to the societal expectation for her to remain quiet and obedient to the men in her life. It can be seen also through Polonius and Laertes that Ophelia has been influenced into committing evil against herself by societal conditions. Ophelia perhaps represents the most pure form of the Noble Savage seen in the play when she is driven into a state of madness, claimed by characters to by “indeed distract” (IV, v, 2). She often speaks of nature, making it seem as though the more in touch with nature she becomes, the more she disconnects from society. With this societal disconnect, it can be argued that Ophelia is finally free from the reign of the repressive men in her life, and is able to do what is good for herself by committing suicide. While some may claim that committing suicide cannot be a good thing, the societal conditions of repression that Ophelia had been subjected to her entire life, and would likely continue being subjected to, make it plausible that she did do the right thing.
In conclusion, Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia provide excellent examples of individuals who commit evil due to the power that society has over them, but prove themselves to be innately good. Is the Noble Savage, then, what all individuals should strive to be? Is humankind deteriorating in their quest for improvement through societal progression? The answer may well be yes, but in the spirit of Romanticism, this decision should be that of the individual. Let every man and woman contemplate the Noble Savage within them, and just possibly, find enlightenment.