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Reaction in Miltons Paradise Lost and Shakespeares Hamlet and Macbeth

It goes without saying that we all react to the experiences that we have. What differs from person to person is how those experiences affect our being and what each of us takes from those experiences and how we apply it to our lives from that point on. We see this happening not only in our own lives, but also in literature. The characters from Shakespeares Hamlet and Macbeth and those from Miltons Paradise Lost show, through their conflicts, that the experiences that they are exposed to affect their lives in a negative way. In all three of these pieces of literature, the reactions the characters have to their experiences are what bring about their ultimate demise. Unfortunately, these characters dont realize the error of their actions until its too late, but we, as the audience, can learn from the mistakes we see the characters make in Hamlet, Macbeth and Paradise Lost. Hamlet was forced to endure many painful experiences, and the ways in which he chose to react to those experiences are what largely contributed to the tragedy. In his essay dealing with Hamlet and the loss of innocence, Godshalk claims that the prince...begins the play dreaming of innocence and personal integrity, and in the course of action, this innocence and integrity are severely compromised. (221) This is indeed true, as the experiences that Hamlet is forced to endure whittle away at his innocence, and as he reacts to these experiences, he is driven by his reactions to act in a way where he must abandon his integrity. The death of King Hamlet took a toll on Young Hamlet, inducing grief and sorrow to the mourning son. In fact, it seemed that just two months after the Kings death, Hamlet was the only one left feeling any kind of sorrow. The experience of losing a loved one, especially his father, was too much for Hamlet and he was too grief stricken in the eyes of some, Claudius especially. Claudius inquired of Hamlet, How is it that the clouds still hang on you? (1.2.66) Claudius seems to think that Hamlet has little reason to still be grieving over the death of his father. Claudius continues:

Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father: But, you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound In filial obligation for some term To do obsequious sorrow; but to persever In obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness; tis unmanly grief (1.2.88-95) Here, Claudius tells Hamlet that his reaction to his fathers death is over the top. Hamlet is putting too much effort into grieving his father and Claudius is basically telling him that he is weak and unmanly for being so sorrowful. In fact, Godshalk claims that Hamlets reaction to his fathers death is immature if not childish. Maturity allows us to accept death with a certain degree of equanimity, or at least to dissemble the depth of our feelings so as not to embarrass others. (223) Godshalk seems to agree that Hamlets reaction to his fathers death was inappropriate. Had he handled it a bit differently, or with a little more maturity, as Godshalk suggests, perhaps, the situation would not have turned out so badly in the end. Perhaps Claudius is, in a way, correct about Hamlets reaction to his fathers death being inappropriate given the way we know Hamlet behaves later in the play. Hamlet had such a close relationship with his father that he wanted to do right by him and get revenge on his fathers murderer. Hamlets overwhelming grief for his father is understandable and certainly justified, but Claudius does have a point when he states that death is natural, and to be this upset about something natural, something thats supposed to happen, is somewhat unnatural in itself. Nevertheless, the way Hamlet reacted to his fathers death was destructive and damaging to himself in the end because he was filled with anger and harbored even more anger toward those, Claudius in particular, who tried to tell him that his grief wasnt warranted. Honigmann argues that we, as the audience, have no room to say whether or not Hamlet acted with excessive emotion or whether his feelings surrounding the death of his father and the hasty marriage of his mother were appropriate or not. He claims: His situation is unusual (a father murdered by an uncle, a mother the murderers doting wife, a ghost calling for revenge), so what would be the appropriate emotion? Unless we can cite a norm we have no right to accuse Hamlet of excessive emotion or of a failure of sensibility. (64)

Since the majority of us have never had to experience the painful events that seem to plague Hamlets life, we really cant judge the type of reaction that he shouldve had. Soon after his fathers death, Hamlet was visited by his fathers ghost, another experience that Hamlet had a damaging reaction to. Faced with the information that King Hamlets ghost provided, Hamlet had choices to make. He could either accept the news of his fathers murder, knowing that he could never trust Claudius, completely removing him from his life, or he couldve done what he chose to do attempt revenge. Knowing the outcome of Hamlets decision, its easy to say that he shouldve chosen the former, but Hamlets reaction to the ghosts news was his true reaction, whether it was wrong or right. Hamlets words are sincere, full of pain and anger:

Yea, from the table of my memory Ill wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there;

And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter: yes, by heaven! (1.5.98-104) Hamlet is vowing that he will let nothing stand in the way of his revenge; he will forget everything else that he has ever learned, and will focus all of his attention on revenge. This reaction can be seen as very sinister and obsessive, and as experience has shown, this type of behavior can only mean trouble. Nothing good ever comes from monomaniacs such as Hamlet, thinking so obsessively about one thing that it consumes him completely. The way he chose to react to this information from the ghost may not have been pure free will; surely passion and anger led him to feel this way, but it certainly was free will that made him decide to feign

madness in order to trick Claudius and trap him into showing signs of guilt. Another experience that shook Hamlets world was the hasty marriage of his mother to Claudius, his fathers brother. Hamlet suspected foul play from the beginning, but the fact that his mother could lose the man that loved her so much that she loved too, then turn around and marry his brother not two months later, was too much for Hamlet to swallow. His reaction to his mothers poor judgment was, again, one of anger and resentment, yet another reason for him to dislike his new stepfather/uncle. Hamlets words prove to us that he is harboring these feelings of resentment and hurt that can be nothing but damaging to a persons wellbeing when bottled up inside as Hamlet is forced to do: But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: So excellent a king; that was, to this, Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth! Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on; and yet, within a month, Let me not think on t: Frailty, thy name is woman!

A little month; or ere those shoes were old With which she followd my poor fathers body, Like Niobe, all tears; why she, even she, -O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, Would have mournd longer, -- married with mine uncle,

My fathers brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules; within a month, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O! most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets. It is not nor it cannot come to good; But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue! (1.2.138-159) Hamlet is absolutely beside himself with pure and utter disgust that his mother could commit such a horrible deed. He is very angry with her and in his essay regarding Hamlet and the causes and magnitude of his grief, Kirsch states, there is every reason, in reality to for a some to be troubled and decomposed by the appetite of a mother who betrays his fathers memory by her incestuous marriage. (126) Hamlet remembers how much his parents loved each other, and cant understand how she could turn around and marry someone else so soon. Hamlets language is very powerful and he outright states how displeased he is with the current situation in Elsinore, and we, as the audience, arent left wondering how Hamlet feels about his mothers decision to remarry. This reaction is very strong, but Hamlet doesnt make it completely known to the other characters that he is unhappy with the marriage. This is what makes it so destructive. Hamlet lets this anger stew and boil within him, making it that much more explosive when his true feelings finally come out. Keeping all of this anger bottled up inside of him is part of his reaction to this incestuous marriage, which proves to be a destructive reaction because of the actions it leads him to take part in later in the play. When Hamlet states, But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue! (1.2.159) according to Bradley, he realizes that he can do nothing. He must lock in his heart, not any suspicion of his uncle that moves obscurely there, but that horror and loathing. (73) Hamlet must keep it inside because if he lets it out, it will be an explosion because all he can think about is his utter hatred for his uncle. Hamlet makes his biggest mistake in letting these traumatic experiences control him and completely take over his entire life, monopolizing his

thoughts and capturing his conscience. Mackenzie suggests: Grief for his fathers death, and displeasure at his mothers marriage, prey on his mind; and he seems, with the weakness natural to such a disposition, to yield to their control. He

does not attempt to resist or combat these impressions, but is willing to fly from the contest, though it were into the grave. (152) Much like Hamlet, Macbeth was also visited by supernatural forces (witches in this case) and given information about something unknown. In Macbeths case, however, the witches were prophesizing what would happen in the future, not revealing the mysteries of what had already happened. Macbeths experience of hearing about how his life could be drives him to a dangerous desire to make the prophecies come true. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth showed no signs of healthy skepticism, making his reaction almost gullible for so easily believing the witches words. His reaction to the witches prophesies was dangerous and destructive because he chose not to let the experiences happen on their own. He so desperately wanted the witches prophecies to come true that he did whatever it took to make them happen. Upon hearing about his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth gained the experience of learning that there was truth in what the witches told him and gave him the proof that the other events they said would happen would, indeed, occur, including the prophecy that Macbeth would become King. This is where Macbeths reaction to this experience begins to cause him suffering and starts to shape the tragedy. At this point, Macbeth couldve chosen to let things be and happen on their own. He even considered doing this: If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir. (1.3.42-44)

Macbeth seemed that he really wanted to just let what was meant to be happen on its own, but his reaction to the first prophecy coming true was too strong; he wanted that life of royalty that he felt belonged to him. The crown was so close to being his that he could taste it, and he couldnt risk letting it slip through his fingers, especially since the witches also claimed that Banquos sons would be king someday. Macbeth realized the consequences that his becoming king would bring, and, if not for Lady Macbeth, the thought of those consequences would have been enough to sway him against going through with the murder of Duncan. However, the interaction Macbeth experienced with his wife throughout this entire ordeal and the reactions he had to the words she spoke to him were enough to drive him over the edge and go through with the horrendous murder. She doubted him from the beginning, questioning his masculinity, suggesting that he was too soft to seize this opportunity and take action to gain what fate claims is his. She knew exactly what to say to him to almost force him to take immediate action: Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteemst the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting I dare not wait upon I would, Like the poor cat i the adage? (1.7.39-43) After this stab at Macbeths pride, he still tries to argue with her, but to no avail. Lady Macbeths words are too strong and they affect Macbeth too deeply for him to ignore them now. He will now base his actions on the reaction he had to Lady Macbeths prodding. At this point in time, Macbeth is doing whatever it takes to assure that he will become king and keep it that way. He will let nothing stand in his way. Beginning with his murdering Duncan, Macbeth is now creating his own experiences, which is very different from what we saw with Hamlet. Hamlet reacted to events and situations thrown at him, whereas Macbeth is now taking action and making things happen to be sure that he gets what he

wants. At first, Macbeth seems very regretful of his murder of Duncan. He is absolutely terrified, evidenced in the words he speaks right after he commits the murder: Ill go no more: I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on t again I dare not. (2.2.50-52) Macbeth refuses to return to the scene of the murder because he is horrified at what he did. Once he begins to feel as if he is free from the blame of everyone, he becomes more at ease. When everyone states that the princes are suspect, and no one lets on that they believe Macbeth might be to blame, he becomes more confident in his decision to create his own fate. Honigmann suggests that it is really difficult for the audience to blame Macbeth, and for some reason, we just cant help but identify with him and feel sorry for him. Honigmann claims, I see Macbeth, when he appears after the murder, not as a devil, a fiend, but as a man who has done himself a terrible injury - so terrible that he cannot even locate his pain. He is in a state of shock, like someone who has escaped from a badly smashed car. Not a fiend, but a mutilated human being. (128) This is a pretty powerful perception of Macbeth, and I would be willing to agree until Macbeth goes through this transformation. Somehow, he stops caring and stops fearing he fact that he is a murderer. Now, Macbeth is running the show. It no longer takes his wife nagging him to be manlier for him to take action. Macbeth has no qualms committing murder, even including the murder of his friend, Banquo. Banquo is the only person that Macbeth feels is a threat to hid throne, and makes the quick decision to kill him and his son, Fleance. Once the first murder was committed, all of the anxiety and reservations Macbeth had about murder are gone. He has a one track mind and sees anything and anyone standing in the way of his ultimate goal as dispensable. Macbeths experiences are now building upon each other, creating an even stronger and more drastic reaction to each new experience. With the murder of Duncan behind him, murder is almost effortless to Macbeth. This in mind, Macbeth thinks about the witches words to Banquo about how his sons will be king someday, not Macbeths. Macbeth speaks with these experiences in mind:

Upon my head they placd a fruitless crown, And put a barren sceptre in my gripe, Thence to be wrenchd with an unlineal hand, No son of mine succeeding. If t be so, For Banquos issue have I fild my mind; For them the gracious Duncan have I murderd; Put rancours in the vessels of my peace Only for them; and mine eternal jewel Given to the common enemy of man, To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! Rather than so, come fate into the list, And champion me to the utterance! (3.1.61-72) Here, Macbeth has the mind set that he did not go through all of these experiences just so someone elses sons will become king. Macbeth is now tempting fate by trying to change what the witches foresaw. Again, this differs greatly from Hamlet because Macbeth doesnt even care now what was meant to happen. It was only important when it was good news for him. Now that it looks as though Macbeth may be out of luck because the prophecies are not in his favor, he wants to completely disregard them and try and create his own fate. What Macbeth may not realize is that he is trying to take complete control over his own fate. He so desperately wants to hold on to what he thinks is rightfully his, and that he will stop at nothing, not even murder. His reaction to the positive experiences that have happened to him (promotion to Thane of Cawdor, being crowned king) have blinded him to the fact that he manipulated and plotted to get to the position that he is now, and that it does not rightfully belong to him. Unfortunately, he is too driven by what is much more than ambition and nothing short of insanity. His reactions to all of the recent experiences in his life bring his own demise because while he

is plotting and murdering, everyone starts to catch on to his game and he ends up revealing himself. Now, no one trusts him, no one wants him to be king anymore, and they all want to kill him, and thats exactly what happens. His reactions to his early experiences with the witches and the experiences to follow that he forces to happen by his own free will result in his own murder. Miltons Adam and Eve from Paradise Lost are like no other characters that we have examined. They have many experiences in Eden, however, they are experiences that no one has ever had before them, and so they dont have the luxury of knowing what to do in a situation they have never been faced with. In addition, they dont have anyone who lives before them to teach them right from wrong. So every single experience they go through is a learning experience and by experience, and by experience only, they are taught. For example, Raphael warned Adam and Eve to be wary of evil and that evil would be near to try and harm them. Because she had never experienced evil before, Eve didnt know what she was looking for when evil was staring her right in the face while she was being tempted by the serpent. Adam and Eve had absolutely no idea what to expect when awaiting evil to tempt them, and Eve especially must have had a completely different idea of what to expect because it didnt seem to occur to her that evil was what encountered her when tempting her to eat the fruit. Eve even tries to defend herself to Adam, telling him that theres no way that either of them wouldve known better, even if he was with her. Neither of them had any prior experience and had no idea what to look for: Hadst thou been there, Or here th attempt, thou couldst not have discerned Fraud in the serpent, speaking as he spake; 1150 No ground of enmity between us known, Why should he mean me ill, or seek to harm. (10.1148-52) Its easy for us to look back and say that she shouldve known, but thats because we have the experience and have learned from their mistakes. Why should Eve think that the serpent was evil? She didnt have the experience to know that evil would disguise itself and then approach her. Its apparent that the main experience that Adam and Eve were exposed to was the temptation by Satan. Their reactions to this temptation were

ultimately what led to their fall, each in a little different way. Eve did basically what Satan wanted her to do. She did waver a little more than he expected her to, but in the end, he got her to eat the fruit. She had the experience of being tempted and her reaction was to give into that temptation. Eves fall, in that case, was a pretty simple one because she made her choice, and it can be argued that she was tricked, but she did make her choice and that was the end of it for her. Adam, on the other hand, had a more complex fall. His involved more free will than Eves. When Adam ate the fruit, he knew that he was falling and that his life in paradise would soon be over. He didnt really have the experience of being tempted by Satan, but his experience dealt with having a choice to make. He could either follow Eve and be with her, or he couldve let Eve go down by herself. Adam reasoned that fallen and together was better than remaining in paradise without Eve. Adam had a much more complex reaction to his fall than Eve did as well. Adam showed evidence of his fall with his satanic thinking as Milton would have put it. He began to question God, wondering why he was even created if the fall was what was in store for him: O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mold me man, did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me, or here place 745 In this delicious garden? (10.743-46) Adams reaction was definitely not one he wouldve had if he had not fallen, and in fact, it resembles a similar speech by Satan after he was cast down into hell. Satans poor me speech is the same type of speech as Adams speech, lamenting, wishing he had never been created. This is not exactly the type of attitude Adam should want to take on, especially since he would need all of the mercy from God that he could get at this point in time. It doesnt seem that God wouldve been very appreciative of Adam questioning him. Both Adam and Eves reaction to the main experience both had was, indeed, the direct cause of their fall, unlike the other characters examined.

With Hamlet and Macbeth, their reactions to experiences led them to action, which was damaging to them in the end. Its very interesting to note that although these characters are all very different, they are also alike in many ways as well. All were faced with choices. Their reactions and the actions they took because of those reactions were free will. Hamlet chose to listen to the ghost of his father and seek revenge, Macbeth chose to tempt fate by trying to create his own. Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit. The reasons for these choices could have very well been determined by passion or by listening to logic, but the point is that they were not forced upon any of the characters. By analyzing Hamlet, Macbeth, and Adam and Eve, characters created by Shakespeare and Milton, we can draw a parallel between the lives and experiences of characters and our own lives and experiences. How do we, as the audience, react to the pieces of literature that we are exposed to? Fish claims that the true center of Paradise Lost is the readers consciousness of the poems personal relevance, in other words, how the reader responds to it and takes away from it (526). This response generated from the reader, according to Fish, is very important because it is the entire point of reading the poem. Without a personal reaction to the poem, the poem is simply a story, and this is the case in most works. The authors intent is usually to spark some sort of response, depending on the genre of the work. Without that crucial response, the work really had no effect, and then what is the point? Although Fish is referring to Paradise Lost in his essay, I would agree that this concept of reader response can be applied to Hamlet and Macbeth as well. Literature is always more interesting when it leaves some kind of feeling or emotion at the end. I would argue that the piece of literature that should warrant the strongest response from its audience is Paradise Lost, because of its spiritual and religious content. It seems that people usually feel more passionate about issues regarding spirituality and religion. It all depends on the audience, though. In our contemporary times, Paradise Lost wouldnt be as influential as it was during the time that Milton wrote it. If nothing else, its very difficult for an average person to sit down and read the text of the epic poem. It really is not very accessible in these days, so even if someone were to sit down and attempt to take it in, it may be lost in the interpretation and understanding. On the other hand, a play such as Hamlet or Macbeth would generate more of a reaction during the modern times because these plays can be seen as being a bit more accessible, even though Shakespeare can be very intimidating. Its evident in the plays and in our own lives that our experiences and our reactions to those experiences play a large role in the events and

outcomes that surround our lives. Its interesting to note that very drastic or dramatic reactions are often the most risky and the ones that carry the most weight, likely because those type of reactions call the most attention. Hamlet and Macbeth both had very drastic reactions to the experiences that they endured, and both unfortunately were brought to the end of their lives very tragically. Its very difficult to say what we wouldve done if put in the situations of the characters discussed. I know that wed like to say that we wouldnt make the same mistakes or have the same reactions, but its hard to say unless its something that weve already been taught by experience. It comes down to the concept of empathy versus sympathy. Many of us can only feel sympathy for these characters because most of us have not had to endure the painful experiences of these characters. The ultimate response to one of these pieces of literature would involve empathy, because that would mean real identification with the character, and having a real sense of what the character is going through and the development of a new level of understanding of the literature. This is what the ultimate goal of all literature should be, not just limited to those works discussed previously. If an author can generate such a strong response in their readers, they have achieved success.