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Hamlet in Purgatory


Conflicts are integral parts of our lives, and knowing how to resolve them is one of the essential skills to learn. While contemporary books provide many insights into how conflicts emerge and how to address them, literature classics can often provide invaluable information on the topic. For instance, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is of the most notable works of the author, which connects many social and psychological issues into one literature body. The theme of interpersonal and internal conflict is central in the play, which makes the work relevant when studying conflicts and exploring ways of their resolution.

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Why Conflicts Emerge

Conflict is a situation in which each party takes a position that is incompatible and opposite with respect to the interests of the other side. Studying conflicts is relevant because they take place ubiquitously and affect decisions and results of endeavors. It is also essential to note that the topic spans across a variety of disciplines, including psychology and sociology. Shakespeare’s Hamlet encompasses issues from these fields of study, which makes the play a suitable instrument for exploring the topic of conflicts.

Conflicts can occur due to a variety of reasons, but at the core, every dispute is caused by a sharp difference between expectations and reality. For instance, people may engage in protests against a current president because the latter could not meet the expectations of the community. In this context, protesting is an example of responding to conflicts, whereas the reality deviating from expectations is the cause.

What Hamlet Teaches about Conflicts

Internal Conflicts

Conflict is the basis of the plot construction and the clash of oppositions that convey the author’s thought. When a dramatic situation arises, a character is forced to act, and his or her actions are driven by will and interests. In drama, opposing intentions and benefits are to clash inevitably. Hamlet is a man enlightened in humanism who clarifies the truth and has to take a step back to the medieval concepts of conscience and a country from which “no traveller returns” (Shakespeare 36) Conscience, like humanism, has become a modern word for us, changing and expanding its original content. It is already challenging for us to imagine how the same word was perceived by the Shakespearean audience, denoting for it, first of all, the fear of the afterlife punishment for the earthly deeds, the very fear from which the new consciousness sought to free itself. For Hamlet, this conflict of conscience does not pass, and this is his tragedy.

Hamlet includes discussions of several types of conflicts and potential ways of resolving them. The previous paragraph described the internal conflict the main character has within himself. Internal conflicts are more subtle than external counterparts and more challenging to deal with. Hamlet’s contemplations about whether or not his actions will be rightful are one way of responding to an internal conflict. Many people, when they are unsure, instead of undertaking decisive steps, commits themselves to inaction. Internal conflict, like a regular dispute, is caused by opposing impulses and wants. One the one hand, Hamlet wants revenge for his father. On the other hand, his conscience poses a hindrance to such a decision. Hamlet has the opportunity to punish Claudius more than once during the play. Why, for instance, does he not strike when Claudius prays alone? Therefore, the researchers established that in this case, according to ancient beliefs, the soul of the murdered would go directly to heaven, and Hamlet must be sent to hell (Greenblatt 4). This outcome opposes Hamlet’s intentions, which is why no decision is made regarding Claudius.

External Conflicts

The relationship between Hamlet and Claudius is an example of external conflict. It is important to note that this conflict develops differently for each of the characters. Claudius is not aware that the conflict exists until Hamlet decides to speak openly. Furthermore, the dispute develops throughout the play, along with changing causes. In the beginning, Hamlet is distressed by the fact of his father’s death and his mother’s decision to marry Claudius imminently. Uninformed of his uncle’s participation in the death of the King, Hamlet initially responds to the conflict by reconciliation. However, after discovering the truth behind the murder, Hamlet promises his father’s ghost to avenge. At this point, the conflict develops swiftly, causing a chain of reactions that leads to the main character’s internal conflict.

Life vs. Death

Another theme with higher power arises in the play – the transience of all being. Death reigns in this tragedy from beginning to end – t begins with the appearance of the ghost of the murdered king. During the course of action, Polonius dies, then Ophelia drowns, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern face death, the queen is poisoned, Laertes dies, and Hamlet’s blade finally reaches Claudius. Hamlet becomes a victim of the treachery of Laertes and Claudius. Hamlet is one of the bloodiest tragedies of Shakespeare, but the author does not seek to impress the viewer’s consciousness with the story of the murder.

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The departure from the life of each of the characters has its own distinctive meaning. Hamlet’s fate is most tragic, since in his image, true humanity, combined with the power of the mind, finds its most vivid embodiment. According to such an assessment, his death is depicted as a feat in the name of freedom. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that another conflict that appears within the text is the contrast between life and death. This claim is supported by the fact that Hamlet, in many of his monologues, discusses the notion of death.

Resolving Conflicts Often Involve Sacrifice

It is evident that conflicts are rarely resolved without any sacrifices. Reconciliation cannot always be reached without giving something up, and Hamlet provides several examples supporting this idea. Hamlet often contemplates humanism, and taking someone’s life away contradicts his moral education. However, when his father’s ghost appears to inform about the treachery of Claudius, Hamlet vows to avenge. At this moment, it becomes impossible to resolve the conflict without any losses. On the one hand, Hamlet has his conscience, which has to be overcome so that revenge can take place. On the other hand, if Hamlet chooses to hold true to his moral beliefs, he will break his promise given to his father’s ghost. Therefore, the character’s internal conflict cannot be resolved without taking action at the expense of another cause. When it comes to the external conflict between Claudius and Hamlet, it is apparent that the conflict has to be resolved at the expense of Claudius’ life. If the latter does not part with his life, then Hamlet will let down his father’s ghost.

Conflict resolution always has a price, and Shakespeare’s play has many more examples. As mentioned, the tragedy involves the conflict between the notions of death and life. It is apparent that they cannot coexist – there cannot be life within death, and no death can exist within life. This claim is supported by Hamlet’s monologue, where he shares his thoughts on whether or not it is worth living. The famous expression “To be or not to be” is taken from Act 3 Scene 1 of the play and is uttered by Hamlet (Shakespeare 36). The very nature of conflict involves choice, and each of the decisions may lead to unexpected consequences.

In summary, Hamlet distinguishes between external and internal conflicts. The play also provides a subtle description of phases of conflict – it first emerges, then the person becomes aware of it, his or her behavior is changed, then the conflict intensifies before eventually being resolved. Hamlet passes through all these phases, which is why Shakespeare’s work can be used as a platform for discussing conflicts. Another essential idea is that, while individuals may respond differently to conflicts, resolution often involves sacrifice.

Ways of Addressing

The landscape of conflict resolution techniques has changed significantly in the last century. Advancements in psychology and sociology, as well as the dynamic nature of the business environment where interpersonal relationships are key, contributed to the emergence of many novel methods of addressing conflicts. Effective communication strategies are proposed to handle external conflicts, whereas emotional intelligence helps align inner thoughts and feelings. However, Bercovitch suggests that all disputes, be they international or interpersonal, are resolved in three distinct ways (6). These methods are violence, negotiation, and the introduction of a third party (Bercovitch 6). All three strategies can be discussed within the context of Hamlet.

Violence is either the first method to be used under the influence of emotions, or the last strategy when other approaches have failed. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet attempts to resolve his internal conflict by means of negotiation. He spends a lot of time thinking about his values and contemplating his attitude toward Claudius. However, his father’s ghost serves as the third party in this context and helps clarify many points. At this moment, Hamlet understands that coercion is the only way to resolve his external conflict with Claudius. Although Hamlet reaches resolution at the expense of his moral beliefs and his life, he successfully utilizes violence to achieve his objectives. This situation has another philosophical underpinning about conflicts suggested by Shakespeare. Often, the motivation behind conflicts is not material, and individuals may not be able to benefit from the results at the end. However, they still strive for resolution as it may be a part of a more significant battle, for instance, a fight for justice.


Hamlet is not a mere tragical story of a prince. The work is significant from a scientific perspective, as it involves ideas that are relevant in the context of contemporary psychology and human relationships. Most notably, Shakespeare’s work is a description of how conflicts can manifest themselves. It also portrays how individuals respond to conflicts and the expense of conflict resolution. Apart from distinguishing between internal and external conflicts, Hamlet depicts how third-party intervention may change the course of action and how internal conflict may influence external relationships.

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Works Cited

Bercovitch, Jacob. Social Conflicts and Third Parties: Strategies of Conflict Resolution. Routledge, 2019.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory: Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Wellington, 1703.

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