Academic Writing

The Empty Center: Custom and Virtue in Hamlet

In Hamlet, custom acts as a lens through which Hamlet judges the people around him, particularly Gertrude and Claudius, viewing traditions as empty habits that encourage vice. As part of the royal family, Hamlet is understandably concerned about custom, yet in Shakespeare’s Denmark, custom has gone awry, causing great turmoil for Hamlet. The development of Hamlet’s use of “custom” both in practice and in speech largely follows the path of his madness, increasing in intensity as the plot progresses. He uses the term to mean both societal convention and personal habit, and suggests that there is something inauthentic about the practice of customs. The words “custom” and “costume” both derive from the French, costume, and throughout Hamlet “custom” is used interchangeably to refer both to dress and to behavior (“Custom”). This duality provides important implications for Hamlet’s perception of custom and tradition as artifice. For Hamlet, customs are artificial and devoid of meaning; furthermore, as they are perpetuated habitually, they become a channel of vice.

The first mention of custom in Hamlet provides the initial explanation for Hamlet’s conflict with his mother and his view of custom as a kind of artifice. Responding to his mother’s complaints at his prolonged period of mourning, Hamlet says:

These indeed “seem,”

For they are actions that a man might play;

But I have that within which passes show,

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (Shakespeare 1.2.86-89)

Hamlet compares Hamlet seizes on the word “seem” in Gertrude’s dialogue and declares that his outward portrayal of grief is not merely an act of pretense, comparing various images of grief as costumes that an actor might put on, emphasized by his use of the word “play.” Instead, Hamlet’s grief is true and internal; it consumes all aspects of his comportment. One such aspect is his dress, here described as “customary suits of solemn black” (1.2.81). The word “customary” here refers to the mourning tradition of wearing black, which only Hamlet now still observes. By including such custom in a list of behaviors that can be put on as in a role, Hamlet suggests that this tradition is rather empty of meaning and does not indicate true internal feelings. Moreover, even though Gertrude and Claudius have already thrown off their mourning wear, Hamlet hints that even when they observed such customs, there was no real grief behind the action. His assumed proof for this fact, as well as his anger at his mother, hinges on the speed with which Gertrude marries Claudius after King Hamlet’s death. The repetition of the word “suits” at the beginning and end of Hamlet’s response further substantiates the dual use of custom as a kind of costuming, clothing worn that can be taken off, but that is not inherent or integral to a person’s character. At this point in the play, Hamlet is unaware of Claudius’s role in killing King Hamlet, which reflects the lesser degree of scorn with which Hamlet approaches the idea of custom. Though he still disdains the customs of mourning for their potential insincerity, he does not yet reach the association between custom and vice that appears later in the play.

Despite his belief that custom is an act instead of an intrinsic behavior, Hamlet does initially suggest some manner of custom that is inherent in a person’s being, and in evaluating such predispositions, begins to propose a moral implication of custom. Overhearing Claudius’s nighttime revelry, Hamlet tells Horatio, “though I am a native here/ And to the manner born, it is a custom/ More honored in the breach than the observance” (1.4.16-18). Hamlet claims that such revelry is native to Denmark, and that, by consequence, it should be a tradition that he naturally observes, being Danish himself. However, in the description of the partying, there are multiple mentions of activities not originating in Denmark. The king “Keeps wassail, and the swagg’ring upspring reels” (1.4.10)—a German dance—and “drains his draughts of Rhenish” (1.4.11)—wine produced along the river Rhine in Germany. That the apparent customs of Denmark are not native to the country itself reinforces the inauthenticity of tradition that Hamlet perceives. Furthermore, Hamlet disapproves of such activities, citing negative international opinions of the Danes and going on to suggest that it would be more honorable to break the custom than to uphold it in such a disorderly way. According to Hamlet, the king’s habit of drunkenness “takes/ From our achievements, though performed at height,/ The pith and marrow of our attribute” (1.4.22-24). Not only is there a breach of personal moral virtue on the king’s part, but as the king, his virtue reflects on the whole of the nation, which Hamlet emphasizes. Additionally, describing the king’s effect on the nation’s reputation as destroying its “pith and marrow” puts the lost honor into terms of bodily diction, intensifying the danger of its loss (1.4.24). While both of these terms refer to the essence of the reputation, the Oxford English Dictionary illuminates that marrow was often considered “the seat of a person’s vitality and strength” (“Marrow”). In considering that the king makes up the head of the national body politic, the emptiness of that seat indicates fragility in the structure of the entire nation. With this increased scope of the consequence of artificial custom, Hamlet’s concerns seem all the more justified. Though choosing not to participate in the festivities seems incongruous with Hamlet’s previous upholding of mourning custom, this scene makes it more evident that Hamlet scorns custom done for the sake of appearance or pleasure. Furthermore, the scene acts as a precursor to Hamlet’s condemnation of his mother based on her pursuit of customs of vice.

Beyond the notions of custom as mere clothing or national tradition, in Hamlet’s interactions with Gertrude he suggests that her customs are associated with excess of comfort and laziness, which encourages vice. When Hamlet and Horatio come upon the gravedigger singing, Horatio remarks, “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness” (5.1.61). Since digging graves is a task the gravedigger habitually performs, it becomes easy to him, so that he is able to sing while he works. There is an aspect of classism in this interaction, as Hamlet disapproves of the gravedigger’s apparent cheer in doing such a somber work, yet he does not recognize the lack of choice that those of lower class often struggle with. Eventually Hamlet does accept this explanation because he already believes its principles, applying them in his conversation with Gertrude earlier in the play. The idea that repetition makes something easier informs his judgment of her continued relationship with Claudius. Already viewing custom as an acted part, Hamlet sees custom as easy to maintain; thus, custom helps justify vice by pure nature of it being habitual. In the renowned “closet scene” with his mother, Hamlet invokes precisely this argument, saying:

… Refrain tonight,

And that shall level a kind of easiness

To the next abstinence, the next more easy

For use almost can change the stamp of nature (3.4.186-189)

In this passage, Hamlet presents the complement of Horatio’s later statement—the disruption of one custom for another establishes better habits. Indeed, “custom” as used in this scene largely refers to Gertrude’s personal habits in sleeping with Claudius. Hamlet names it as “That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,/ Of habits devil, is angel yet in this” (3.4.182-183), implying that by nature, customs inspire devilish habits, but can be rectified by good actions. The language of “devil” and “angel” elevates the consequence of customs to something of a moral imperative. By using such religious terms, Hamlet suggests that if Gertrude continues in her habits, she will be eternally damned. Reaffirming the moral aspect of custom, Hamlet emphasizes that virtuous habits are rewarded in the promise of salvation, and that it is possible to undo the results of immoral actions. However, Gertrude’s custom is one borne out of what Hamlet deems to be vice, and though a brother marrying a widowed queen was not uncommon, Hamlet still condemns his mother for her actions, particularly considering her suspected role in killing King Hamlet.

In addition to the simple condemnation based on Gertrude’s customs of vice, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother forces him to question what underlies such behavior, if anything. After his father’s death, Hamlet is unable to reconcile the character of his mother with the proposed sexual motivation she has in marrying Claudius. Saying of rebellious behavior, “If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,/ To flaming youth let virtue be as wax/ And melt in her own fire” (3.4.93-95), Hamlet suggests that there is something inherently unvirtuous about Gertrude’s sexual passion, and it sets a precedent for the loss of virtue among all generations. The very presence of such passion is not the main concern for Hamlet, though, as he focuses his concern around the artifice of her life and the escalating tension of his knowledge of the murder. That Gertrude’s vices are somehow perpetuated by an internal passion complicates Hamlet’s earlier shown belief that customs and habits are devoid of meaning. As such, Hamlet questions whether her heart remains good, wondering “If it be made of penetrable stuff,/ If damnèd custom have not brazed it so/ That it be proof and bulwark against sense” (3.4.44-46). Using words as “penetrable” and “brazed”—meaning hardened (“Braze”)—transforms Gertrude’s essential character into something corporal, which in fact better coheres with the often physical nature of custom as in dress and action. Yet Hamlet still has doubts, and the idea that Gertrude has a heart remaining to be hard contrasts directly with Claudius, who Hamlet shows in Act 1 as made empty by his false and immoral customs. Thus, Hamlet demonstrates that his revenge is primarily directed at Claudius, as he attempts throughout this speech to guide her towards his idea of salvation. Moreover, in contrasting the different customs employed by Gertrude and Claudius, Hamlet insinuates that there is an important difference between custom ingrained, as in Gertrude’s case, and in custom put on, as in Claudius’s. Claudius follows custom to the very letter, indulging in excess and extremity, which is his eventual downfall as it suggests to Hamlet that Claudius himself is made entirely out of pure vice.

Throughout Hamlet, custom acts as a tool Hamlet uses to evaluate the people around him, and his opinions of it intensify as he attempts to uncover the truth of his father's death. Most importantly, Hamlet shows throughout his dialogue in the play that he sees custom as artificial and insincere, since it can be put on and taken of at will without any deeper meaning. However, he also uses custom to refer to habits and these customs obscure vice by making each immoral action easier. Though only Hamlet's use of custom is examined here, further study into the various uses and implications of custom, tradition, and nature would likely be worthwhile.


EnglishSarah Burk