I’ll Catch The Conscience

Content Advisory: This post is kinda sorta going to talk about suicide – but it’s in the context of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and I’m more here to talk about the meaning of a particular word than dwell on that subject itself. Nevertheless, the subject matter is there. I’m sure you know the drill by now given my propensity to write about this sort of stuff recently: please don’t read on if you think it’s likely to aggravate anything for you; and if you are having a difficult time of things at the moment, don’t hesitate to speak up. In the UK you can always contact the Samaritans on 116 123; in the US the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is on 1-800-273-8255. Other countries are listed HERE.


Probably one of the most well-known, if not the most well-known, bits of Shakespearean writing is the famous soliloquy from Hamlet, aka Les Relentlessly Miserables seriously this play is one full-on bummer for like two hours.

You know the speech, though.

“To be,” it goes, “Or not to be.”

“That,” it continues, “Is the question.”

It wonders, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or,” it suggests, “To take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.”

And then it goes on a bit longer. More stuff is said. If it’s being said by David Tennant, it’s probably being said fairly well – although there are some words missing that appear in the written play. Probably taken out for TV. Anyway here’s the erstwhile Doctor doing the thing:

As you may know, this monologue comes from Act III, Scene I of Hamlet, at a moment when the main character is experiencing a moment of deep confusion and indecision. His thoughts turn to death: the earlier death of his murdered father, King Hamlet, whose ghost he has encountered early in the play; the prospective future death of his uncle, now-King Claudius, whose murder Prince Hamlet is contemplating in revenge for Claudius killing his father; and, ultimately, Prince Hamlet’s own death, which in his turmoil he considers inflicting upon himself as a means of escaping his situation.

Hamlet’s having a bad time of it, there’s no two ways about it. His uncle Claudius has killed his father, assumed the throne and married the Queen Consort, Prince Hamlet’s mum Gertrude. Bad times indeed.

As a quick aside, the convention in discussing Hamlet, the play, is that when someone’s referring to the former king, it’s ‘King Hamlet’, or ‘The Ghost’; whereas if they’re talking about the prince and protagonist, it’s just ‘Hamlet’. I’ll try to keep it clear in any case, though.

So King Hammy has been murdered by the Boy Ham’s uncle, the new now-King Claudius, but Princely Ham’s also been visited in a visitation (visitated?) by the ghost of the aforesaid dead dad. K. Hamlet has charged P. Hamlet with the doing-in of Claudius in vengeance.

Which puts Prince-ham in a bind. He’s stuck in a dilemma, and whichever way he goes there’s a non-optimal outcome. If he chooses not to act against Claudius, he leaves the Ham King’s death unavenged and a usurper on the throne. Not ideal. Pretty shameful and dishonourable, in fact, by the standards of Ham the Younger’s society.

But then, if he does choose to carry out the avengement – and I’m going to pause here a moment to say that this was a word I used with mildly absurdist intent because I thought it sounded kind of silly, only to find, when the word processor didn’t flag it as wrong, that it is actually a real word for an act of vengeance – then he commits murder. Murder is a sin in Hamlet’s Christian faith, and could result in his soul going to Hell.

No-one likes a dilemma. Especially Hamlet, who takes to it kind of badly, and starts to consider a third option: he could always kill himself. That, he reasons, would negate the problem he faces, along with all the others that life keeps constantly throwing at him.

The Act III soliloquy is, for the most part, Prince Hamlet’s reflection on what he imagines death to be: superficially, in the first part of the monologue, he describes it as “a sleep”. A peaceful state, he supposes, in which all the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” – basically all the shit that life throws at us – will be left behind. In that state, he figures, he wouldn’t have to worry about choosing between murder or dishonour. He’d be out of reach of these and the countless other tribulations of life.

And it would be so easy, he says (presumably never having actually tried it at this point):

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time […] when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?”

Who would choose life, with all its hardships, when one could simply take a ‘bare bodkin’ – a sharp instrument – and do oneself in with it?

As he continues to ruminate, though, he begins to realise that death is an unknown. He doesn’t really know – because we can’t know – what it feels like, what happens afterwards, or, crucially, “what dreams may come”, if death is like being asleep. What form will those dreams take? And he realises that this is why we bear the whips and scorns: because we know them. They’re bad, but we know, at least in broad terms, how bad. We don’t know that whatever experience we might have after we die might not be even worse.


“When we all fall asleep, where do we go?”

Not Shakespeare

The soliloquy can be read through a couple of layers of context, and one of the reasons it catches my interest at the moment is the meaning of a single word. A word that comes up towards the end of the monologue, and is addressed by several online guides to Shakespeare in a way that, I admit, hadn’t occurred to me, and I wanted to roll it around a bit and see if it got any clearer.

The word is ‘conscience’.

Towards the end of the soliloquy, as Hamlet is reaching the conclusion that he probably isn’t going to choose suicide, he says:

“Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all[.]”

(A fardel is a bundle or burden. In this context it refers to the ways in which life weighs us down.)

Who, he asks the empty corridor, would put up with the suffering in life, except that they fear what might happen afterwards, and prefer to bear the suffering they know than trade it in for an unknown quantity that might be worse still. Conscience, he says, is what makes us choose the devil we know rather than risk the devil we don’t.

So what is ‘conscience’, in this case? And in what way does it make us ‘cowards’?

Numerous sites I’ve seen describe the reference to ‘conscience’ as addressing Hamlet’s sense of guilt not only about the murder he’s faced with having to commit but, primarily, with the suicide he’s considering as an alternative. I don’t have stats to hand, but I’d guess that the most common modern English usage of the word ‘conscience’ is probably in the phrase ‘guilty conscience’ – that is, the sense of guilt that can play on an offender’s mind, weigh them down, and eventually make them speak or act in a way that betrays their guilt. This may be out of a subconscious desire to atone, or at least to admit to being the one what done it, whatever it were what they done.

Hamlet himself hopes to exploit what he supposes will be Fake-King Claudius’ guilty conscience when he undertakes to simulate in a play how he imagines Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet might have happened.

He expects that, when Claudius watches the moment of the actual killing rendered thespianically before him, he will react involuntarily due to his guilty conscience, and that will be the signal for the Ham Prince that his murder, in vengeance for death of the Ham King, is at least justified by principles of honour, if no less sinful for all that.

“I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”

So Shakespeare certainly does know and use the word in the sense that we would tend to use it in modern English.

We also use ‘conscience’ in general terms to talk about a person’s sense of ethics or morality, particularly where that sense makes them hesitate or refuse to do a thing because they believe it to be morally wrong. In military terms a ‘conscientious objector’ is someone whose conscience leads them to refuse even mandated military service, because they consider violence a moral wrong. In the First World War such a position was not well viewed by the public, and ‘conchie’ – as a shortened form of ‘conscientious objector’ – became a term of contempt and vilification.

(As a side note, I’m writing this part of this post on 15 May which date, it turns out from my searches on how best to spell ‘conchie’, is recognised as International Conscientious Objection Day. How spooky is that?)

So one’s conscience can be viewed as the awareness of what’s right and what’s wrong, and this is the meaning I’ve seen given in the above-mentioned online guides for the word as spoken by Hamlet in the Act III soliloquy. The several sources I looked at, once this tiny, what-the-frak-brain-why question over this one word caught my attention, seem more often than not to hold the view that when Hamlet speaks of ‘conscience’, he’s talking about guilt – his understanding that the sin of suicide would ultimately see him subjected to a harsher afterlife than the painful life he’s already leading.

One can imagine how trapped he must feel.

Prince Hamlet is, in common with the people of his time and place, and those of Shakespeare’s time and place, a Christian. Christianity, as with other monotheistic traditions, does not smile on murderers. (Well, I mean unless they’re Killing For Jesus, obviously, but let’s move on.) Murder is, according to the Bible, a sin. After disobedience and mistrustfulness of God, it is in fact the first sin humanity came up with all by ourselves, and is generally thought of as one of the biggies. Sins of this magnitude can quite easily land a soul in Hell come mortal-coil-shuffling-off time, and Princey-boy Ham-man really isn’t in it for the going to Hell thing.

But as well as being pretty down on the killers of others, Christianity – Abramic monotheism in general – is also fairly condemnatory of those who kill themselves.

As unhelpful, even as cruel, as this might seem from a modern and/or secular perspective, with our (hopefully) rather more humane attitude towards those in mental distress, there’s at least an internal logic to it from the perspective of the religion’s founders and keepers. The faith they’re supporting holds as one of its central tenets the idea of a blissful Heaven state, post-life, in which all injustices are erased, and the meek, the poor and the downtrodden are raised up into paradise. This belief has the presumably welcome effect of quieting dissent from the aforesaid meek, poor and downtrodden, because it’s easier to bear the privations of an unfair life if you know the balance is going to be redressed in the afterlife.

But, conversely, there’s an obvious attendant risk with this: if Heaven is seen as being so very much better than being alive, well, then you’re in danger that the faithful will start thinking like Hamlet: why would anyone put up with this shit when there’s something infinitely preferable just a bare bodkin away?

So, to prevent a mass Exodus, as it were, suicide has to be declared a sin, an offence against God which will deny the ‘offender’ a place in the very Heaven they’re aiming for. You can go to Heaven if you die of old age or illness, and you’re assured a place if you’re murdered, and especially if you’re martyred for your faith. But you can’t go there if you die at your own hand. You might even end up in Hell. So put all such thoughts out of your mind and just shoulder your damn fardels, okay?

Still, although there’s a logical consistency to the ‘guilty conscience’ interpretation of the word ‘conscience’, I have to say it threw me a little to see educational sites giving this as its meaning, because – presumably having mentally overlooked the “conscience of the King” line – I’d always assumed that ‘conscience’ as used in the soliloquy meant something a little more straightforward. Specifically, I assumed that it was simply our awareness and understanding of mortality, and our ability to contemplate what might lie beyond, that makes us hesitant to catch the bus to the Undiscovered Country.

‘Conscience’, I’d assumed, simply meant ‘awareness’. We don’t use it that way very much in modern English: when we’re talking of our cognitive awareness nowadays we tend to use the word ‘consciousness’ instead. The words come from the same root, the Latin con-scire, meaning, loosely, ‘with knowledge’. And they mean, broadly, the same thing. So ‘conscience’ initially encompassed the broad sense of ‘awareness’, though the sense of ‘moral right and wrong’ began to appear in the 13-14th century. That’s a long time ago, and as we’ve seen, Shakespeare did use that meaning elsewhere, but the word would doubtless have been more ambiguous in meaning than it tends to be today. Hamlet says we’re rendered cowards because of ‘conscience’, and I’d always supposed it was this awareness alone that he – or William through him – is referring to, rather than a specific reference to the religious guilt. One can easily imagine an atheist, in a society that has no concept of ‘sin’, still having the same conversation with themselves that Hamlet’s having here, and it would make just as much sense even without any religious connotation at all and without any attendant element of guilt – as long as the person speaking does not have any additional information about post-death experience.

(Also, there’s a whole other fardel of issues – I’m sorry I can’t help it, I just like the word: fardelfardelfardelfardel – to be uprooted and scrutinised over the utility and fairness of calling a person a ‘coward’ for choosing to live, and I refer the reader to literally everything we’ve learned about mental health and wellbeing in the centuries since Shakespeare decided to mouth off about it.)

(Quill off about it? I dunno.)

(Anyway the point is at the time Hamlet is feeling kind of disappointed that one of the options he’d thought he had isn’t as appealing as he’d initially assumed. He’s a little resentful about that, so can probably be forgiven a smidge of bitterness.)

Still, yes, ‘conscience’ in the sense of a guilty conscience is applicable here if we assume a religious connotation. We’re ‘cowards’ (fuck you, Bill, honestly) because we don’t want to face the music at the Pearly Gates when we fetch up, still clutching our bodkins, expecting to be let in.

To my eye, there are two layers to the soliloquy and in particular to that one statement that “conscience doth make cowards of us all”. One is the religious layer, based in Hamlet’s (and Shakespeare’s) Christian culture. The other is independent of religion and, I think, more deeply applicable to humanity in general.

In the religious interpretation, the “calamity of so long life” is still better than facing Hell and damnation if you choose to opt out. But there’s also the secular, even agnostic interpretation: Hamlet just doesn’t know, and he knows he doesn’t know. None of us do. And as he reflects more on his prospective ‘sleep of death’ he sees no reason to trust that it’ll be a positive experience, any more than he considers life to be.

Both interpretations, I have to say, lead to a conclusion rooted in the same somewhat negative reasoning: that life’s shit but it’s safer than the alternative. This is not a suicide prevention approach I’d probably choose, though it obviously worked for Hamlet. Even so, the reasons for reaching even that unhelpful conclusion vary dependent on what sense and context we apply to the monologue.

Still, it would’ve been nice if Hamlet had thrown in a few plus points as well. You know: “Life’s actually nice sometimes; you can do enjoyable things, and hang out with nice people and do hobbies and learn stuff.” That kind of thing. But then, Hamlet is marketed as a tragedy, and the overcritical rabble of Elizabethan London’s notoriously unforgiving theatre scene would have flayed Willie alive (ouch) if he’d ended on an upbeat moral and a catchy song.

Also I don’t think Prince’s Cured Ham actually knew any nice people, did he?

Ophelia, I guess? Was Ophelia nice?

In the end, the likelihood is, given Shakespeare’s abundant use of puns and double meanings, that everyone but me already thought about this and that basically it’s supposed to carry both meanings and that’s the whole point and where the frak have I been all this time. Or maybe I’ve just spent this whole post picking at something that literally isn’t there for anyone but me and why in the name of all that’s holy can’t I find anything more useful to do?

And I’d agree: none of this is particularly important. This isn’t one of the Big Unsolved Mysteries of Shakespeare, or anything. But I get hung up on words sometimes when they drift through my tiny bubble of awareness, and like I said above, this one caught my attention on the way.

I don’t know why it caught my attention more than ‘fardels’ did. ‘Fardels’, though? That’s the term I should’ve ended up writing… dear sweet Evander, over three thousand words, holy cheese… about, because it deserves every last one of them.

Isn’t that just typical, though? My longest ever post is the most entirely meaningless. Sums up the whole operation, honestly.

But I don’t care because I got to say fardel nearly all the time.


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