The Seven Danish Sins

How do the characters in Hamlet correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins?

seven_deadly_sins_by_procrust-d4olpqeThis might be a throwaway thought, or a distracting but dead-end puzzle; or it could be key to my entire production. It came into my mind shortly after posting about my vision of Elsinore as an endless, mandatory party, like the Jazz Age, or Studio 54 in the 70s, or possibly even Queen Elizabeth’s court. In that post, my final stray analogy was Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, in which Prince Prospero throws a masquerade ball in defiance of the plague which ravages his country. It ends as one might expect an allegorical Poe story to end, ie. fatally.

After that post, I re-read The Masque of the Red Death (if you’ve never read it, go do so now; it’s a quick read and it will haunt your mind in plenty of delicious ways). I lingered on the passages describing the seven particoloured rooms — in Poe’s text, they are coloured blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet (not the same as purple?), and black with scarlet windows. I wondered idly if the colour scheme could be adapted into lighting, set, or costume design.

Then, a correlation based upon the number seven popped into my brain, and I began trying to make the colours correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, gluttony, greed, envy, lust, sloth, and wrath. Some associations are already culturally ascribed (green=envy, wrath=red), but others are intriguingly ambiguous. I’m not suggesting that Poe was thinking about the 7DS when he wrote Masque, but the symbolism of the number seven does invite the comparison.

From there, I returned my thoughts to Hamlet, and it occurred to me to check Google, to see if anyone had ever written a study on the play with the 7DS in mind. I am a lazy scholar, so my search didn’t turn up much. Again, some character correspondences seem pretty straightforward, at least at first blush: Laertes, for example, is often associated with hot-headedness, so wrath seems like an obvious fit. And Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude of the sin of lust, and her comments in the Closet scene seem to acknowledge a personal guilt on the subject.

Looking more deeply into the matter, however, I realized it wasn’t worth trusting what other characters say about these characters. Gertrude only behaves lustfully if the performer chooses to interpret her that way; Hamlet’s comments on the subject are explicit and damning, but her thoughts are ambiguous. We don’t know her motives for remarrying after her husband’s death — it could just as easily have been a weakness stemming from pride or greed — assuming one must classify the act as “weakness” at all.

I have more thoughts about Gertrude to post soon (although they don’t get any less muddy at this point). The big question here, of course, is where Hamlet himself fits in. The old critical chestnut — that Hamlet’s tragic flaw is indecision — might suggest that he embodies sloth, but for heaven’s sake, who wants to watch a four-hour play about a slacker? I can think of several passages that imply Hamlet suffers from pride, although his obsession with morbidity acts as a kind of counter-balance, restoring humility when he needs it the most.

More generally, I wonder if anybody cares to take a stab at the Sin Game? If you could choose seven characters from Hamlet and assign them Deadly Sins, who would you choose, and why?

P.S. OK, I did find one relevant link, but only in point form — Silvia Gamez’s school Prezi presentation on the use of the Seven Deadly Sins in Hamlet.


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