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Ethics and Morals in English Literature

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Ethics and morals may initially seem to be interchangeable words used to describe a code of conduct that society should follow in order to make informed decisions. However, they are in fact two separate entities that exist as individual codes of conduct, yet share a symbiotic relationship in decision making. Ethics can be described as the rules of behavior and demeanor as established by society, a certain group of people, or a religion. Consequently, due to the nature of ethics, they can ultimately be viewed as a governing body. This body is recognized by some larger institution greater than oneself, one that someone is obligated to follow as determined by their religion, race, or creed. On the other hand, morality is an internal trait that is created by the individual. People may recognize ethics as virtues set by their society or creed, whereas morals concerns people determining whether the ethics in their everyday experiences adhere to individual principles and conduct. With this prevalent symbiotic relationship between ethics and morals, one can recognize the vital role that ethics and morals partake in when it comes to decision making. In Frankenstein, Beowulf, and Hamlet, the authors utilize the protagonist’s fatal flaw to affect the character’s actions and motivations. Through the characters’ demise, the authors aim to teach society a lesson of ethics and morals. The idea of a hamartia was initially introduced in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle contended that a good tragedy doesn’t concern the ruin of an extraordinary figure nor the accomplishment of an outlaw, yet about the downfall of somebody ordinary, in a manner akin to the audience. However, Aristotle calls attention to the fact that humans are flawed. Along these lines, he contends that tragedies should recount the tale of a demise not caused by acts of sin, yet “by some error or frailty.”

The message that too much ambition may be dangerous is presented throughout Frankenstein and the epic of Beowulf. Frankenstein's endeavors lead him to search for the source of intelligent life, however, the product of his pursuit was not desirable. Instead, his creation brought misfortune, sadness, and death. The creature Frankenstein creates is the manifestation of man’s scientific inquiry: not beautiful as Frankenstein imagined, but revolting and frightening. Frankenstein had isolated himself, set aside his family, and eventually lost those dearest to him, all for his scientific ambition. In other words, the cost of Victor's desire was the death of himself and his loved ones, with their blood on the hands of his creation. Victor demonstrates that ambition isn't desirable when it comes to unorthodox inclinations. He conveys his story to Captain Walton as a warning for those who thirst for knowledge and glory. The making of intelligent life defying the normal structure of life and death is distinctly an ill-advised objective. The epic of Beowulf presented that heroes of the medieval era don't acknowledge defeat; defeat was viewed as an act of disgrace during the medieval time. They are indoctrinated to triumph even at the expense of their own demise. Beowulf wins two battles against Grendel and his mom, and the third triumph costs him his life. In spite of his foreseen demise, he doesn't show weakness or retreats while battling the dragon. Ultimately, the two works convey that you can utilize your ambition to achieve incredible things, however, there are times when your ambition can overpower you and cause you to make impulsive choices that have unintended results.

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The three works also convey that seeking vengeance doesn't counterbalance the actions that hurt you. In Hamlet, the presence of the late king’s ghost lays an overwhelming obligation on Hamlet to get retribution for his 'unjust murder.' However, Hamlet must first prove Claudius was behind the death of his father, and only then can he make the choice to seek revenge. After confirming his suspicions, Hamlet battles with the topic of the afterlife. He ponders whether, in the event that he murders Claudius, he will wind up in damnation. Even when Hamlet is on the verge of murdering Claudius, he stops with the question: if he murders Claudius while he is praying, will Cladius go to heaven? Even though he eventually murders Claudius in the last scene of the play, it's not because of any plot by Hamlet, rather, it is Claudius' arrangement to execute Hamlet that goes wrong. Hamlet’s lamentable imperfection, his indecisiveness, prompted the deaths of numerous characters including Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, and Gertrude. In Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein prevails in creating life, usurping the job of God, yet fails to create its counterpart, driving his creation to seek retribution. The creature murders those close to Victor to cause him to understand the torment of isolation. Similarly, Victor pursues his creature to get vengeance for the death of his loved ones, yet dies in the chase. Revenge is also present in the epic of Beowulf. Beowulf comes to help King Hrothgar, who wants to render retribution for the demise of the Danes murdered by Grendel. Grendel's murdering binge is likewise to deliver retribution in light of the fact that the Danes’ singing upset his tranquility. Furthermore, Grendel's mother looks for retribution against the Danes for the ruthless killing of her child. Beowulf, in his old age, seeks vengeance against the dragon as a result of its brutal massacre of his people. Shockingly, the dragon’s frenzy is vengeance for his stolen goblet. Foster asserts that there are two types of violence, violence that characters bring about and violence the author inserts for plot or thematic developments. In the final analysis, revenge only sustains the cycle of torment, whether it be for you or another person.

Lastly, all three texts highlight the theme of individual obligation as well as social responsibility. Victor’s ambitious task of the production of intelligent life mirrors the absence of acknowledgment of an individual’s obligation. Victor doesn’t display any dread in disturbing the laws of nature until it ends the lives of his loved ones. Justine’s passing indicates the absence of a strong central authority as the judicial system lacked to thoroughly determine accountability when they carried out Justine’s trial. The responsibility that Hamlet holds lies in his vengeance of his father’s wrongful death. However, he feels that his honor is at stake if his actions have no justification. On the other hand, Laertes believes that it is his responsibility to avenge his father who Hamlet had mistakenly killed; he believes that he is not honorable in the event that he doesn’t seek retribution for his father. The epic of Beowulf exhibits the topics of good and evil and exhibits the true characters of warriors, urging people to uphold their obligations to be virtuous. Righteousness is exhibited through the characters Hrothgar and Beowulf, and maliciousness is displayed through Grendel and his mother. Good attributes are associated with the ideals of honesty, loyalty, glory, and heroic acts. Beowulf is the epitome of valor and bravery. He expresses no fear and never falters from his quests throughout the epic. As opposed to Unferth, who allows his bravery to falter and presents himself to be an unworthy knight. On the other hand, Grendel and his mother only exhibit a malicious passion to destroy. Even as the epic causes us to notice accomplishments of strength and valor, there is nearly as much accentuation on the hospitality of King Hrothgar. After his triumphs, Beowulf is praised with celebrations and feasts hosted by the king. The celebrations and feasts are described as comprehensively as the battles. Beowulf’s loyalty to King Hrothgar is due to his obligation to repay King Hrothgar for the help and refuge he previously extended to Beowulf’s father. In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster concurs that in myths “despite occasional personal shortcomings, the characters have an unmistakable nobility.” (Foster, 2003, p. 40). Simply put, individuals and society often fail to uphold their obligations and duties toward their community, leading these authors to emphasize the moral belief that we as individuals must fulfill our civic duty.

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Ethics and Morals in English Literature. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Ethics and Morals in English Literature.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
Ethics and Morals in English Literature. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Ethics and Morals in English Literature [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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