Hannah Waddilove 12.3 English Literature AS
“Hamlet is better at talking about revenge, than he is at doing it.” Consider the reasons for his delay
The question of why Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father’s death is perhaps one of the most perplexing problems faced by an audience. Each generation of viewers has come up with it’s own explanation, and it has now become the most widely known critical problem in Shakespearean studies. A rather simplistic, yet valid standpoint to take on this problem is that it was essential to the tragedy’s narrative progression. As Hanmer said “had he gone naturally to work, there would have been an end to our play!”. Shakespeare, then, is faced with a problem – Hamlet must delay his revenge, and he has to come up with reasons why. The ingenuity of his solutions in depicting this complex and troubled man has given us an insight into the human condition of relevance to each age. Since we are certainly left in no doubt of the intricacy of Hamlet’s character, it would therefore seem that Shakespeare is exploring a diversity of reasons as to why the Prince of Denmark delays his revenge.
Hamlet’s delay begins as he recognises that first he must determine the ghost’s true nature. Upon doubting the authenticity of its form he questions it’s intent with, “Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell?”. Despite the ghost’s pending claim of “I am thy father’s spirit”, Hamlet still seems to be unconvinced, thus presenting Shakespeare with a primary ingredient for delay.
As way of detecting the truth, the Prince decides to put on a play, and have it performed almost as a re-enactment of the ghosts tale. The play, Hamlet claims “is the image of a murder done in Vienna”, the foul act in this performance however is presented as a replica of Old Hamlet’s story, where the murderer ‘pours poison into the King’s ears’. By doing this Hamlet hopes to receive a negative reception from the King, thus revealing the ugly burden on his conscience. The play, in depicting the King’s guilt, does have a certain degree of success. His wish for the lights to come on and his order of “Away!” certainly suggest he was not feeling altogether comfortable in the situation, but there of course could have been a number of reasons for his minor distress. For Hamlet however it is sufficient, for in later conversation with Horatio he says, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound!”
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Hamlet has now secured in his mind that the Ghost was telling the truth, and so can have no doubt that revenge is what Claudius deserves. His delay however does not subside, so what can be his reason now?
Much of his hesitation it seems comes as a result of his own self-doubt. He feels he lacks the powerful warrior image; the one which his Father and so many more do possess. In this respect feelings of inferiority paralyse him to take any action. One can see, in Hamlet’s first soliloquy how insignificant he feels compared to his father when he says “no more like my father/Than I to Hercules”. These feelings also apply to figures such as Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, who in his effort to regain his Father’s lost land, leads an army of ‘mass and charge”. These actions of vengeance are ones which Hamlet cannot imagine himself fulfilling, but it is certain his lack of confidence would not be so predominant if he did not have these warrior types to compare himself with. He admires and envies men such as Fortinbras, but feels he cannot live up to their statue. It is certain he sees that he ‘ought’ to avenge his father’s cause, but this doubting within himself, reinforced by the honourable brave abilities of others prevent him from doing so. “The time is out of joint. O, cursèd spite, That I was ever born to set it right!” emphasises the uncertainty of his mind and his own self-doubt that contributes massively to Shakespeare’s plot of delay.
By setting himself up against others Hamlet forms in his mind a somewhat degrading, unworthy image of himself. It is perhaps however sufficient to suggest that even without this repressing influence, Hamlet’s character alone could be an adequate excuse for delay. For as Goethe said, “Hamlet was of a most moral nature, and had a great anxiety to do right”. It seems therefore that on this issue of revenge, Shakespeare created Hamlet as one who fights viciously with his conscience, thereby prolonging the intended act. Hamlet certainly stresses his belief of asserting the superiority of restraint and discretion over passion, thus highlighting a direct contrast to Laertes, who, in hearing of his father’s death, let his revenge be guided by a fiery spur of passion. We also learn, that unlike Hamlet, Laertes would have not have thought twice about murdering his victim in a church. Perhaps if Hamlet were more like Laertes, letting passion take control, there would have been no moral scruple to contend with.
Hamlet it seems has no appetite for revenge. A wild, passionate attack on the King is clearly not on the agenda, for Hamlet is not one to act, rather it seems, he prefers to think. The ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy establishes Hamlet as this reflective, characteristically detached and tremendously analytical man. This flaw, for it is often known as one, of this abstract reflection is another significant reason for his procrastination.
Hamlet’s periods of profound dissection do however show that he has a desperate will to do right, although in this circumstance a further complication arises; what is ‘right’? As part of the battle with his is conscience, Hamlet caught between two belief systems, Paganism and Christianity.
In the play Shakespeare goes to elaborate lengths to show us there is not only life after death in the Christian faith, but also divine punishment for those who sin. In context, this means divine justice will be won and Claudius will be severely punished in the after-life. If Hamlet were to accept this view, revenge would not be necessary. The pagan universe however tells him it is his duty as a son to obey his earthly father. Hamlet it seems cannot articulate this problem; to do so would be to accuse his father of being a devil who asks his son in the nature of loving duty, to do what would cost him his soul. This confusion in his mind, which we see unsuccessfully rationalised in numerous soliloquies, naturally does cause some reason for delay.
On a more practical level, in terms of politics, Hamlet would have been foolish to go straight ahead in the murder of the King. Left with this commission of vengeance, what was Hamlet actually meant to do? The King was not merely surrounded by courtiers, but a Swiss bodyguard too. To excuse the King publicly of murder would have been ridiculous. Firstly, the King was elected, so one presumes he was relatively popular, and secondly, how would Hamlet prove the charge? His only evidence would be the ghost’s story, and if he were to put this forward he would be labelled ‘mad’. In contrast, if Hamlet were to murder the King publicly he would be arrested. In this light, Hamlet could not see what he could possibly do, and so his decision was to wait.
From all this we are assuming that Hamlet does in fact wish to take revenge. However, the influence of Montaigne suggests that Hamlet’s delay comes from his view that there is little point in doing anything. Montaigne is a pessimistic materialist approach which says there is no afterlife, thus asking the question, if there is no point in this life, does that not make everything pointless? This is a problem that troubles Hamlet. Surely then he must have been asking himself, why do anything, never mind take revenge? This new belief of his, or lack of it rather, paralyses him from taking any action. It presumes that after death we simply all turn to dust. This image of ‘dust’ is reflected on frequent occasions in the text; “seek for thy noble father in the dust” and “yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” are just two examples.
Although the influence of Montaigne is a possible reason for Hamlet’s delay, it seems then that if it is, Hamlet has forgotten of the figure that bore a striking resemblance to his father. This figure, that Hamlet later claimed to be “an honourable ghost”, was telling Hamlet of the horrors of Purgatory, thus contradicting any view that Hamlet had of Montaigne. However, despite this, if Hamlet did in fact see no point in anything, there is little reason why he would take revenge.
One did see however a drastic change in Hamlet’s outlook pending his adventure at sea. On his return there was a clear difference in his state of mind; from being almost suicidal it seems he now feels life to be preferable to death. His letter explaining his journey had a clarity and energy about it which reflected a new outlook in the writer. This is a significant point to notice, for as his state of mind is altered, now comes the time when he is about to fulfil his revenge.
In the romances Shakespeare wrote at the end of his career, he used sea voyages symbolically as a kind of baptism; characters old selves ‘die’ and then emerge ‘sea-chang’d’. In Hamlet’s case, his mind is now free; free of fear, free of corruption, so that now is the time to focus upon his revenge.
Critics such as Hanmer who said in 1730, ‘there appears no reason at all in nature why this young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible’ see Hamlet’s delay as a pure defect in Shakespeare’s management of the plot. They do not seem to acknowledge the possibility that it was perhaps due to the play writes design. Despite the fact that without a delay, the play would not exist, it does seem that in creating Hamlet’s character, Shakespeare is expressing a point about the complexity of the human mind. Without a doubt he has achieved this objective, so then our job, in exploring Hamlet’s intricate character, is to come to a conclusion about why Hamlet delays within the plot.
One option is that perhaps practical obstacles guarded his way. Was Claudius so shrewd and well protected that Hamlet could not, even if he wished to, find him alone? Did much of Hamlet’s delay come down to distrusting the expressions of the Ghost, and so the investigation of whether it’s story was true took up time?
On the other hand, one can look in more detail at Hamlet’s character and decide from there. For Geothe, the case was thus: “A lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature…sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away”. In other words, Hamlet’s battle with his moral conscience and his insecurities when looking at superior warrior types meant he did not have the ‘will’ to commit this vengeance. His reflective personality delayed his revenge; his constant analytical thinking paralysed him, and when he did actually fulfil his task it was on pure instinct when he did not have time to think. This final point perhaps suggests that overall it was Hamlet’s personal shortcomings that led to his delay. The fight with his moral conscience, his belief in restraint over passion all contributed to his major hesitation. However, overall it was down to Hamlet’s substantial indifference to a typical ‘revenge hero’. Bloodthirsty, passionate and fiery are qualities that Hamlet certainly did lack. Rather he took the more passive, sly approach which would inevitably lead to a significant delay.