Discuss how irresolution becomes dramatic strength in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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In Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2, Hamlet encourages First Player to recite a speech from a specific play. While the Player recites, his colour is "turned" and he "has / tears in's eyes." Hamlet then asks if the Player knows "the / Murder of Gonzago" to which the Player answers in the affirmative. Once Hamlet is left alone, after having arranging his plot for the theatrical performance in Act III, Scene 2 of the Murder of Gonzago, he delivers his second soliloquy in which he proclaims himself to be "muddy-mettled," which means of undependable courage and fortitude.

In this soliloquy, Hamlet contrasts the First Player's delivery of lines about Hecuba to his own condition. He finds that the Player demonstrates the fervor that Hamlet ought to be demonstrating after the murder of his father and the appearance of his father's ghost. He proclaims that he is "unpregnant of [his] cause." "Unpregnant" in this instance is an archaic usage that means to be convincing of an argument or a proof (The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition on Dictionary.com). Hamlet is condemning himself for being ineffectual because of his inability to speak up for a murdered kingand father and to be resolute in his "mettle," meaning his courage and fortitude.

At the end of this self-condemning speech in which his irresoluteness is addressed, Hamlet orders his brain to come about ("About, my brain!") and choose a resolute path. He commits himself to intently observing his uncle's face during the play he has ordered from the players, which is to be significantly modified by lines written by Hamlet himself.

Hamlet's irresoluteness, as he tells us, is occasioned by not knowing if the ghost of his father is really "the devil" sent "to damn [him]." From this comes the conclusion that Hamlet's irresoluteness equates with moral strength because it causes him to collect firm evidence and "have grounds / More relative than this" instead of  to act on the whim of a ghost who may be a devil ("relative" in used in its adjectival sense of pertinent or relevant). It is interesting to note that Hamlet's university was in the Protestant capitol of Wittenberg, Martin Luther's academic home.

Along with Hamlet's moral strength resulting from irresoluteness, the play gains dramatic strength in that the conflict becomes increasingly more complex as a result of his irresoluteness turned to resolution. Hamlet wants to believe rightly, judge rightly, act rightly. He does not want to be swayed by spiritual superstition, hastiness in condemning, or moral impurity of action, as is demonstrated when declares that he will not stoop to violence when talking to his mother, but circumstances spiral out of control due to his cautious irresoluteness prior to resolve.

In the end, the play has a strong tragic resolution in the ironic totality of murdered victims. As an aside, some might wonder if Hamlet's death does indicate that the ghost was a devil leading him into wrong doing. In the end analysis, Hamlet's irresoluteness in the face of uncertainty (uncertainty about the ghost's nature, about guilt for his father's death, about his role as bereaved son and Prince of Denmark, about the morality of revenge) led to his greater moral strength and his dramatically strong ironic tragic end.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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For Hamlet, his irresolution leads to absolute resolution.  Had he impulsively acted upon the ghost of his father's request that Hamlet avenge his death, the corrupt courtiers such as Polonius would still present.  But, with his continual self-debates and encounters with his mother, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the players, Laertes, and finally, Fortinbras; Hamlet arrives at the solution to his dilemma:  He must act as the Prince of Denmark and, after his dialgue with the noble Fortinbras, he resolves to act and duel Laertes.  That his revenge on Claudius is almost accidental is, indeed, part of he dramatic strength of Shakespeare's play. 

While Hamlet's hesitations bespeak of his moral integrity, there are also indications of some integrity in Faustus, although he is so misdirected.  Like Hamlet, Faustus commits an evil deed, but it is against those who are engaged in many evil deeds.  His discontent with his scholarship leads him to his pact with Lucifer, it is true.  But, this pact does effect his dealing with the gang of Lucifer.  Of Faustus, Davison wrote:

Faustus has triumphed in going beyond man's terrestial limits, but he has been simultaneously damned, and it is as a damned soul that he will be 'eternalized.'

Thus, in Platonic terms, both Hamlet and Faustus commit evil deeds, but with the intention of good.  Believing that ridding the country of its evil coutiers is for good, Hamlet acts against Laertes; believing that he is already damned and alienated from God, Faustus acts against the gang of Lucifer with the idea of going some good.

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