In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, how might one argue that Hamlet's irresolution is due to circumstances rather than due to weakness of character?
The argument that Hamlet should have killed Claudius very soon after hearing the charges made by the ghost is, in many ways, a weak argument. Hamlet has some good reasons to delay taking immediate revenge. His delay, then, is not entirely due to any alleged weakness of character but is instead also due to reasonable hesitation and to various circumstances. Reasons for his delay include the following:
- He cannot be entirely sure that the ghost is telling him the truth.
- He cannot be entirely sure that the ghost is a benign spirit rather than a devil intending to tempt him to do evil.
- He knows the Biblical injunction that all vengeance should be left to God.
- He knows the Biblical injunction against murder.
- He knows that many Christian theologians counseled patience rather than hostile action when faced with an evil ruler.
As Hamlet himself explains at one point (before the staging of the play within the play),
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
- As this speech suggests, Hamlet is aware of his psychological “weakness” and “melancholy” and wants to be sure that his actions are not dictated by any such weakness.
- He fears that any temporary victory he may achieve against Claudius here on earth may ironically result in Hamlet’s own eternal damnation (thus giving Claudius a kind of victory in the afterlife).
Perhaps the most obvious example of a delay in Hamlet’s plans for revenge due to circumstances alone occurs when he comes upon Claudius praying. Hamlet now has an excellent chance to kill Claudius if he so chooses, but he chooses not to do so, for reasons he clearly explains:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I reveng'd. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
To kill Claudius at this point would actually benefit Claudius and would also condemn Hamlet to hell. Here, then, mere circumstantial considerations persuade Hamlet to delay any planned revenge.