How is Hamlet's lack of self-confidence a contributing or indirect factor to his downfall?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet becomes increasingly depressed and loses confidence in the world around him after learning from the ghost that his uncle murdered his father. Hamlet questions what the ghost tells him and delays his revenge until he has confirmed that the ghost is telling the truth.

If Hamlet had simply stormed into the castle and confidently and immediately put a rapier through Claudius in revenge for killing his father, we would have had a very different story. Instead, Hamlet hesitates to enact vengeance, and when, knowing his uncle is a murderer, he does catch Claudius at his prayers, he lacks the confidence to kill him then, fearing his enemy's soul would be in a state of grace and go straight to heaven. This would not be a full revenge, as Hamlet's own father, caught unawares and dying in a state of sin, has been forced to walk the earth as a ghost.

This failure to kill Claudius at his prayers, where, ironically, he is not in a state of grace at all but actually contemplating his lack of remorse over being a murderer, leads Hamlet to then kill Polonius by mistake. This is the act that brings back Laertes, bent on revenge, and leads to the pile up of dead bodies at the end of the play.

It is difficult to decide whether it is Hamlet's lack of self-confidence or the over-confidence of his feeling certain it is Claudius behind the arras that drives the play to its final tragic conclusion. In either case, Hamlet's shaken beliefs and his erratic reactions to the way his world has been turned upside down result in a bad ending.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet's lack of self-confidence is a topic scholars have long debated.  Hamlet is a different man that his father, an intellectual rather than a warrior.  He struggles with coming to terms with the bloody revenge his father demands.  Says critic Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

Hamlet...cannot strike us as a likely avenger, because his intellectual freedom, his capaciousness of spirit, seems so at odds with his Ghost-imposed Mission (392).

We see Hamlet struggle with his sense of self and the imposed self throughout the play.  Hamlet wants verification that his mission is legitimate before he will act.  He tells Horatio,

If it (the ghost) assume my noble father's person, / I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape / And bid me hold my peace" (1.2.265-67). 

Hamlet continually struggles with his moral compass and cannot bring himself to kill Claudius when he has a clear opportunity:

I do know / Why yet I live to say, "This thing's to do." / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't"  (4.4.46-49). 

Yet for all his vacillating, Hamlet is a paradox.  When he accidentally kills Polonious, he shows no remorse.  He is cruel to the woman he claims to love.  Such acts do not mesh with reason.

You might be interested in the free lessons and discussion questions available at eNotes on Hamlet.  Just click the first link below. 

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet's lack of self-confidence makes him hesitate to act decisively. While he hesitates, failing to comply with his father's ghost's request promptly, other individuals who are not implicated by his uncle's crime are caught in the crossfire. The innocent—if clueless—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die after Hamlet comes to believe they have turned against him at the behest of his uncle; Hamlet kills Claudius's adviser, the talkative Polonius, thinking he is Claudius hidden behind an arras; Ophelia, Hamlet's former lover, goes insane and drowns as a result of his betrayal and her father's death; Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is accidentally murdered by her husband when she drinks poisoned wine meant for Hamlet; Laertes (who is not innocent of plotting against Hamlet but is still noble of heart, a fact that Hamlet acknowledges publicly) also dies after plotting with Claudius and then confessing his misdeeds and apologizing to Hamlet. Finally, Hamlet dies after being struck by Laertes's sword, which has been tipped with poison. If he would have acted quickly, killing his uncle early on, or even when he had the opportunity while Claudius prayed, so many deaths could have been avoided, including Hamlet's own. His lack of self-confidence makes him delay, and this delay leads to the downfall of many characters, as well as Hamlet himself.

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