What is the major dramatic question in Hamlet?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the most important dramatic question in Hamlet is whether the title character will avenge his father's death. This, of course, is the main thrust of the plot, and Hamlet's frequent digressions, as well as his overall lack of purpose, are among the most important aspects of his character. It is by no means certain that vengeance will be achieved, as Hamlet not only lapses into periods of reflection and melancholy that delay his goal, but at one point actually turns down the chance to kill Claudius when he catches him praying:

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage; 
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; 
At game, a-swearing, or about some act 
That has no relish of salvation in't 
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, 
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black 
As hell, whereto it goes.

It should be noted, of course, that a regicide was no small matter for a prince like Hamlet, and that he was acting only on the authority of a ghost, which he is not certain he can trust. This is why Hamlet goes to the trouble of staging a play, and of noting the king's reaction to it. He had to be certain that the ghost was not deceiving him. Still, though (including the prayer scene in Claudius's chamber) Hamlet delays revenge, and chastises himself for doing so in Act IV Scene 4. Comparing himself with the robust young Fortinbras, nephew of the king of Norway, he feels like a coward, and pledges that "from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" Yet he is delayed by his trip to England, and is really only forced to action by the king's plot with Laertes to bring about his death. Yet there are many other dramatic questions in the play, and some might argue that the question of Hamlet's madness is as important as vengeance.