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In most respects, Hamlet is seen as a man of action, not procrastination. Shakespeare explores and critiques the notion that revenge is a “heroic” action.
Laertes, unlike Hamlet, seems untroubled by qualms of conscience and acts without hesitation, but his obsession with revenge allows Claudius to make him his tool. When Hamlet acts most like Laertes—impulsively, violently—he kills the wrong man and sets in motion the events that will lead to his death. To be bent on killing is always morally problematic: the revenger defies the dictates of Scripture when he takes over the role of divine justice, seeking to play God.
D. Ironically, when Hamlet tells Gertrude that the heavens have made him their “scourge and minister,” he does so after mistakenly killing Polonius.
The complexity of Hamlet’s situation suggests that the most powerful tragic dramas are those in which the protagonist is under the greatest pressure from a combination of external and internal forces. It is not surprising that Hamlet contemplates suicide because his death may be the only thing he feels he has any control over.
Hamlet’s speeches of self-interrogation—and the soliloquies in which he lacerates himself for failing to exact bloody vengeance—often set (ostensibly) noble action in a complicated relationship with mere acting: dissembling and role-playing. Shakespeare is here putting his own spin on a popular contemporary metaphor describing existence as a stage play (a metaphor often invoked in his other dramas). An impromptu performance by the professional players leads Hamlet to contrast an actor’s weeping for Queen Hecuba’s fictional sufferings to his own inability to respond to a very real “cue for passion.”
Hamlet is himself an actor when he deploys his “antic disposition,” his feigned madness. His crazed behavior will help him to mask his dangerous knowledge of his father’s murder. However, conversing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet seems to articulate a melancholic vision remarkably similar to the one he voiced in his first soliloquy. The slippery borderline between performance and reality is also suggested by his aggressive behavior to Ophelia in the nunnery scene.
Hamlet as would-be man of action is juxtaposed not only with Laertes but also with Fortinbras. Sent on a mission to England by Claudius, Hamlet encounters the army of Fortinbras. When Hamlet learns that Fortinbras and his men are risking their lives to recapture a meager bit of territory, he is moved to compare his own hesitations with their valiance. At the same time that he seems to find Fortinbras’ actions heroic, Hamlet betrays in his soliloquy some skepticism concerning the rash courage that risks others’ lives “even for an eggshell.” Shakespeare offers us the possibility that Hamlet’s scruples may be more admirable than the unthinking violence of Fortinbras and Laertes. Hamlet’s world celebrates the warrior ethos that justifies destructive action when personal honor seems to be at stake. The question remains whether Hamlet can in fact play out the “Fortinbras script.”
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