Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet’s dilemma is whether and how to kill King Claudius after learning that Claudius killed his father, married his mother, and took the throne of Denmark. The entire play revolves around this dilemma and the moral questions that it raises.

Those moral questions raised by Hamlet’s dilemma are numerous, and create much of the actual conflict of the play. Hamlet's mind is preoccupied by the angst of mortality and questions of how vengeance and justice are similar, but distinct. For example, Hamlet is presented with a perfect opportunity to kill King Claudius while he prays. However, Hamlet knows that killing someone while they pray lets them go to heaven, so he refuses to follow through because he wants Claudius to go to hell, instead.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a question that has been written about and argued about for centuries. Why doesn't Hamlet just go ahead and kill King Claudius as he promises the ghost of his father and as he repeatedly promises himself to do? On the one hand, he wants to commit murder, but on the other hand, he can't bring himself to act. His problem or dilemma seems to be, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, that he thinks too much. After all, Shakespeare establishes that Hamlet has been a student for many years and that he still, at the age of thirty, wants to go back to Wittenberg to continue his studies. He is an intellectual, a student, not a man of action and not a killer, but he has had a terrible problem forced upon him. He will act vigorously and decisively in the heat of passion, before he has had a chance to think--as when he single-handedly boards the pirate ship--but his thinking inhibits his ability to act because it inhibits his ability to feel murderous anger. At the end of the play he still hasn't brought himself to killing Claudius and probably wouldn't have done so even then if he hadn't gotten so emotionally aroused by several factors: the heated duel with Laertes, his discovery that he had been stabbed with a poisoned foil, and Laertes' revelation that the King was responsible for the plot against his life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial