What's Hamlet's dilemma?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.

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