Who is to blame for the play's tragedies? Can Claudius be held responsible for all the sorrows (including, by the end of the play, the deaths of nearly all the major characters) of Hamlet? Or is...

Who is to blame for the play's tragedies?

Can Claudius be held responsible for all the sorrows (including, by the end of the play, the deaths of nearly all the major characters) of Hamlet? Or is Hamlet more to blame for the way the play unfolds?

Expert Answers
shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is interesting to consider blame or responsibility for events in a play like Hamlet.  To my mind, the results of the events of a play should come directly from the choices made by the characters during the course of the play.  It would be a boring play indeed, if events merely unfolded as a result of actions characters had taken before the play's first Act even opens.

And so, in Hamlet, it is Hamlet and his delay in his revenge (and his killing of Polonius) that must be held responsible for the resulting deaths/sorrows in the play.  Claudius' murder of his brother and usurping of throne does set the play in motion, but Hamlet's speedy and direct action towards his revenge would have prevented the following:

  • Polonius' accidental death in Gertrude's closet at Hamlet's hands
  • Ophelia's death (by accident or suicide) -- a result of her madness, caused by her father's murder
  • the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, instigated by Hamlet as a means to save his own life
  • the death of Gertrude, who drinks the poison meant for Hamlet (after he refuses to drink)
  • the death of Laertes, whom Hamlet stabs with the same envenomed sword that Laertes has meant for Hamlet
  • the death of Hamlet, killed with the poisoned tip of Laertes sword in revenge of Polonius' death
  • and, finally, the much anticipated death of Claudius, the last character to be killed in the play.

These deaths should be attributed to Hamlet and not Claudius, since it is through the course of the actual play that Hamlet must choose to act or to delay.  It is his choice to delay (along with his rash choice to blindly stab at the person hiding in his mother's chamber -- Polonius) which is responsible for the deaths of the play.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I too see the point made in the first post, but have to add that Hamlet wouldn't have had to delay action if he hadn't been called to action in the first place.  It is Claudius's fault.  Hamlet's nature is just not one made for fighting, and I, for one, respect his desire to prove Claudius's guilt before acting, and for wanting a "good" revenge for his father, not killing Claudius in what he has every reason to believe it a prayerful moment -- one that could send him to heaven while his own father would continue to languish in pupurgatory.  Hamlet faults and flaws are certainly factors in most of the deaths of the play, but I always think about guilt and responsibly when I consider Horatio's last speech when he says, "So shall you hear of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts; of accidental judgements, casual slaughters; of death's put on by cunning and forced cause; and, ... purposes mistook, fall'n on the inventor's heads."  That whole list can't all be on Hamlet.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I certainly see the point that the first post is trying to make, but it seems to be a little hard on Hamlet.  Basically, what this post is saying is that the rest of these deaths are Hamlet's fault because he should have just gotten with it and killed Claudius right away (or other wise taken revenge).  I can see the point, but I'm not sure I agree with it.

After all, whose is the ultimate responsiblity?  Claudius is the one who committed the acts that set the whole set of events in motion.  That, to me, makes it his fault.

But this is a tough question.  It's like asking whose fault the problems in Afghanistan today are.  Are they our fault for invading?  Or are they the Taliban's fault for allowing Al Qaeda to train there?  Is it the person who commits the act who is at fault or the person who responds to the act?

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thank you for cutting through the sophistry in post #5.  In Act I the viewer/reader perceives a sensible Hamlet who perceives the corruption in the court of Denmark.  That he is deliberate is laudable, and his actions or inactions are not to blame for those of the other characters.  Had Hamlet swiftly killed Claudius, the duplicitous Polonius may easily have found another path for his treachery and be caught in his actions later, too.  After all, Marcellus in Act I, Scene 4 observes, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!" and it is not all emanating from Hamlet.

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Personally, I have no doubt that Claudius is to blame for the entire mess at Elsinore Castle. He had help, but only as he motivated people to do his bidding: Polonius spies for the King; Laertes is driven mad with grief, convinced to avenge his father's death; Gertrude is there because she married Claudius. However, had Claudius not murdered Old Hamlet to begin with, all of these things would never have happen in the first place (including Ophelia's death).

I have to lay the blame on Claudius who shows little concern for anyone (except Ophelia) except himself.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would not put the blame square at Claudius's feet. His decisions were made based on his love for his 1)country, 2)crown (government), and 3)his queen. If we believe that these are a true expression of his thoughts and emotions, then he has put his personal relationship with Gertrude a very distant third belying the grand lust that Hamlet attributed to both Claudius and Gertrude.

creamy94 | Student

Although i do agree with the first and subsequent posts in the matter of the amount of blame being placed on Claudius, i feel that all of the characters in 'Hamlet' play their part in the tragic ending, however my ideas differ in the fact that i believe that Hamlet, without the influence of his fathers ghost would have lived a peaceful and full life. Hamlet was in a very delicate position in his early manhood when he was contacted by his late father, Hamlet probably had some feeling of resent and revenge within himself without the encouragement of this ghostly apparition, but rather than growing up as others his age were doing, he found that his form of becoming a man involved much more sinister things. Then as the others posts state, the other characters in the play, have their part in destroying and corrupting Hamlets mind into starting the tragic end.

frizzyperm | Student

If Claudius is to blame for all the events of the play, then, logically, none of us are to blame for anything because some original event in early history is the blame. For instance, the guy who badly cut me up this morning on a roundabout can blame a cheating donkey-seller in 6000B.C. Egypt!

I don't think we can blame Claudius for everything, he unleashed the vortex, but everyone remains responsible for their subsequent actions.