Why Does Hamlet Delay Killing Claudius

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Just to give you an overall view of the issues involved, numerous possibilities exist for Hamlet's delay.  Shakespeare is notoriously ambiguous--like reality or actuality--and his complex works leave much room for interpretation.  Critics have argued over Hamlet's delay for years, putting forth at least the following possibilities for Hamlet's delay. 

  • He is melancholic, or depressed, which leads to inaction.
  • He is actually "mad" or insane, not just acting mad or insane.
  • He is fastidious, thorough, and won't act until he is absolutely sure of the details (thus, when he finally does act, it is always spontaneous, on the spur of the moment, as they say).
  • He is unsure of the identity of the Ghost.
  • He is afraid.
  • He is too moral to kill.
  • He is more of a scholar than an avenger.  Thought is his form of action.
  • He is a master procrastinator.
  • He doesn't want to send Claudius to heaven by killing him at prayer.
  • He feels the need for the story of what really happened to be made public, and he won't kill Claudius until the truth is known.

The most probable reasons for Hamlet's delay are probably a combination of the above, however.  I'll outline them in steps:

  1. Hamlet is certainly depressed over his father's death, his mother's hasty and incestuous marriage, and his loss of the thrown (to Claudius).
  2. He is unsure of the Ghost's identity until he gets corroboration from the king's reaction to the play within the play.
  3. He is then ready for action, but he doesn't want to send Claudius to heaven (the climax of the play--Hamlet plays God by trying to determine another human's salvation).

From that point on, one can argue that Hamlet does then kill Claudius the first good or practical chance he has:  when it becomes evident in public that the king is guilty of treachery--when Laertes and Gertrude reveal the king's poisoning of the drink, etc.  Thus, the delay is not really an issue.  One should not really expect Hamlet to kill a king when he is unsure, and the so-called "delay" really comes down to the one instance when Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius and chooses not to--when Claudius is at prayer. 

luannw's profile pic

luannw | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

That's the timeless question of the play.  At the end of Act 1, Hamlet accepts his ghost-father's command to get revenge against Claudius because Claudius killed Hamlet's father. In Act 1, sc. 5, Hamlet tells Horatio, "It is an honest ghost-". Later, though, in Act 2, sc. 2, Hamlet says, "The spirit I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T'assume a pleasing shape..." which indicates that Hamlet isn't sure the ghost he spoke to was truly the spirit of his dead father and that's the reason he hasn't carried out his revenge.  He goes on to say that he will have the players perform a re-enactment of the killing as described by the ghost.  Later, in Act 3, sc. 3, when Hamlet has seen by the king's reaction that he is guilty of what the ghost described, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius when Claudius is all alone in the chapel.  Hamlet doesn't kill him though because, as he says in lines 72-78, if he kills Claudius while Claudius is prayer, Hamlet fears Claudius's soul will go to Heaven and Hamlet does not want that.  He wants Claudius's soul to go to hell.  In Act 4, sc. 4, Hamlet once again rails against himself and his lack of action saying that he is not sure why he has delayed except that he overthinks the situation: "...Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple / Or thinking too precisely on th' event....".  Even Hamlet does not seem to be clear about why he delays in getting revenge.

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