Why Does Hamlet Hesitate To Kill Claudius
Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill Claudius? Where is it located in the play?
To a large extent, Hamlet's vacillation is expressive of his double role as both a Christian and a Renaissance prince. He seems constantly torn between these two significant aspects of his personality, so much so that his freedom of action is seriously impaired. Hamlet's existential dilemma is encapsulated in act 3, scene 3, when he spies Claudius kneeling at prayer, begging God for forgiveness for his murder of Hamlet's father:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Hamlet's itching to kill Claudius. And this is the perfect opportunity for him to settle scores. He unsheathes his sword, but Hamlet, being Hamlet, changes his mind. His rationale is that killing Claudius while he's at prayer might actually send him to heaven rather than hell, and Hamlet doesn't want to take that chance. Far better to wait until Claudius is doing something depraved like swearing at the gaming table, lying in a drunken stupor, or sleeping with Gertrude.
Clearly, Hamlet wouldn't be thinking this way if Christianity didn't have some effect upon him. He's already indicated how seriously he takes the Word of God in relation to suicide:
That the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter (act 1, scene 2).
Also, Hamlet's faith prevents him from completely trusting the Ghost. How does he know it's really the ghost of his father and not some evil spirit?
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play's the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king (act 2, scene 2).
In time, Hamlet comes to see Claudius's treacherous act of murder as part of a bigger picture, a gigantic cosmic drama created by Divine Providence. It is only by seeing his planned revenge as expressive of a higher, more transcendent justice, as opposed to the settling of a personal vendetta, that Hamlet is finally able to reconcile himself to the deed.
The most obvious place where Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius comes in Act 3, Scene 3, where Claudius is alone, defenseless, kneeling at prayer, and unaware of Hamlet's presence. Hamlet actually draws his sword and says to himself, "Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; / And now I'll do't" (3.3.73-4). But characteristically he has second thoughts. He always has trouble making up his mind to take action, although he can act vigorously at critical moments when he doesn't have time to think, as when he kills Polonius, when he boards the pirate ship, when he fights with Laertes at Ophelia's grave site, and when he fiinally does kill Claudius in the last act. Hamlet tells himself that this is not the right moment because Claudius might be in a state of grace and go to heaven, whereas Hamlet's father was sound asleep and Claudius "...took my father grossly, full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May; / And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?" (3.3.80-82) Hamlet decides to wait and kill the king "When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, / Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed; / At gaming, a-swearing, or about some act / That has no relish of salvation in't" (3.3.88-92). This may be only partially an excuse for further procrastination.