Why does Hamlet question his courage in Act 2, Scene 2?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In a long soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet asks himself, "Am I a coward?" He wonders about his own courage because he cannot understand what has been keeping him from doing what he promised the ghost of his father he would do--kill Claudius. This question has always been the biggest problem critics have tried to deal with. What is the reason for his fecklessness, his indecisiveness, his procrastination? His problem does not seem to be lack of courage, since he acts excessively courageously later on when his ship bound for England is attacked by pirates (see Act 4, Scene 6). His indecisiveness causes other characters to suffer, including Polonius, Ophelia, and Gertrude. If Hamlet himself can't understand why he hasn't acted, it seems nearly impossible for the reader/viewer to provide an definite answer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that Hamlet's problem is that he thinks too much. Even at the very end of the play he only acts decisively in killing Claudius because he acts on impulse in the heat of emotion and doesn't take time to think. He questions his courage because he can't make himself act.

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