Why does it take Hamlet so long to avenge his father's death?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It really does not take Hamlet very long to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet is full of self-reproach, and there is some danger of the audience taking him at his own valuation as he castigates his own idleness. Perhaps the only action that really smacks of indecisiveness is his staging...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

It really does not take Hamlet very long to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet is full of self-reproach, and there is some danger of the audience taking him at his own valuation as he castigates his own idleness. Perhaps the only action that really smacks of indecisiveness is his staging of an elaborate drama to force Claudius into betraying his guilt, when the ghost has already related all the circumstances of his murder in I.v. Having heard the ghost’s story, Hamlet seems very clear indeed that he believes it and that nothing in his life can be more important than recalling and following his father’s instructions.

Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

Aside from this vacillation to provide himself with reassurance, however, Hamlet really cannot be blamed for his delay. There are few opportunities to kill a king, and Claudius is very much on his guard. Hamlet does not profess to know what happens to the soul after death. His uncertainty on this point is one of the principal subjects of his most celebrated soliloquy, "To be or not to be..." in III.i. Anyone with a Christian background, however, would quite understand his reluctance to kill the king at prayer, which he has the chance to do in III.iii. Apart from this moment, Claudius is generally surrounded by his courtiers. It is no trivial affair to kill the king in public, and protestations that a ghost told one to do it are unlikely to assist matters.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One reason Hamlet takes so long may be that the opportunity has not yet arisen for him to kill Claudius before the scene in Act III.iii when Claudius seems to be praying. At that point, Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius because Claudius's prayer will win him forgiveness, and Hamlet wants him to have a worthy punishment for his father's murder.

Another reason may be that Hamlet simply thinks too continually about it. He hesitates because he looks at the task from too many angles. He is paralyzed by his own uncertainty. He is uncertain of whether killing Claudius is really the right thing to do. He is uncertain, as is evidenced in his soliloquy at the end of Act II.ii, that the Ghost is really his father.

The passage below taken from Hamlet's Act II.ii soliloquy sheds more light on the reasons for his hesitation:

... I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. 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.

The quotation above voices some of Hamlet's doubts and reasons to hesitate. The Ghost may be a devil tricking him into a murder that will damn him. He plans to test both the King and the Ghost through The Mousetrap, the play within the play. Of course, the Ghost's claim turns out to be true and this reassurance solidifies Hamlet's resolve to go through with the revenge ritual.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are a few suppositions for this: one is that Hamlet simply wants to think about the problem carefully in order to exact justice rather than vengeance.

Another supposition is that Hamlet is troubled and depressed. He is torn between what his father wants him to do, which is in conflict with his Protestant beliefs, and what is philosophically right.

Another supposition put forth by some critics is that Hamlet is indecisive because he is actually insane, not just acting insane.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team