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Hamlet's Delay

The question of why Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father's death is probably the best-known critical problem in Shakespeare studies. The most obvious reply to this inquiry is that if the Danish prince moved at once upon the Ghost's report of foul "murther" and killed Claudius straightaway, then there would be no further story for Shakespeare to tell after the start of the play's second act. From this simplistic (if valid) standpoint, Hamlet's delay is essential to the tragedy's narrative progression. More important, while there is plenty of action in Hamlet (a stage work in which all of the major characters suffer untimely deaths), the play's plot is plainly subordinate to the tandem development of Hamlet's character and certain philosophical themes such as the knotty issues of mortality and chance. Absent his deferral of action, there would be no need for Hamlet to grow into his role as "scourge and minister," and no dramatic occasions at hand for his (and our) consideration of the deeper issues that Shakespeare poses in this tragedy.

A second response to this question challenges its underlying premises. It proceeds from the counter-assertion that Hamlet does, in fact, act forcefully long before the play's final act. By Act V, Hamlet has invented the "mousetrap" of the play-within-a-play, slain Polonius and dragged his corpse away, persuaded the off-stage pirates to release him from captivity, and cleverly arranged the demise of his erstwhile schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Moreover, after being told about the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's apparition on the walks of Elsinore Castle, Hamlet says to Horatio that he will speak with his father's ghost "though hell itself should gape/And bid me to hold my peace" (I, ii. ll.244-245). Indeed, Hamlet casts aside the fears of Horatio and Marcellus about what awaits him when the Ghost beckons, and orders them to unhand him so that he can speak face-to-face with this awesome, fear-provoking figure. These prior acts are not those of a passive or timid soul.

Nevertheless, neither of these pat answers is sufficient to overcome our sense that Hamlet wavers in carrying out the commission laid upon him by the Ghost. Not only does his excuse for not killing the king while he is at prayer ring hollow, Claudius's death in Act V is not the outcome of a truly deliberate act, but a seemingly chance occurrence brought about by circumstances that Hamlet's enemies have contrived. Our sense that Hamlet delays action is reinforced by his demeanor and, above all, by his own words. When we first see the Prince on stage, dressed in black and self-exiled to the periphery of the court, he assumes the role of a critical observer making disparaging asides about Claudius and his consort. After learning of his uncle's crime, Hamlet comes into court in Act II, scene ii reading a book. The association of Hamlet with "mere words" is strengthened by his penchant for ingenious but pointless verbal banter and highlighted by the inordinate number of soliloquies assigned to him by the playwright. Most explicitly, our impression that Hamlet avoids action comes from the Prince's own lips. Shakespeare's Danish prince berates himself as a "coward" in three of the play's central soliloquies. In Act II, scene ii, he declares, "O, what a rogue and a peasant slave am I!" (II, ii. l.550), and then asks the quasi-rhetorical question, "Am I a coward?" (l.571). Thereafter, he rebukes himself for not acting in the famous "To be or not to be" speech of Act III, scene i. Later, having been exiled to England for his own "safety," Hamlet encounters a captain in the army of his Norwegian counterpart, Fortinbras, and contrasts the bravery of these men at arms with his own indecisiveness, exclaiming, "How all my occasions do inform against me,/And spur my dull revenge!" (IV, iv. ll.32-33).

There are at least three psychological bases that critics of the play have identified as sources of Hamlet's procrastination. First, even before he...

(The entire section is 31,194 words.)