Discussion Topic

The timing of Hamlet's decision to act against Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet


Hamlet's decision to act against Claudius is marked by hesitation and delay. He struggles with his conscience, the moral implications of revenge, and the authenticity of the ghost's claims. This indecision persists until the final act, where circumstances force Hamlet to finally confront Claudius, resulting in a tragic culmination of events.

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Should Hamlet have acted against Claudius sooner?

As a matter of fact, I do agree with this criticism. Hamlet decides to act mad, and then waits for months before taking any other "action." Then, he seems only to make a plan once the traveling troupe of actors happens to show up at Elsinore. It surprises me that he would not be quicker to act, given the awful grief Hamlet feels upon the death of his father, the terrible way in which his father was murdered, and the fact that revenge means so much to to his father that his ghost returns to charge Hamlet with the responsibility of avenging him. 

Also damning, for me, is the way Hamlet feels about himself. If he were making progress and pleased with that progress, I might feel less critical of him. Hamlet thinks he's not acting the way he should, though. Consider his speech after he watches an actor emote during a performance: he asks himself, "Am I a coward?": a seemingly rhetorical question whose answer is, evidently, yes (Act II, Scene 2, line 598). He also calls himself a

dull and muddy-mettled rascal, [who] peak[s]
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made (Act II, Scene 2, lines 594-598).

Hamlet criticizes and characterizes himself as someone without courage who is, at best, an absent-minded dreamer who accomplishes nothing, despite the fact that he loved his dear father who was defeated in such a despicable way.

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Should Hamlet have killed Claudius sooner in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

While the audience might want Hamlet to act immediately upon hearing the ghost's story, Hamlet's hesitation helps to develop his character.

When the ghost who claims the identity of the former King Hamlet informs young Hamlet that he was murdered, Hamlet is incensed. He immediately swears that he will kill the "damned villain." Yet when the ghost departs, Hamlet doesn't rush to action. Instead, he wants to make certain that his uncle is guilty of regicide and considers that the ghost could have possibly been a demon trying to trick him:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ 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... (II.ii.627-632)

Hamlet is deeply conflicted about this task, which speaks to his character. He doesn't want to murder an innocent man,even if the likelihood of Claudius's innocence is quite slim. Hamlet therefore orchestrates a test (the play-within-a-play) to determine whether Claudius is truly guilty of murdering his own brother, the former King.

Hamlet's delay reveals that he wants to deliver true justice, that he believes in virtue, and that he is concerned for the eternal implications if he is wrong. If he had rushed to action, these character traits would not have been well-developed, and he would instead have been viewed as a reactive and rather easily manipulated character.

By delaying his vengeance, it can be argued that Hamlet proves that he is a more respectable and analytical man.

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