IT IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO DESCRIBE HAMLET AS A MAN WHO CANNOT MAKE UP HIS MIND
Each of Shakespeare’s young male protagonists is imbued with a fatal flaw, for Macbeth it is hubris and for Hamlet, it could be argued, it is the inability to act. Kettle postulates that Hamlet’s procrastination is the result of social rather than psychological impediment. As with every question this play raises, the debate is potentially endless.
One must remember however that if Hamlet were to take immediate action as a result of his father’s ghost’s claims, the play would be short indeed. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, a popular genre of the Elizabethan period. Faced with so many other plays of this purport Shakespeare must offer something innovative to hold his audience’s attention. It can be said that it is for this reason that he explores the repercussions of committing murder on the individual, despite the presence of a sound motive.
John Russell notes that Shakespeare’s problem, in presenting a character that cannot decide of a course of action, is that “a central character who cannot act cannot carry forward the dramatic action”. This could explain the presence of so many soul-searching soliloquies, the like of which have not been seen before, particularly in this genre. Prosser cites, “the “conventional moral ideas” of Shakespeare’s audience endorsed blood revenge as an unquestioned duty”. Perhaps, by voicing the deliberations of his protagonist’s mind, Shakespeare is attempting didacticism, wanting his audience to consider the consequences of a vengeance that would otherwise be carried out blindly.
Prosser says, “The ravages of revenge appear most clearly in the deterioration of the mind”. Hamlet’s madness has always been questioned, whether it is affected as he claims, or something he cannot control. Prosser goes on, “the revenger becomes distracted, shutting everything but revenge out of his mind”. This is clear in Hamlet’s behavior, his rejection of Ophelia sees him shut out an aspect of his life that would distract him from his purpose. He also says that he will consider nothing but revenge an unhealthy situation in which to be. Hamlet’s motives for feigning madness have been debated for centuries.
One possible explanation offered by Prosser is that “Hamlet intends by ironic double meaning to torture Claudius into public confession”. This could be regarded as evidence of action towards the fulfillment of his oath. The fact that he does not achieve what he hopes does not detract from his intention, the only confessions from Claudius as to his actions and motive occur when, as he believes, there is no one to hear him.
Prosser explores the religious repercussions of the actions Hamlet is expected to take. She states that, “the act of revenge would inevitably make Hamlet as evil as his injured in the eyes of God”. Hamlet’s father is left in purgatory with no murder upon his head, Hamlet would surely be consigned to hell, and Claudius is a relative, although not immediate.
Another question posed is that if Hamlet were to kill Claudius for killing his father, would someone not need to kill Hamlet to avenge that death, and then that person would need to be killed for killing Hamlet and so on? As Prosser says, “the nature of revenge makes justice impossible”. Therefore the situation cannot be satisfactorily resolved. To say that Hamlet is “a man who cannot make up his mind” is not a comprehensive assessment of his mental state. He decides on a course of action immediately, he also reaffirms his decision directly. Perhaps his indecision springs from considering when he should kill Claudius. One can debate Hamlet’s opportunity to kill his uncle, he could be prepared to do the deed but halt because of religious consideration, or this could be an excuse because he is not capable of the action required of him.
Hamlet says that killing him now would “this same villain send/To Heaven”, and this seems to be a method of convincing himself that instant action would be inappropriate as he is not addressing anyone directly. This theory is contradicted however by Claudius’s following lines that seem to suggest that his crime is too terrible to be forgiven by Heaven, especially considering that he continues to compound his crime by ruling his brother’s country and being married to his wife. Hamlet does not hear this but it is a conclusion he could have reached if he truly wished to act at that point. His decision is further contradicted by Laertes’s assignation that he would “cut his father’s murder’s throat i’ th’ Church” and Claudius’s response that “No place indeed should murder sanctuarise”.
Again, Hamlet might have concluded thus if he were not deliberately seeking an excuse to avoid action at that point. Shakespeare’s play demonstrates the inextricable link between the private lives of the royal family and the public perception of their actions. Claudius tells the audience that Fortinbras suspects weakness in Denmark because of the death and succession of kings. Here, matters that would be private and inconsequential in other families are of primary consideration for the whole country. Elsewhere, Polonius stations himself in Gertrude’s closet without request.
This is an invasion of privacy that is not deliberated because Gertrude’s private life “belongs” to the state, which Polonius represents. With this in mind Hamlet is unable to act because any action he takes would affect the whole country. Killing Claudius will not help Denmark; it will only make the state appear weaker in the eyes of its enemy. One may also consider that killing Claudius will not bring Old Hamlet back to life and so perhaps it is best to think of the living.
It must be remembered, as John Russell recalls, that “the Ghost has imposed on Hamlet two injunctions: to revenge the murder; to cleanse to royal bed of incest”. It can be argued that Hamlet does act on the latter command to great effect. He plagues his mother with comments, particularly at the play, which is set to mirror the situation of his mother’s “o’er-hasty marriage”. Then he makes her shortcomings plain, and following his berating Claudius comments that Gertrude has begun to live “by Hamlet’s looks”, suggesting that Hamlet has succeeded in keeping his mother from Claudius’s bed.
In this way, not only is Hamlet capable of acting, but also his action leads to the desired result imposed upon him by his father’s ghost. By focusing on this part of the directive Hamlet provides himself “for a time with the illusion of activity”, avoiding the more difficult aspect of the paternal mandate.
We have seen that Hamlet is not incapable of action in all cases, his relationship with Ophelia for one. He is in love with her and so has acted on his affections with “remembrances”. His mistreatment of Ophelia might be explained by the necessity for Hamlet to break his ties with humanity in order to commit an inhuman act like murder. He says when he first made aware of the necessary course of action that he must “wipe away all trivial fond records” and his love for Ophelia could be one of these capacities he must reject. It is not only Ophelia he treats in this way, he is detached from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that were “so neighbored to Hamlet’s youth, and humor” and distant with his mother throughout the play.
These courses of action that seem to distract Hamlet from his vow to his father’s ghost can be seen as means to achieving his directive, Hamlet must renounce his humane qualities to prepare himself for acting in a way that contradicts his personality. Hamlet is not placed in an original situation; one might look at stories of classical antiquity in order to find parallels with his plight. Lidz sites Orestes; his mother murdered his father and Orestes was obliged to kill her by the god Apollo. Yet here, even though matricide would and did insight the wrath of the Furies, Orestes acted as expected with little trepidation, although reluctance was evident. Hamlet must kill his uncle, which is arguably not as difficult as killing one’s mother, yet he does not act, even though Orestes finds the capacity to do it.
This proves an example of Hamlet’s individual inability to act, rather than an unachievable resolution to a situation. After all, it ends happily for Orestes. Theodore Lidz informs us that Hamlet is incapable of killing Claudius because of his childhood Oedipus complex that remains a suppressed but integral part of his personality. This may appear an outrageous theory but evidence can be found to support the notion in Hamlet’s speech before he goes to Gertrude’s closet, he fears he will be “unnatural”, which could be played as if he would wish to be intimate with her. Of Harry Levin’s theory he writes, “that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius without killing himself”.
Hamlet is already contemplating suicide and perhaps it is the thought of his congruence with Claudius, if only in immature thought, that makes him obsess for an extended period. Hamlet’s extended mourning period could be explained as some sort of residual guilt because something he desired as a child has come to pass, and the reality of it is not what he wants now that he has matured. Hamlet seems inaction is paralleled by the actions of others throughout the play. When confronted with the emotional yet fictitious performance of the player Hamlet notes his own inaction in the face of a compelling motive. Then Fortinbras presents an active revenger of his father’s insult, his position as a prince like Hamlet makes the analogy more potent.
One might argue that the Norwegian’s position is not as egregious as Hamlet’s because the offender is not his relation, nor married to his mother. The complexity of the Dane’s situation could explain his delay to action. However, it is clear that Fortinbras is more a man of action than words, the contrary of Hamlet’s character, and it is his tenacity that leads him to achieve his goal. Yet, Fortinbras’s resolution does not prove personally controversial as Hamlet’s would and does. This may explain his ability to perform swift action and Hamlet’s necessity for deliberation. Laertes also provides a foil to Hamlet’s procrastination. On hearing of his father’s death he raises a rebellion and is ready to take Denmark to be avenged. One may consider the passage of time between establishing motive and the attempt at resolute action, Hamlet broods for months and Laertes’s acts immediately.
The situation is again slightly different from Hamlet’s in that it is not a relation he must kill, but the resolution of the situation would achieve the same public state of weakness, leaving Denmark open to invasion, as he likewise wishes the death of the king at first. He is then pacified by Claudius and manipulated into acting on the king’s behalf. Yet he still achieves his desired end, killing the murderer of his father.
One possible explanation for Hamlet’s procrastination could be the lack of concrete evidence he is presented with. At first he is armed only with the ratings of a ghost, then he has the evidence of a reaction to a play. It is arguable that these instances alone are not enough to justify unlawful murder. It must be remembered that Hamlet is initially unsure if the ghost is “a spirit of health, or goblin dammed”, it could be a malevolent spirit attempting to trick Hamlet into improper action.
Likewise, if Hamlet were to be held to account for his actions, the reaction of a king to a play that mimicked his marital arrangement among other questionable circumstance would be of little help to acquittal. Hamlet delays until he hears the truth from Claudius’s own lips and decides against instant action for religious reasons. It must be remembered that after this point Hamlet is presented with two opportunities to fulfill his oath. The first is foiled because Hamlet expects Claudius but kills Polonius. Then it could be argued that the next chance that presents itself is at the climax of the play where Hamlet does achieve his goal.
Thus can it be said that Hamlet does act, and in so doing fulfills his oath as the Elizabethan audience unequivocally expected from the outset. This provides evidence that Shakespeare’s protagonist is capable of making up his mind, one might only criticize him for taking so long to consider he action, but a rash encounter could likewise be condemned. But then, as Arnold Kettle postulates, Hamlet’s action has not lead to a satisfactory resolution because most of the play’s characters have died and Denmark has been successfully invaded. Kettle’s hypothesis is worth deliberation and many instances can be ascertained to support it.
However, Hamlet’s procrastination is entirely undermined by Claudius’s expostulation that “Revenge should know no bounds”, this makes it more exactly seem that Hamlet was reluctant to act rather than inhibited by the repercussions of the expected action. A definite conclusion is impossible to reach when presented with a text as intriguing and psychoanalytically obtuse as Shakespeare’s most famous play.
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About The Author
I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More