Perhaps the single most debated question about Hamlet is “why does it take him so long to avenge his father’s murder?” For some, his delay is baffling and despite feeling sympathy for Hamlet as he struggles with his suicidal despair, they nonetheless view him ultimately as a procrastinator. According to this interpretation, Hamlet knows what he must do put puts it off – for a variety of complex reasons.
Perhaps the best way for you to fully grasp the concept of procrastination is to watch this youtube video by charlieissocoollike:
There is a whole other school of thought out there however (and this is the camp I fall into).
- Some people believe that it is not at all clear to Hamlet what he must do because he cannot trust the ghost’s word.
- Once it becomes absolutely clear to him that Claudius is without doubt guilty, Hamlet only delays further with very good reason: to establish the extent of his mother’s guilt and to save her soul.
- From this point on, circumstances (primarily his accidental murder of Polonius) lead to a further delay which cannot and should not be construed as ‘procrastination’ (deliberately putting off something unpleasant).
- Despite his exile he does everything in his power to return to Denmark so that he can do his duty and avenge his father’s death. Upon his return he proclaims “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth“.
- The one scene which appears unquestionably like procrastination (imho) is the gravedigger’s scene where his morbid fixation on death resurfaces and he appears to have absolutely no sense of urgency about killing Claudius.
- However, once he learns of Ophelia’s death he becomes almost serene in the knowledge that avenging his father’s murder is his inevitable destiny “If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now….the readiness is all“. His moral qualms have transformed into a sure and certain belief that he will be doing God’s work if he kills the usurper Claudius “is’t not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned to let this canker of our nature come in further evil?”
Despite Hamlet’s own confusion “I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do“, we can conclude that six highly complex interwoven factors lead Hamlet to delay. They are:
1. Hamlet’s personality – he is a deep thinker, a sensitive individual not a man of action. For proof, look to his soliloquies. His aversion to the task he must perform (to kill another human being) is almost immediately evident when he laments “The time is out of joint, o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right“.
2. His religious beliefs – our first impressions of him are that he’s a very moral individual. He denounces his mother’s sinful actions (“o most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets“) yet despite being suicidal, he does not kill himself because he fears divine retribution (that he’ll burn in hell forever). These same beliefs make him question the reliability of the ghost (“the spirit that I have seen may be the devil and perhaps, abuses me to damn me“).
3. Claudius’ power as God’s representative on earth and Hamlet’s position as heir to the throne – Hamlet cannot and will not openly challenge Claudius (“It is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue“) until he is certain that Claudius is guilty (“I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King“). Hamlet is a cautious and sensible individual – he knows that if he kills Claudius and it turns out that Claudius was innocent, Hamlet will have committed a crime against God and against Denmark (regicide); he will have thrown his kingdom into turmoil unnecessarily; and he will have deprived his mother of the man she loves (see below).
4. His love for his mother (despite what he sees as her betrayal) – after the Mousetrap, Hamlet is certain of Claudius’ guilt (“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound“) but rather than immediately seek him out to kill him, he decides to confront his mother first. I think he wants to find out the extent of her guilt, and he wants to give her a chance to “confess [herself] to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come“. This desire to save her soul is surely an admirable reason to further delay his revenge!
5. His determination to obtain justice (rather than simply get revenge) for his father. This is evident in the Prayer Scene. Remember, Hamlet comes upon Claudius by accident rather than design while on the way to his mother’s chamber. This is the best opportunity he is ever likely to have to kill Claudius (who is completely unarmed and unprotected). However, he wants to ensure that Claudius is properly punished, that his “soul may be as damned and black as hell whereto he goes“. If he kills him while Claudius is praying this would be “hire and salary not revenge” because Claudius would lose his life but gain an eternity in heaven (or so Hamlet believes!).
6. Circumstances (including his accidental murder of Polonius, his exile and Ophelia’s death). After deciding not to kill Claudius in the prayer scene, we the audience think Hamlet will probably take the next possible opportunity to kill Claudius -as long as Claudius is not in a state of grace (i.e. is doing something moraly wrong). And he does! Unfortunately his impulsive rage leads him to accidentally kill the wrong man. We know without doubt that he thought he was killing Claudius when he says “thou wretched rash intruding fool, I took thee for thy better“. As a consequence of this deed, Hamlet is now seen (understandably) as a very real threat to Claudius and is exiled to England. We suspect he will find it very difficult to find himself in a room alone with Claudius again because the King will ensure from now on that he is guarded and protected from harm.
The other obvious reason is that without the delay there is no play!!! So it’s a plot device as much as anything else.
When approaching this issue, don’t get bogged down in the difference between ‘procrastination’ and ‘justifiable delay’. No matter which way you swing it, Hamlet does not avenge his father’s murder until the final scene of the play and it is his delay, combined with Claudius’ evil machinations, and Hamlet’s impulsive rage, which leads to the unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Leartes, Gertrude and of course Hamlet himself.
Perhaps the most valuable thing to do is to establish clearly why he delays at each stage and then to examine how this effects your feelings towards him. The ebb and flow of sympathy and frustration we feel towards him as a central character is largely created in our recognition of what it is he must do and our understanding of why he doesn’t do it. This conflict – this paradox – is what makes the play and the character so complex and so intriguing. This situation and his personality create the fascination this man of inaction has exerted for generations over successive audiences spanning 400 years.