‘It is as if Hamlet were pausing not before the deed [… ] but before action in general (Adolphus William Ward) Using the above quote as your starting point, explore Shakespeare’s presentation of the character and role of Hamlet, with special reference to the different ways in which audiences may interpret and understand Hamlet’s procrastination. Illustrate your points with relevant details from the text. The above quotation outlines Hamlet’s hesitation, implying that not only did he hesitate before the actual act of murder but before any act at all.
This could be explained by an array of different factors, hindering Hamlet and causing conflict within him. In this essay I am going to discuss what these factors are. Initially Hamlet is introduced to the audience as a troubled young man, mourning his father and being confronted with his mother hastily marrying his uncle. He is being forced to deal with all this and is in a state of depression, Hamlet says when speaking of his grief over his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle ‘But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue. ‘ Meaning that although his heart is breaking, he can’t say or do anything about it.
However, his father’s ghost then appears to him and tells him that he was murdered by the very man now married to Hamlet’s mother, his uncle and his father’s brother. He promises the ghost that he will seek revenge as he feels it is his duty as a son to seek justice for his father’s ‘foul and most unnatural murder’. At this point an Elizabethan audience would be shocked by the murder as it is a sin and even more shocked by his agreement to avenge his father’s death, especially the king, who in Elizabethan times would have held divine significance..
On the other hand, a modern audience would be more sympathetic towards Hamlet and his predicament, accepting the murder and thirst for revenge as human nature. However, it is not in Hamlet’s nature to commit murder and throughout the whole play he has a battle going on inside him causing him to falter before making a decision to act. It is not in Hamlet’s heart to act as “scourge and minister” and he feels completely overwhelmed, ‘O cursed spite, that ever I was born, to set it right’, showing that he wishes he wasn’t born so he would not have been dealt such a miserable fate, destined to kill or be killed.
He has come to the point that he wishes he was never even born, so he wouldn’t have to deal with his dilemma. An Elizabethan audience would have understood his struggle as they were devoutly Christian and murder was considered a sin, they would be suspicious of the ghost and his motives for making Hamlet agreed to further bloodshed. They may have suspected it was en evil being trying to tempt Hamlet to do evil. Hamlet even makes sure that the ghost is telling the truth by staging the whole play to expose his uncle’s guilt ‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’.
One of Hamlet’s greatest flaws, which would cause him to hesitate, is that he thinks about things too much, this is shown when he says that ‘thinking too precisely on th’ event,- A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward,’ he analyzes and examines every nuance of his situation until he has exhausted every angle. This causes him to be indecisive, and he dallies in his own wit, words are his prison and they control him.
He remains painfully aware of all his flaws, and his powerlessness to right the great wrong performed upon his father ‘That I, the son of a dear father murther’d, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must [like a whore] unpack my heart with words’. To take another perspective, one could say that Hamlet has become so dissatisfied with life since his father’s death that he has neither the desire nor the will to exact revenge ‘A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,’.
He feels like a dreamer, who only thinks of doing things but has no intentions to carry them out. Furthermore, in each of Hamlet’s soliloquies, he attempts to sort out his frustrating hesitation to act. His persistent vows are empty and serve him no good ‘I’ll wipe all trivial fond records/And thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain’, signifying that he will make the murder of Claudius his sole purpose in life and will think of nothing else.
Nor does beating himself up about it ‘Why, what an ass am I!’, or even the contemplation of suicide ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’.
Moreover, Hamlet’s tendency to think about things too much is his own curse ‘Of thinking too much on th’ event’, which seem only to reinforce that `all occasions do inform against me’. Throughout all this we must consider that Hamlet’s in the midst of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, Hamlet must also consider Claudius and make sure that he does not suspect Hamlet of knowing. While he procrastinates, Claudius acts quickly and decisively.
He enlists Polonius, Guildenstern and Rosencratz to spy on and interrogate Hamlet and once the King perceives a threat to his crown and wife, orders his nephew’s execution. Hamlet is left unsure whom he can trust with even his friends backstab him ‘my two schoolfellows, Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,’, he pretend to be crazy and lashes out at almost everyone around him and in doing so, begins to lose dignity, nobility and credibility. Ophelia is only complying with her father’s and brother’s orders, but she becomes his first victim and perhaps this is because Hamlet projects his mother’s sins onto all women.
Especially his crude, suggestive comments during the play ‘It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge. ‘ Suggesting that Ophelia would have to sleep with him to soothe his volatile temper. An Elizabethan audience would have been shocked by this suggestion of adultery, whereas, once again a modern audience would have been more understanding, considering his situation. Another trait which causes Hamlet’s hesitation is his melancholy caused by his inability to act.
Hamlet is distraught that the actors can summon up so much emotion and passion for a fictional story when he who has suffered such tragedy still has not acted ‘What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do, Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have? ‘ He feels he has let his father down, who he idolises and wishes he could be like. On the other hand the fact that Hamlet reproaches himself for his lack of resolution may not show weakness but rather strength as he uses them as instruments to encourage himself and motivate himself.
Another factor of Hamlet’s procrastination would have been his religion and morality. As a Christian he knows that murder is a sin, although his father’s ghost expects him to commit murder. His primal instinct which tells him to seek vengeance, ‘an eye for an eye’ so to speak and his religion which tells him ‘thou shalt not kill’ are constantly battling inside him. He is torn between doing God’s work and doing God’s bidding ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,’ On the other hand, a modern audience have a more sympathetic view of Hamlet’s dilemma as nowadays people are less religious.
Modern audiences would be more compassionate towards Hamlet and the difficulties he goes through as nowadays murder is an everyday thing, we would also understand his desire for revenge more, as people in modern and contemporary times are more immoral than they were in Elizabethan times therefore they would be frustrated by the lack of action. A modern audience would have a very different opinion of Hamlet and his actions, as he thinks about the consequences of his actions and is very in touch with his emotions, thoughts and feelings.
The reason Hamlet is still an interesting play to the modern audience is that its themes are still very relevant. Hamlet is not completely incapable, he did make three attempts to kill Claudius, he accidentally killed Polonius in an attempt at killing Claudius, thinking it was him hiding behind the partition. In the church he decided against it as he didn’t want to kill Claudius when he would go straight to heaven, ‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven; And so am I revenged.
That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. ‘ Hamlet would rather wait until he is in his ‘incestuous bed’ as he wanted Claudius to suffer like his father is, he wants to wait until ‘he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t’ however, if he had stayed to hear Claudius next words ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
‘ Therefore it could be said Hamlet’s thirst for revenge and perfectionism could be said to be further factors which hinder his progress. The chance to kill Claudius constantly seems to slip through his fingers each time. In the end he does kill Claudius but dies while doing so. Although he is criticised for his procrastination, he did try. Most of the time, Hamlet is parrying blows directed against him rather than carrying out his own attack. Avoiding Claudius’s suspicion and pretending to be crazy, while under the surveillance of Polonius, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.
Hamlet may have delayed the murder of Claudius but in the end, his father is avenged and Claudius is murdered by the very poison which he had intended for Hamlet, yet ironically, only in death is Hamlet victorious. However, this leaves the audience with a pessimistic tone overshadowing the finale of the play. Therefore, in conclusion, it is in my opinion that due to all these factors which get in the way of his intentions he is hesitant to act. Thinking and planning takes place of action which leads to indecision.