Hamlet the Passive Intellect

The actions and events in Shakespeare’s Hamlet revolve around Hamlet’s inactivity. Without Hamlet’s hesitation, constant thought, and internal deliberation, the plot would proceed directly from Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost to his murder of Claudius. Hamlet’s philosophical strifeheightens the complexity of his life issues and intensifies the depth of his dilemma. Hamlet’s over-intellectualization coupled with his passive tendencies paralyzes his ability to act, locking him in an inescapable prison of his own inner consciousness. Hamlet’s over-intellectualization begins with his questioning of the ghost’s identity.

When first told by Horatio that the ghost of his father haunts the battlements, Hamlet interrogates him obsessively to obtain every relevant detail to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. He fires a volley of questions at Horatio, ranging from whether his countenance is “pale or red” to how long it “fixed eyes upon [Horatio]” (1. 2. 250). His desire to dispel uncertainty and further his knowledge escalates in the physical encounter with the ghost. Rather than accepting his vision for granted, Hamlet examines the validity of his perceptions by debating whether the ghost of “a questionable shape” is “wicked or charitable” (1. . 45-46). Hamlet initially pronounces to the ghost that he will “wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saw of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there,” declaring his resolution to act (1. 4. 108). However, when he reconvenes with his friends, he entreats them “never make known what you have seen tonight” (1. 5. 160). Instead of seeking for an immediate collective action to avenge his father’s “unnatural murder,” he chooses to prolong the process to devise an elaborate scheme within his own mind.

He forestalls action—be it his friends’ or his own—to contemplate the implications of his experience. He concludes by cursing the fact that he “was born to set it right”  (1. 5. 211). The ghost’s revelation places him in a position where he must be the agent of action, whose filial responsibility is to affect justice and kill Claudius. Hamlet’s dilemma, then, stems from the need to become an avenging son while being a naturally passive intellectual. Hamlet addresses his dilemma in greater depth by engaging in a rigorous, intellectual process, which ironically perpetuates the vicious cycle of inactivity.

In his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he confesses, “thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison” (2. 2. 270). Hamlet finds himself imprisoned by his intellect, as he “must like a whore unpack [his] heart with words” (2. 2. 614). He cannot act by heart because he is bound to “unpack” his actions with reason first. He berates himself as “a rogue and peasant slave” and “John-a-dream, unpregnant of my cause, and can say nothing” (2. 2. 576-595). Hamlet recognizes that he is not taking any decisive action to dutifully avenge his father’s death in staying within his comfort zone of intellectualism.

As he articulates and explores his conflict of conscience, he concludes, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pitch and moment…lose the name of action (3. 1. 91-96). Hamlet reaffirms that his constant moralizing and philosophizing stymie the very action he strives for. The inexorable clash between his predisposition for sedentary contemplations and the filial imperative to actively seek revenge results in such strong feelings of self-loathing that he considers “shuffl[ing] off the mortal coil” (3. . 75). Committing suicide would proactively end his suffering, but he problematizes even that possibility as an unacceptable transgression against “[God’s] canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! ” (1. 2. 136). Ironically, this very soliloquy devoted to meditating on his passivity epitomizes his inaction; rather than coming up with pragmatic solutions to end his dilemma, he explores and wallows in self-pity, which in turn exacerbates the intensity of his conundrum. Hamlet is so preoccupied with the enormous intellectual activity in his head that he closes himself off from all action in the external world.

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