Hamlet is one the most discussed dramas in English Literature. It has provoked the critics for four centuries to unravel the mystery behind Hamlet’s delay in taking revenge of his father’s death. His delay has attracted many literary critics to analyze and interpret the reasons for his inaction.
The depth of characterization and the complexity of the plot have made the task of the critics more complex and complicated. A systematic analysis of the criticism helps the reader for a better understanding of the character of Hamlet, his inaction and apathy for life.
Hamlet, one of the four great tragedies by William Shakespeare, is the longest and most popular. Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father’s murder, has led many to interpret Hamlet in different ways taking different approaches to demystify the dilemma in Hamlet’s mind. If ‘to be or not to be’ is the question that haunted Hamlet, it is ‘Hamlet’s undue delay’ that has troubled many readers for hundreds of years. Hamlet is an educated gentleman with refined views in an era of turbulent times when his family, state are threatened by forces that are totally beyond his control.
His education has made him into a refined man making him distinctly philosophical. He addresses the questions of universal importance that have troubled many a philosopher. His preoccupation with these questions has only made him more wavering in his attitude and delayed his action. His quest for answers not only deferred his actions but also brought his doom closer to him. At first he is not convinced with the Ghost’s words and wants to have evidence. When he has got evidence, he doesn’t find moral justification for taking revenge. When an opportunity presents itself, he leaves it planning for a more serious punishment.
Thus, the story gets prolonged until it comes to his tragic end. In fact, Hamlet could not reconcile with the idea of cold blooded murder as a justification for revenge. The very introduction of Hamlet is indicative of the nature of his character. He is introduced in the play still ‘wearing black mourning clothes’ (I. ii. 66). He was asked to ‘cast off his nightly color’ by his mother. Obviously he is gloomy and there is something in his mind that escapes a clear statement. It reflects his agonized and troubled mind unable to bear the grief of his father’s death and reconcile with the hasty marriage of her mother with King Claudius.
He was totally devastated by his father’s death and completely betrayed by his mother’s marriage. Finding himself that ‘something is rotten in the ‘rotten state of Denmark, he contemplates suicide. His soliloquy on suicide raising questions of its moral validity sets the tone of the things that come later. (I. ii. 129–130) What we see in Hamlet is a perpetual conflict in his mind that made him literally insane though he pretends that purposefully. ‘To thine ownself be true’ is the guiding principle of his conscience in deciding ‘to be or not to be’ in the beginning, contemplating the merits and demerits of committing suicide.
He feels himself helpless in finding himself in such a ruthless world and thus he laments: O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew; Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world. (Act. I. Scene. I) Throughout the play we see how his world gets crumbled gradually making him more and more cynical and withdrawn. The most shocking thing for Hamlet is he could not bear the news of his mother marrying his uncle King Claudius in undue haste.
It has totally unsettled his equilibrium. She married: — O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (Act. I. Scene. I) When he is down with depression and shock he is advised by King Hamlet’s Ghost to take revenge. In the darkness, the ghost speaks to Hamlet claiming to be his father’s spirit. It arouses the feelings of vengeance in Hamlet and to revenge his death, a “foul and most unnatural murder” (Act. I. v. 25). Hamlet was horrified at the sight of the Ghost and by knowing how his father was murdered by his uncle Claudius.
At first he could not believe whether the Ghost was real. The message of the Ghost puts him in a dilemma, as it advises him to take revenge on Claudius and not to offend Gertrude and leave her to destiny and her conscience. Hamlet gets shocked and bewildered. He does not like to jump to the conclusion of taking immediate action. He wants to confirm it by his own method of getting enough evidence against King Claudius. To confirm what the King Hamlet’s Ghost has told Hamlet plans to show King Claudius a play which has close resemblance to the murder of King Hamlet.
The play called “The Murder of Gonzago” was played causing King Claudius to react which logically concludes Hamlet’s suspicion. Once his suspicion is confirmed, he wants to proceed with his plans of putting an end to Claudius. Hamlet realizes his weak mind when he feels the intensity in the expression of the dialogues of the players when they were practicing. He resolves to take decisive action and plans a trap for Claudius. Hamlet is quite successful in trapping Claudius and getting evidence from the way Claudius reacts when he watches the drama and cries out at the crucial moment.
It is rather Hamlet’s personal requirement to answer his conscience that he needs clear evidence to prove what King Hamlet’s Ghost has told him. It is the hallmark of Hamlet’s character that he does not jump to conclusion without enough proof. Hamlet’s education and sensitivity and general philosophical disposition must have made him seek for valid proof against the King Claudius. But what surprises everyone is he doesn’t take the chance to kill Claudius when an opportunity presents itself. Hamlet finds his own reasons in not taking the chance.
He doesn’t like to allow his murderous uncle to go to Heaven by killing him when he is in prayer. So he leaves the opportunity which is considered by many the best chance. He reasons out that the murderer of his father does not deserve Heaven. This only delays his action further. According to Dover Wilson there is no delay in avenging the death of Hamlet’s father. He feels Hamlet has acted in time. According to E E Stoll, there is no delay; it is just a convention of the play. He is of the opinion that if there is no delay, there is no play at all. All these indicate that there is delay in taking revenge.
Hamlet himself feels it and it is noteworthy that he has to be reminded by the Ghost again when he was furious with his mother Gertrude. These are proof enough to prove that revenge has been delayed. When the play itself is addressing the issue of delay, it is unreasonable to say that there is no delay. T. S. Eliot, the noted poet and critic considers Hamlet an artistic failure. He says: So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others.
Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. (Eliot) He also feels that Hamlet is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible and is in excess. Hamlet is unable to manage his own emotions as he could not find ‘objective correlative’ (Eliot). In other words, it is a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion. Explaining his theory, Eliot says:
Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. (Eliot) In the article Hamlet’s Thoughts and Antics, Margreta de Grazia observes that Shakespeare wanted to create a character that ‘thinks’ and showed it through Hamlet. Shakespeare produced a tragedy of inaction- a tragedy of thought. It is performance of thought-as inaction- as DELAY’. Margreta de Grazia) A. C. Bradley considered an authority on Shakespearean Tragedy, analyses the reasons for Hamlet’s delay in his famous lectures on Hamlet. His discussion on Hamlet attracted many with his convincing reasons. He does not find any external things as obstacles for his delay in taking revenge. Hamlet has access to the King and Hamlet never mentions about any external barriers. Hence citing the external factors as the primary reason for the delay in action is totally nullified. Bradley does not accept Hamlet’s reason to justify his conscience as the main reason for the delay.
Hamlet is unconsciously ambivalent about this duty; Bradley says “in the depths of his nature, and unknown to himself, there was a moral repulsion to the deed. “(Bradley) Goethe’s popular view of Hamlet as a graceful youth, sweet and sensitive, full of delicate sympathies is nothing but ‘sentimental’ according to Bradley. In the same way, Bradley disagrees to Coleridge’s view that Hamlet has ‘lost himself in the labyrinths of thought’. Bradley proposes that Hamlet delays because of his melancholy. Melancholy is not the usual state of Hamlet’s mind. It is a temporary depression at the sudden loss of his father.
And the subsequent incidents will only ‘paralyze him in contempt for everything- the world, the flesh and himself. ’ He justifies it and proceeds further to show how this disgust at life and everything results in longing for death and inexpressible apathy. Hamlet does not understand his own inaction and apathy and curses himself in utter disappointment over his disinclination to take revenge. There is another strong argument claiming that there is no delay in taking revenge. During the presentation of the drama on the stage the spectators never realize Hamlet has delayed his action.
The depiction of the inner struggle of the protagonist rather enhances the effect of the drama on the stage. It provides variety and takes the audience along with the hero to different emotional states and keeps them curious until the end. “This is Shakespeare’s most amusing play” says, Dr. Johnson. The play shows two more characters who want to take revenge of the death of their fathers. They offer a good contrast to Hamlet’s delay. Fortinbras and Laertes are unlike Hamlet. They are effective in their decision to take revenge and are very quick in their action.
Shakespeare presents these two characters offering the spectators an opportunity to understand Hamlet in a different way. When the very purpose of the drama is to present the hero in that mode there is no argument regarding his delay in taking revenge. The argument that Hamlet is basically a coward can not be taken valid at all as there are many instances to show against it. He does not run away from the Ghost as cowards do. He does not escape from the challenges especially the duel between him and Laertes. The claim that Hamlet has a physical problem will only undermine his character.
If there is a serious physical problem, then he becomes a good example for medical case study, and certainly does not deserve a place in literary criticism. The interpretation that he has a serious mental health problem will not stand given the depth and meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquies. In fact, the crucial point in the play is Hamlet himself feels guilty about his inability in taking timely action. He laments at the delay and attributes that to his lack of tenacity for action. He is on the search to know why he is not able to take revenge immediately. He is at a loss to express what represses him from taking revenge.
Freudian school of psychology has interpreted Hamlet’s story from Oedipus complex point of view. Though the argument is persuasive, one can not subscribe to that point. Hamlet continues to be a puzzle and his delay can be interpreted in every possible way. The endless criticism on Hamlet reminds the lines of great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who says “from the words of the poet, men take what meanings please them”. (Tagore) Every interpretation focuses a new aspect of Hamlet. It is worth exploring as it helps readers to have a better understanding of Hamlet’s dilemma.