Last Updated 10 Sep 2020

The Philosophy of Action in Hamlet

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Central to any drama is action. What distinguishes drama from other literary forms is the very fact that it is acted upon a stage, that voice is given to the words and that movement creates meaning. It is, therefore, puzzling that the most seminal dramatic work in the English language contains, arguably, precious little of what many might describe as dramatic action. Nevertheless, it has moved, enthralled and, what is more, entertained generations of theatre-goers across the centuries and is still regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most popular play.

It has divided critics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe regards as central to the play Hamlet’s inability to act whereas T. S. Eliot reduces the work to ‘an artistic failure’. If Tom Stoppard is to be believed, even the characters are at odds with this apparent lack of drama as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz asks ‘is it too much to expect a little sustained action?! ’If then, we are to acknowledge that action is central to the drama, it is important to remember that such action is usually derived from conflict.

When regarding Hamlet through this basic philosophy, the play is in every way dramatic. The play is concerned with conflict. We have international conflict, familial conflict and internal conflict and it is these conflicts that drive the play. This is confirmed within the opening line ‘Who’s there? ’(I. i. 1). Immediately we are plunged into the state of paranoia that envelops Elsinore, the question is confrontational and, furthermore, directs us towards the international conflict between Denmark and Norway. The drama of the play, however, is not as simple as this.

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For instance, we must also consider the dramatic structure of a play and apply this to Hamlet; a structure that goes from equilibrium to conflict and then on to a new equilibrium. It is impossible to relate this to the play; for who would agree that the Elsinore, at the start of Hamlet, is in a state of equilibrium? Indeed, as Stephen Ratcliffe points out, the catalyst for all action in the play does not occur within the play. The murder of Hamlet’s father has already happened when Barnardo delivers that famous first line, a line which itself suggests a response to something that has happened offstage.

Ratcliffe goes on to discuss that the line could almost be a response to a ‘knock knock’ joke but more seriously that it: begin[s] the play in response not only to some implicit, unspoken physical action- some motion or noise in the dark, […] but to an implicit action not performed on stage – some motion of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father which Bernardo, who speaks this line, just imagine he has seen and/or heard. Ratcliffe also suggests that the action not performed on stage does not happen at all.

Alarmingly, he refutes Claudius’s confession of fratricide in Act III, arguing unconvincingly that Old Hamlet’s murder had never taken place. In spite of this, he does raise an interesting issue that is concerned with the question as to why - when in Western literature dramatic narrative is defined by cause and effect – does Shakespeare place the primary cause off stage and beyond the gaze of his audience? We are left to imagine the dramatic possibilities of opening the play with the alarming and visually striking image of a brother’s murder.

If Shakespeare’s decision to leave this exciting and sinister event in the wings confounds us, what, then, are we to make of the climax of the play? If we are to return to the classic dramatic structure of a play, we expect to see rising action leading to a climax that, in turn, leads on to the falling action culminated by the denouement. Hamlet gives us no such structure. There is no climax in the classic sense or if there is it appears in the final scene, not where one would expect. There is, nevertheless, one possibility that the climax may appear earlier in the play and that would be, in the traditional sense, in Act III.

The murder of Polonius in Act III, scene iv might be regarded as the turning point of the play in the same way that Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet is seen as such. It is at this point that we see Hamlet at a height of passion, ‘How now? A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead’ (III. iv. 23). The use of the word ‘rat’ shows Hamlet’s contempt for his supposed victim, the repetition of ‘dead’ embellishes his determination to kill, and the ducat is the small price Hamlet values the life he has just taken. The consequences of this action feed into every other event that is to happen: Claudius’s resolve to kill Hamlet, Ophelia’s death and Laertes’s act of revenge which brings about the play’s final dynastic collapse. Once again, though, Shakespeare ‘removes’ the audience from the action, having the murder take place ‘offstage’. Polonius is murdered behind the arras and this takes us away from the immediacy of the action. There is no huge build-up with a climactic duel as there is in Romeo and Juliet; we are not even given the drama of remorse that is evident in Macbeth. For these reasons, it is impossible to consider the death of Polonius to be the dramatic climax of the play, merely another cause leading on to another effect.

This shortage of ‘action’, though, is illusory. A. C. Bradley comments on this when he suggests a hypothetical reaction to the play: What a sensational story! Why, here are some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave! Hamlet does have a dramatic conclusion, of that no one is in doubt, but this has come after a series of procrastinations from the titular hero. All other action is kept firmly offstage. One might hear Bradley go on to say ‘Treason, pirates, war, the storming of a castle and a regime change! The latter two were included in Branagh’s film version strongly alluding to the storming of the Iranian embassy in 1981 an event that was intensely exciting and dramatic for any that can remember it.

For Shakespeare, however, such extravagant action appears to be superfluous to his play and is, therefore, not of importance. As a consequence, it would appear redundant to continue analyzing what is not in the play, as Ratcliffe has done at length, and to focus on what Shakespeare does give us. What Shakespeare does give us is words, ‘words, words, words’(II. i. 192) and it is through these words that he provides the action. It is here where I must agree with Ratcliffe when he suggests that, in Hamlet, it is the language that is of importance and not the action. It is necessary, then, to look at the power of language within the play and how Shakespeare facilitates it in order to sustain a dramatic structure.

Firstly, as mentioned above, the catalyst for all the action in the play happens off stage but is delivered to the audience, and Hamlet, through the words of the ghost. We know that these words are to hold significance as we have shared Horatio’s anxiety for the ghost to ‘stay and speak’ (I. i. 142). The appearance of the ghost is not enough. It is, therefore, the words that are spoken to Hamlet in conjunction with the apparition that help to creates the first piece of dramatic action in the play: Now, Hamlet, hear. ’Tis gave out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me – so the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abus’d – but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown.

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts- O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power So to seduce! - won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming virtuous queen. (I. i. 34-46) What is striking about this scene is how it is dominated by the ghost and how little Hamlet actually says. If it were one of the lesser characters, it could be assumed that they were struck dumb and in awe of the presence of a specter but, even this early in the play, we know enough about Hamlet to realize that this would not be the case for him.

He mentions a few lines earlier that he is not afraid, saying ‘I do not set my life at a pin’s fee’ (I. iv. 65), so why now is he so quiet? Surely Shakespeare feels that Hamlet, as the audience, should be still with trepidation at the drama that is unfolding before them. In this short passage of the ghost’s speech, we have incest, adultery, witchcraft, treachery, not to mention murder. Here we see Shakespeare using the power of words to create the action upon the stage, words that, like Ratcliffe points out, enter through our ears as did Claudius’s poison.

Later on in the play, we will see words used as a poison, again by Claudius, when, in true Machiavellian style, he corrupts the mind of the vengeful Laertes. When discussing the power of words we must look at the play-within-a-play sequence of Act III, an aspect of the play which has been discussed at length by the critics but also one that brings into question another facet of action, that of acting. Hamlet is an extremely self-conscious play, bringing comedy into a highly dramatic moment in Act I, scene v when Hamlet asks the ghost ‘Canst work i’th’ earth so fast? (l. 170): this is an obvious comment on the crudeness of Elizabethan stagecraft.

Earlier in the same scene, Shakespeare has commented on the possibility of a bored audience when Hamlet comments on ‘this distracted globe’ (l. 97) and, when Polonius states that when he played Caesar ‘Brutus killed me. ’ (III. ii. 103) Jenkins points out that the actors playing Hamlet and Polonius were likely to have played Brutus and Caesar respectively in an earlier play and therefore are about to ‘re-enact’ the murder.

If we look at Hamlet’s instructions to the players: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-Cryer spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, a whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for overdoing Termagant. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you to avoid it. (III. ii. 1-14) Again, we have a very self-conscious speech where there seems to be an in-joke upon the acting style of the actor who plays Polonius, if not intended by Shakespeare it could certainly be performed as such.

There is also the awareness of the audience as well in the comments about the groundlings which is rather a brave joke which, had they been enjoying the play, would have gone down in good humor. It might also be considered that Shakespeare followed up the joke by including the dumb-show that followed! If we look closely at the instructions, however, we notice the emphasis on the words rather than the action. The opening imperative is ‘Speak the speech’ and interestingly ‘as I pronounced it’ not as I acted or showed it which seems strange to say when instructing actors.

It is true that in the restricted views of an Elizabethan playhouse an audience would go to hear a play but this would not be the case in a private courtly performance. Also, we must remember that Hamlet is only concerned with one member of the audience; someone who, one might assume, would have the best view of the play. Hamlet’s instructions are followed by references to the tongue and mouth where the words must inevitably come from and then the simile of the town crier again placing stress on verbal communication.

Hamlet requests a limit to the ‘action’, the body movement – the acting- so that it is the language that is of paramount importance. In such a self-aware moment of the nature of acting and drama in the play are we not to assume that this is coming from Shakespeare as much as Hamlet? The players’ sequence has significance because here we have on stage the mechanics of Hamlet. There is the murder of Gonzago/Hamlet acted out on stage, the betrayal of Lucianus/Claudius and the union between the Lucianus/Claudius and Queen/Gertrude.

Here Shakespeare gives us what we were denied in the first act the event which sets the whole play in motion. Not only that but by having Lucianus as the nephew to Gonzago we are also witnessing the events that are about to happen on stage or, at least, those that we expect to happen. Interestingly enough, though, is that Shakespeare has included a dumb-show as if to appease the groundlings despite his earlier comments but it is not through watching this that Claudius reacts but rather the words of the players that follow.

At the line ‘On wholesome life usurps immediately’ (III. ii. 254) Claudius can no longer remain seated for he cannot deny the words, something that has been discussed and embellished by Ratcliffe. [14] The question as to why Claudius does not react to the dumb-show can be resolved in performance by choosing to have Claudius showing signs of discomfort throughout until he can finally stand it no more as in Olivier’s film version. There is nothing in the text, however, that suggests that this is how it should be performed. The king questions Hamlet, Is there no offense isn't? ’ (III. ii. 227) and in this dialogue, there is nothing to suggest that he is suffering from any anxiety regardless of how this line has divided critics.

So once again we see that it is words that have more power, more effect and more significance than mere actions. In looking at the philosophy of action in the play one must recognize that the play is essentially a revenge play and that all action must stem from the concept of revenge. Michael Mangan defines the revenge play as a play which: harts the protagonist’s attempts to [revenge]: this may involve a period of doubt, in which the protagonist decides whether or not to go ahead with the revenge, and it may also involve some complex plotting (in both senses of the word) as the protagonist decides to take revenge in an apt or fitting way. The revenger, by deciding to take revenge, places himself outside the normal order of things and often becomes more and more isolated as the play progresses – isolation which at its most extreme becomes madness. It would appear, from this definition, that Hamlet is, indeed, a revenge play but who is it that seeks revenge?

I would argue that it is not Hamlet for, as Catherine Belsey notes, ‘[r]evenge is not justice’ and we are reminded throughout the play that Hamlet seeks justice. For instance, Hamlet does not act rashly for he states: Give me that man That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart (III. ii. 71-73) This might suggest that Hamlet holds reason close to his heart. Here we see that contrary to popular belief Hamlet is not a man that is ruled by passion but that is not to say that he is not passionate.

If Hamlet were ruled by the passion he would not have devised such an elaborate ploy to confirm the guilt of the king but would have acted straight away. Gone would be the procrastination and Hamlet could have roused up the populace as easily as Laertes does in Act IV, as Bradley points out, and Claudius would have been dead by Act II. Many critics that have argued this case seem to suggest that Shakespeare’s reason for prolonging the action was to fill out the five-act structure of the play. We are given three possible revenge heroes in the play: Hamlet we can discount, Fortinbras and Laertes.

Shakespeare has provided these two characters to put Hamlet’s inability to act into stark contrast. Through Fortinbras we see the noble prince revenging the death of his father through careful planning and sharp resolve and in Laertes we see a rash young man whose desperate bid for revenge only quickens his own demise. It is important to note that even with careful planning Fortinbras still shares Hamlet’s prolonging of the act when we consider that Denmark’s defeat of Norway was at the time of Hamlet’s birth some thirty years previous.

Hamlet, however, does not seek revenge. He could have easily been able to exact it when he says ‘Now might I do it pat’ (III. iii. 73). The semantics of the word ‘might’ suggest that he has no intention of committing the murder. ‘Will’ or ‘must’ would imply a more decisive move yet Shakespeare gives us a Hamlet who is questioning his actions. His decision to spare Claudius whilst at prayer further indicates that it is justice and not revenge that Hamlet desires.

Claudius points out to Laertes that ‘No place indeed should murder sanctuaries’ but Hamlet delays his action because he wants justice – death for a death- like for like. Significantly, Hamlet is a revenger who is unable to act as Calhoun states he is unable to ‘play the role’, or to use Ted Hughes’s metaphor: Like the driver of a bus containing all the characters of the drama, he hurtles towards destruction, in slow motion, with his foot jammed down hard on the brakes. Having established the substance and value of words in Hamlet it is necessary to return to the question of dramatic climax in the play.

It has always been recognized that it is a dramatic impossibility to act Hamlet on the stage in its entirety and it is not unknown for students of the text to skip through sections when reading but one thing always remains and that is the soliloquies. Within the play, we have the most beautiful speeches composed in the English language and it is one of these that, I believe, forms the climax of the play. The climax of language that we are given in the play does follow the classic dramatic structure coming in Act III and at the risk of sounding cliched, I would suggest that it is the ‘To be or not to be’ speech.

It is in this soliloquy that we have the nub of the play rests and that is Hamlet’s internal conflict on how he should act. It has long been considered to be the musings of a troubled mind contemplating suicide and whilst no one will argue that Hamlet is not a troubled mind is the really deliberating the end of his own life? I would argue no. Shakespeare has already given us such ruminations earlier in the play with ‘o that this too sullied flesh would melt’ (I. ii. 129) and I find it difficult to accept that a dramatist of Shakespeare’s caliber would not have developed his main character by the third act.

In fact, I would argue that after confronting the ghost and hearing the charge against Claudius, Hamlet has been given new meaning to his life and that all thoughts of suicide have faded. ‘To be or not to be’ should read as ‘To do or not to do’ or ‘To act or not to act’ for it is in this speech that we witness Hamlet’s thoughts on whether to proceed with the killing of Claudius. Not once in the speech is there an ‘I’, nowhere does Hamlet refer to himself. His examples of the ‘whips and scorns of time’ (III. i. 70) save one do not seem to be justifications for taking one’s own life:

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes (III. i. 71-74) Apart from unrequited love, for which many have taken their life, these seem to be the wrongs that are urging Hamlet to seek justice against Claudius. I might take this further and suggest a reading of the soliloquy where Hamlet knows that Claudius is eavesdropping, something that seemed to be implicit in Brannagh’s film. Through this reading, we can see that Hamlet is acting a role for us as an audience but specifically for Claudius and Polonius.

He is diverting attention from his true thoughts of murder whilst also confirming his ‘antic disposition’ (I. v. 180). In addition to this, it explains why he apparently forgets the ghost of his father as he claims ‘No traveler returns’ (III. i. 80) as it would not be practical to reveal the truth at this stage. Also, the speech concludes that it is conscience that prevents him and the fear of the unknown when prior to this he has stated that it was because God has ‘fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter’ (I. ii. 131-132).

Arguably, this could be a variation of the same rationale yet there is a distinct change in tone which suggests a difference in attitude. Therefore, it is within this soliloquy where Hamlet reaches his decision which he reveals to Ophelia (and Claudius) when he says that ‘all but one – shall live’ (III. i. 150). One might argue that the opening line of this speech, ‘To be or not to be’ (III. i. 56), uncontrovertibly suggests that Hamlet is, indeed, reflecting on suicide but, once again, this is another self-conscious reflection upon the nature of drama.

For Hamlet, the character in the play Hamlet must act in order to ‘be’ and as a revenge hero, that act is the murder of Claudius. While Claudius is alive, Hamlet’s mind and soul are troubled and only through the act of revenge with ‘a bare bodkin’ can he bring about his ‘quietus’ (III. i. 75-6). Words, therefore, are the focus of this play. It is Shakespeare’s longest and in it we are given a character who ‘“comes alive” only in language’, it is through words that the dramatic action, except the final scene, takes place upon the stage.

In terms of drama, the play is at odds with its form in that the driving action of the plot precedes the start of the play. We are given a revenge hero who is unable to live up to that title and only seems to spring into what one might call the action when he has been hit by Laertes poisoned rapier and he knows that he is about to die, something which he points out twice in the scene. Indeed, in performance, the final scene can be played as equally low-key as it can be played dramatically. In a self-conscious play such as this, it seems clear that Shakespeare understands the power of words.

To a dramatist, all activities that can be created on a stage is a representation – one that is created through words. Crucially it is through language that the world of Elsinore is created and all those that exist within it exist through the words that they speak. It is, therefore fitting that Hamlet’s dying words are ‘the rest is silence’ (V. ii. 363) for he knows that without language he is nothing. Through Hamlet Shakespeare gives us a world where the action is secondary to language because, in drama, one creates the other. 3967 words (exc. footnotes) 4338 words (inc. footnotes)

Bibliography Primary Sources

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (London: Faber & Faber, 1967) von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, ed. and trans. Eric A. Blackall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995) Secondary Sources Belsey, Catherine, ‘Revenge in Hamlet’, in Hamlet: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Martin Coyle (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 154-159.

Bloom, Harold, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003) Bradley, A. C. , Shakespearean Tragedy, 3rd edn. London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 84-166. Calhoun, Jean S. , ‘Hamlet and the Circumference of Action’, Renaissance News, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Winter, 1962), 281-298. Dickson, Andrew, The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, (London: Rough Guides, 2005) Eliot, T. S., ‘Hamlet’ in Selected Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), p. 141-146. Fernie, Ewan, ‘Terrible Action: Recent Criticism and Questions of Agency’, Shakespeare, Vol. 2, No. 1 (June, 2006), 95-118.

Hughes, Ted, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), pp. 233-239. Jump, John D. , (ed. ) Hamlet: A Selection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 2-32. Kettle, Arnold, ‘From Hamlet to Lear’, in Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964), pp. 146-159. Mangan, Michael, A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies (London and New York: Longman, 1991) Ratcliffe, Stephen ‘What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Ghost’s Speech’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4. (Autumn, 1998), 125-150. ‘‘Who’s There? ’: Elsinore and Everywhere’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. (Autumn, 1999), 153-173. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, ed. and trans.

Eric A. Blackall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 146. T. S. Eliot, ‘Hamlet’ in Selected Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), p. 143. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 86. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), subsequent references are to this edition.

Stephan Ratcliffe, ‘What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Ghost’s Speech’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 125-150. , ‘‘Who’s There? : Elsinore and Everywhere’, Modern Language Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. (Autumn, 1999), p. 153.  Ratcliffe, ‘What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Ghost’s Speech’, pp. 135-139.

A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 3rd edn. (London: Macmillan, 1992), Lecture III, p. 93. Ratcliffe, ‘What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Ghost’s Speech’ pp. 125-150  Ibid. , p. 129.  Ibid. p. 131 Having opened my Christmas presents and receiving Bloom’s Poem Unlimited after I had written this essay, I feel obliged to cite him for what I assumed to be an acute and original observation.

If only Father Christmas hadn’t been so efficient, I could have at least pleaded ignorance! Harold Bloom, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003), p. 10 Jenkins (ed. ), Hamlet, p. 294 Ratcliffe, ‘What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Ghost’s Speech’, pp. 131-132. Jenkins explains how the line has been used to show Claudius’s calm attitude to the play and to prove his unease in Jenkins (ed. ), Hamlet, p. 301. Michael Mangan, A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies (London and New York: Longman, 1991), p. 67.

Catherine Belsey, ‘Revenge in Hamlet’, in Hamlet: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. Martin Coyle (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 154. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 98. Notably the anonymous critic in ‘Extracts from Earlier Critics, 1710-1945’ in Hamlet: A Selection of Critical Essays, ed. John D. Jump (London: Macmillan, 1968), p. 22.

Jean S. Calhoun, ‘Hamlet and the Circumference of Action’, Renaissance News, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Winter, 1962), p. 288. Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), p. 236. Ewan Fernie, ‘Terrible Action: Recent Criticism and Questions of Agency’, Shakespeare, Vol. 2, No. 1 (June, 2006), p. 96.

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