Table of contents:
Different phases of Hamlet’s actions
Does Delay equal Morality
Action and misdirection
Proving who’s guilty
Is Hamlet even delaying his revenge or does it merely take him some time to plot and execute it. Critic G.B. Harrison stands by this assumption and says “In the play which Shakespeare wrote, there was no delay”.1 But there are other critics finding the answer to the delayed revenge that Hamlet carries out, in the main character himself: T.S. Elliot2, Johann Wolfgang Goethe3 and S.T. Coleridge4, to name only a few. But for sure there is some sort of delay all through the play, a delay that somehow is based on the behavior of the main character Prince Hamlet. If there was no delay, Hamlet would have acted in a whole different way; As soon as he was told that his father had been killed by his uncle, he would have taken out his sword and simply killed the new king of Denmark. There would not have been much delay and self-doubt then. But to start at the beginning, we will have a short look at the play itself. Maybe then some things will become clearer.
Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest piece of work. It was written more than 400 years ago, but nevertheless it seems to stay up to date, when we consider that it is still read by many people. It may be a strongly critiqued play by William Shakespeare, but many people even consider it Shakespeare’s best work.
Hamlet, a tragic story of murder, betrayal and (delayed?) revenge: Young Prince Hamlet comes home from his studies abroad and finds his father dead, his mother remarried to his uncle and his uncle on the throne of Denmark. Hereupon the ghost of his deceased father appears and tells Hamlet about the circumstances of his death. He tells Hamlet that his uncle killed him in cold blood to get the throne and commands Hamlet to take revenge on the evildoer.
This act of revenge is fulfilled a couple hundred pages and thousands of lines later. The question comes to mind: Why did Hamlet delay so long in taking his revenge for his father’s murder? - Surprisingly when the villain dies in the end, it were not Hamlet's direct actions, which led to the death. Those were the actions taken from another character in the play, Laertes. Through the cause of the play, Hamlet accidentally kills the kings advisor, Polonius. Only because of the Death of Laertes' father, Polonius, Laertes challenges Hamlet to duel and these events lead directly to the death of Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet himself. One could only think about what had happened if Laertes did not take the action; would the story have come to an end?
Different phases of Hamlet’s actions
Why does Hamlet not take any action on his own? In the cause of the play Hamlet is for the most part thinking about what to do and whether he knows the truth about everything that has happened. This takes up a great amount of time, where the revenge tragedy, becomes far more a “not-revenge-just-yet” play.5
What phases of delay or far more justifications for not taking action, can be found in Shakespeare's play? - The play can be divided in several phases according to the delay of Hamlet's actions. The first phase is merely the time Hamlet only knows that his father is dead and that his mother surprisingly remarried his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet has just returned home from his studies and knows that something is “rotten in the state of Denmark” like Marcellus, a side-character says.6 In this first phase Hamlet is not able to take any action, because he simply does not know that anything is wrong for sure. Speaking of a delay in this phase of the play is not plausible, because there is nothing Hamlet or another character can be delaying.
The next phase starts when Hamlet meets the ghost and is told about what has happened in his absence. Now Hamlet knows that he was right to suspect and in deed something bad has happened. Additionally to Hamlet's meeting with the ghost Hamlet starts to delay the action. A normal avenger would have pulled out his sword, stormed into his uncle's chambers and killed the evil man. Hamlet has his doubts, whether he can trust the ghost or not. Therefore he does not take the ghost's word for granted. Hamlet is aware that the ghost might be a heavenly spirit trying to guide him or a spawn of hell, trying to deceive him. “The Spirit that I have seen may be a de'il, and a de'il hath power t'assume a pleasing shape.”7
In the next phase Hamlet wants to get his proof for the word of the ghost. He cannot take an action without knowing it is a good thing that he is doing, otherwise he would become the villain.8
This topic of insecurity is spread over the whole play. Hamlet is not sure and therefore he does not do anything, and that even applies when he knows the truth about what has happened to his father. Hamlet is a thinker and talker, he is not an actor or likes to take action:
“Yet he is sensible of his own weakness, taxes himself with it, and tries to reason himself out of it... Still he does nothing; […] His ruling passion is to think, not to act: and any vague pretext that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his precious purposes.”9
Hamlet is willingly delaying the action and plots a way of finding out the truth in the next phase. The phase can be described as the 'mousetrap'. Hamlet pushes the king until the king gives away his guilty consciences. One could think that everything can be executed from the time Hamlet knows the truth, when he sees how the king reacts to his 'mousetrap' and runs away10. There is no further need to delay the action. The facts are on the table an Hamlet knows who killed his father and exactly who it was executed.
Not being as simply as it seems, Hamlet manages to delay the action once again, getting it just in in the end of act V., what seems like a very long period of time, when we consider that Hamlet knew for sure what was going from act III and on. Later, in the end of act V., Hamlet got his revenge, therefore the play is often classified a revenge tragedy. But one thing many people don't seem to see is that the play is not that much about Hamlet taking his revenge, it is far more about Hamlet delaying his revenge: filled with insecurity and self-doubts Hamlet does not seem to be able to take any real action. He talks without a stop and makes fun of the people, but with all that talking is he is delaying the action he is talking about.
This can be closely examined in the scene after the play within the play, when Hamlet finds Claudius praying (III.3). He could have killed him then, but Hamlet talks about what to do and still finds a fly in the ointment: He cannot kill the king while he is praying and maybe confessing his sins. It is very much like when Hamlet was not sure whether the ghost spoke the truth or not. But now Hamlet knows that ghost was truthful, what becomes clear though Hamlet's statement: “ I'll take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound.”11 Nevertheless he does not act; It seems like Hamlet has to find something to grouse about and something that tells him not to act for maybe then Hamlet would be doing evil, killing a man asking for redemption. That is the reason why Hamlet delays his revenge one more time. “This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act […] and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve”12 to quote Coleridge.
1 Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy, p. 4.
2 Cf. T.S. Elliott, Hamlet and his Problems.
3 Cf. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
4 Cf. S.T. Coleridge, Lectures.
5 Deary, Shakespeare Stories, p. 175.
6 Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.4, l. 90.
7 Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2, l. 533ff.
8 Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2, l. 506ff.
9 Hazlitt, in: Jump [Ed.], Hamlet. Essays, p. 29.
10 Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.2, l. 258fff.
11 Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.2, l. 278f.
12 Coleridge, in Jump [Ed.], Hamlet. Essays, p.30.