In “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, the main character is a young man by the title name, Hamlet. His father, the King of Denmark, has been murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Hamlet learns of this from the ghost of his father when he shows himself and says, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (Hamlet 1.5.39). He urges Hamlet to revenge his death and also tells him not to harm his mother. Hamlet gets angry at Claudius and his mother. He approaches his mother and points out her sins, but he delays in killing Claudius until the end of the play, even though he has many opportunities to do so.
When approached from the viewpoint of a revenge tragedy style play, Hamlet’s delay does not seem to be a problem. The play focuses on Hamlet and the internal struggles he faces while devising a plan to carry out his revenge. Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in this style to showcase this. According to Matthew Woodcock, a revenge tragedy is “a play in which the plot is primarily constructed around the pursuit and enactment of revenge.” He also states that this style of play is meant to be “complex” and “thought provoking” (Woodcock). The audience can see that “Hamlet” does have all these characteristics, so this explains the length of time it takes for the revenge to be carried out.
Hamlet himself offers many words of wisdom in this play as well. At one point, Hamlet tells Horatio “There is a special providence / in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come: / if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, / yet it will come-the readiness is all” (Hamlet 5.2.202-205) He is basically saying that everything will work out in the order that it is supposed to. Even though the audience may see Hamlet struggle with his own inaction, this statement proves that he trusts in destiny and that things will happen when they will.
One of the obvious reasons for Hamlet’s delay is the fact that his only evidence of the murderer is a ghost telling him who did it. He has to be thinking of what would happen should he murder Claudius on those grounds. He would most likely be labeled as insane and lose his rights to the throne. In the last part of one of his soliloquies, Hamlet speaks of his uncertainty about the ghost:
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me; I’ll have grounds
More relative than this (Hamlet 2.2.573-579).
Because Hamlet needs more evidence, he acts insane and toys with the other character’s minds. His goal in doing this is to learn any type of incriminating evidence that he can without making them suspicious. He allows his state of mind to be blamed on his rejection by Ophelia while he slyly feels out the situation. His other plan of action is to stage a play very similar to the chain of events that the ghost described to him. His reasoning is that Claudius’ guilt will cause a reaction and then he will have the evidence to justify killing him.
It seems the longer that Hamlet waits to take action, the harder it gets for him. There are a few factors involved. First is that as time goes by, he gets a bit more lax. At one point, he has the perfect opportunity to strike Claudius with his sword, but he sees that Claudius is praying. Hamlet thinks to himself, “Now might I do it pat, now a’ is a-praying, / And now I’ll do’t, and so a’ goes to heaven” (Hamlet 3.3.73-74). His reason for not following through is that his father was not allowed the chance to confess his sins and is suffering in purgatory because of it. Hamlet does not want to do Claudius the favor of sending him straight to heaven. He wants to wait until he has unconfessed sin that he will have to answer for. This is actually ironic because all who die in the last scene do not get the chance to confess, Hamlet included.
Another factor is that Hamlet is actually shipped away to England in an effort by Claudius to have him killed. Hamlet foils his plan and makes it back to Denmark, this time convinced that he will take the first action that he can to kill Claudius. Claudius uses Laertes’ desire for revenge to his own advantage and sets up the doomed fencing duel between Laertes and Hamlet. His plan is that Laertes will strike Hamlet with a poisoned sword, and his death will be ruled an accident. During the match, the queen toasts to Hamlet and drinks the poisoned drink. Hamlet and Laertes both become wounded with the poisoned sword during a scuffle. When Hamlet learns of their impending deaths, he finally takes his last chance to get revenge and forces Claudius to drink the poison as well. All four characters die, leaving no one to revel in the supposed satisfaction of revenge.
Hamlet’s problem of inaction causes him to lose his life along with the others. Perhaps if he had acted sooner, there would have been less loss of life. Because this is a revenge tragedy play though, the ending should come as no surprise. Each character that died was involved in an evil plan or way of life that could have been avoided had they not followed their own selfish desires. The story of Hamlet is tragic and also ironic because he was quick to point out the faults and evils of others, but his wishes for revenge made him just as guilty as they were. In the bigger picture, Hamlet’s believed problem of delay was not actually the real problem. The true problem is the corrupt and selfish human nature that all the characters succumbed to, resulting in the ends of their lives.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar
V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.
Woodcock, Matthew. “Revenge Tragedy.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 16 Nov 2008.