Let’s get classical. Let’s talk Hamlet.
I will be the first to say that the first few times I had to read Hamlet, I would get maddeningly frustrated by his indecision.
I would literally be sitting there, shaking my book, grumbling “Just do it, Hammy! Just do something!”
Despite my initial exasperation, there is a lot to Prince Hamlet’s character that puts him in a constant state of inaction.
I’m going to share the perspectives of some key literary critics as well as my own thoughts on the matter.
Prince Hamlet is a thoughtful young man who is cautious enough not to jump into dangerous situations too hastily. He ponders nearly his every move before acting and has many intrinsic motivations. He values morality and holds himself to a high standard of accountability, which makes him an honorable man despite his quest for revenge.
While his goal may be a bloody one, his reasons and the amount of thought he invests in his actions evoke a sense of sympathy from even the most moral reader.
Literary critics Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and A.C. Bradley compile theories and hypothesize on the exact reasons for Hamlet’s chronic indecision. Hamlet fails to act until it is too late because of a deep inner conflict born of his moral deliberation. This is something that I think we can connect with, to some extent, as modern readers. How often do you put off making a decision if things don’t feel quite right?
Bradley addresses Hamlet’s character by describing the importance of how “strength and weakness should be so mingled in one soul.” Bradley looks toward Hamlet’s melancholic attitude as one of the key reasons that he fails to act. This theory ties in with Hamlet’s moral inner conflict; he is surrounded by sinfulness. He perceives his uncle marrying his mother as an incestuous relationship, which adds to his misery in reaction to the death of his father.
Sadness and grief plague Hamlet’s every step, which lead to his melancholia. On top of that, his unhappiness with the state of his life makes it more difficult for him to act. Instead of looking at situations pragmatically, he doubts himself, he questions the Ghost, and he laments whether his actions are truly in the right. Though his weaknesses are very understandable given his situation, in some ways, they are more prominent in the story than his strengths, as they play such a strong role in his failure to act.
The melancholic demeanor Bradley emphasizes the importance of is reflected in many of the tragic prince’s lines. Not only does he gravitate to the darker spectrum of emotions, he also questions himself often, in lines such as, “Am I a coward?” (II.ii.510).
Well, Prince Hammy, my dear, you might be!
But is this such an unrealistic trait? Not really.
One of most Hamlet’s interesting features is that he is clearly aware that he is failing to act. We’re frustrated. He’s frustrated too. He knows, all too well, that he is indecisive and devoted to the importance of moral principles. Hamlet’s self-awareness makes his suffering even deeper as he questions the legitimacy of the accusations against his uncle.
Hamlet’s motivations for his actions are a key part in why he falls to indecision and hesitation so frequently. Wilhelm Meister describes Hamlet simply by stating “Ambition and desire to rule are not his driving passions.” All of Hamlet’s reasons are born from a sense of filial obligation to his father, but even with this deep sense of obligation, he spends far too much time thinking instead of acting.
Hamlet’s motivations, in a way, are softer and gentler than a desire to rule or ambition for power. Though his interest in avenging his father rather than a quest for supremacy may make him more relatable to the reader, it could also play role in why his convictions are not strong enough to spur him into action. Though losing his rightful claim to the throne bothers Hamlet, his losses do not drive him to try to carry on his father’s legacy honorably.
In part, the wishes of Hamlet’s father enhance Hamlet’s lack of ambition.
Though the late King Hamlet is described as a good king and one who wore the finest of armor, his role in the play makes him seem far less glorious and selfless as an ideal king should be. Despite the words of praise that are used regarding him, when he appears as a ghost, he only implores his son toward revenge. While this is understandable considering how he was poisoned and killed by his brother, he still sent his son on a suicide mission of revenge.
If King Hamlet encouraged his son to honor him by becoming a good, strong king who would guide the people to a brighter future, Hamlet may have been able to overcome his doubts, for he would have thought of more than just his immediate family. Even a good king would not want to see his murderer take everything he once had, but his actions still forsake his son.
He may have been a grand king who wore the best of armor even in death, but he was not the grandest father to his confused and indecisive son.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s opinion of Hamlet as simply a man who is not tough enough may seem plausible if a reader looks at the story with a focus upon only the events. Hamlet’s failure to act until it was too late was not exclusively because he lacked mental toughness, but it could be part of why he errs on the side of caution when he comes closer to seizing revenge.
One of Hamlet’s best chances to avenge his father comes when he sees Claudius alone, but will not “take him in the purging of his soul” (III.iii.85) due to the risk that his uncle could go to heaven.
Despite his sins, Hamlet fears that Claudius’ prayers could earn him a place in heaven. This line of reasoning relates very closely to the deep importance that Hamlet holds religious obligations, despite the changing beliefs in his time. Once again, by thinking too deeply into the morality of the situation, Hamlet misses the perfect change to avenge his father.
Coleridge’s opinion of Hamlet and his propensity for overthinking his situation also contribute to Hamlet’s moral calculations. In Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets, Hamlet’s inner turmoil is described as, “he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of due balance between our attention to the objects of our sense, and our meditation on the workings of our minds.”
Hamlet very often becomes so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he misses opportunities that could change his future and even avenge his father.
To delve deeper into the concept of Hamlet’s moral necessity, this is the strongest aspect of Hamlet’s failure to act. His melancholy and his lack of ambition are part of the problem, but the moral dilemma the prince faces takes precedence.
By spending too much time alone with his thoughts as Coleridge suggest, Hamlet becomes increasingly indecisive.
He is an intellectual and passionate, but his sense of right and wrong prevents him from turning that passion into results. Even late in the play, he still hates his uncle, rebuking him with harsh statements such as, “he hath killed my king and whored my mother” (V.ii.63). His feelings toward Claudius do not change but remain plagued by the same indecision that haunted him from the beginning of the play.
Finally, Hamlet’s desire for Claudius to not only be killed to avenge the death of King Hamlet, but also publicly dishonored as a murderer serves as a hindrance to his plan. In some ways, though he wishes for his actions to be set in the moral right by Claudius’ guilt being revealed, Hamlet wishes for too much and ends up with absolutely nothing because of it.
Hamlet is a moral person, which is both his best and worst trait.
In an average situation, the way he treasures being a good person would get him far in life. Moreover, he had the potential to be a kind, thoughtful king who could lean Denmark to a brighter future through his thoughtful ways.
However, due to the deceptions of his uncle and his own weaknesses, Hamlet never lives to hold the throne of Denmark. Hamlet tries to walk an honorable path and struggles with the reality that not everyone will perceive revenge as a proper course of action, even if the justifications are in place.
Hamlet brings about his downfall by allowing his morals to occupy his every waking thought and put a stop to every step he takes forward.