The problem of Hamlet’s delay in killing Claudius is usually considered in relation to his character and circumstances. We are dealing here with a play and a character which provoke the most contradictory responses from critics. There are, for example, those who argue that Hamlet never does get around to taking any practical, deliberate measures to carry out the Ghost’s command, that his delay never ends, that when he does finally slay Claudius he does so almost inadvertently, at the end of a fencing-match not arranged by him but by Claudius – that the act of vengeance, in other words, has to be forced upon him or it would never be performed. This is one extreme position.
By contrast, we have the line of argument that it is meaningless to see a delay in a fiction such as Hamlet merely because something that requires doing is not done at once; naturally it will be done at the end – it is a play after all! Those who take this point of view argue that we are entitled to stress delay in Hamlet only if the play underlines procrastination. But, they suggest, apart from the soliloquies, the idea that Hamlet delays can be traced to only two passages. In the first, we see him turn down a genuine opportunity to kill Claudius when the latter is at prayer (‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying / And now I’ll do it, and so he goes to heaven… III, iii, 73). The second passage is the one where the Ghost endorses Hamlet’s own suggestion that he has come his ‘tardy son to chide’ by telling him that he has come to whet his ‘almost blunted purpose’ (III, iv, 111).
The soliloquies, however, make up for any lack of emphasis on delay in the action of the play. In these, there is a continuous reiteration of self-disgust on Hamlet’s part at his tardiness as an avenger:
….for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fattened all the region kites
With this slave’s offal….(II, ii, 571)
How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge (IV, iv, 32)
How stand I then,
To have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep….(IV, iv, 56)
It is Hamlet himself, then, who forces on our attention the question that has since engaged every critic who has dealt at any length with the play: why does he take so long to carry out the unambiguous commands of his father’s ghost to kill Claudius? The following are some of the arguments most commonly put forward:
- Hamlet is squeamish about blood, and finds violence repulsive. This approach to the problem of the delay has a long history. Goethe, the great German writer, suggested that Hamlet, having ‘a lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which he cannot bear and must not cast away’. The trouble with this interpretation is that it is too much at odds with some striking features of Hamlet’s behaviour: such violent and daring activities as his pursuit of the Ghost along the battlements, his slaying of Polonius, his remorseless despatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and also his many violent utterances in soliloquy and dialogue
- He is prevented until the very end from killing Claudius by external obstacles. This line of argument seems nullified by the ease with which Laertes invades the palace and raises a successful rebellion.
- Hamlet cannot rouse himself to effective action because his will to act is paralysed by melancholy, apathy, grief or disillusionment, or by a combination of all these. There is much evidence in the play to support such a view, particularly in the soliloquies – ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world’ (I, ii, 134); ‘It goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…’ (II, ii, 296).
- Hamlet has grave doubts about the righteousness of personal revenge. John Lawlor argues that this is the tragic conflict in the play; ‘the hero avers from the deed that is required of him, seeking endlessly the cause of his aversion, calling it by any name but its own, and failing to know it for what it is’. It is true that Hamlet curses the fate that casts him in the revenger’s role: ‘The time is out of joint; o cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right’. It may also be argued that he cannot bring himself to take premeditated vengeance on Claudius. He gets his opportunity when the latter is at prayer and at his mercy and offers what may seem like an unconvincing excuse for not proceeding with his task. It is only on the spur of the moment, when he has little or no chance to contemplate the moral implications of vengeance, that he takes decisive action (the killing of Polonius and of the king are acts suddenly forced upon him). Against this, however, it may be felt that if Hamlet has such strong ethical reservations about vengeance, such reservations might also extend to an act like the sending to certain death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it is quite clear that he has no qualms about this (‘they are not near my conscience’, V, ii, 58).
- Before he can proceed to kill Claudius, Hamlet must first find evidence that will make the justice of slaying his uncle apparent to the world, and at the same time satisfy himself that the Ghost has been telling the truth. The right question to ask, then, is not, why should Hamlet delay his killing, but why should he kill Claudius? There is much in the play to support this kind of emphasis. Examination of the text, for example, reveals that Hamlet has no cause to murder Claudius beyond a request to that effect by the Ghost. After the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet is convinced that he now has an explanation for an otherwise inexplicable series of events: he has not succeeded to the throne, Claudius having ‘popp’d in between the election and my hopes’ (V, ii, 65) as he later puts it; his mother has consolidated his uncle’s claim to the throne by marrying him within a month. But the trouble is that the ghost’s revelations lack any kind of proof. In this context, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy before the Play Scene is vitally important:
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
To 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. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
(II, ii, 591)
Some commentators dismiss this as simply excuse-making, another opportunity to defer action. but from Hamlet’s point of view, it is surely reasonable to wait until some kind of proof is forthcoming. Without proof that Claudius is guilty, where would he stand if, having killed his uncle, he found he had killed an innocent man, or, more plausibly, found it impossible to convince anybody else of the justice of his act. He is thus in a dilemma, often ignored by critics, a dilemma which may account for the attitude expressed in ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ (II, ii, 541) and ‘To be or not to be’ (III, i, 56). When he says just before the Play Scene that he will have ‘grounds more relative than this’, before he proceeds against Claudius, he means that he will be able to relate publicly more convincing reasons for killing his uncle than the ones he has at present.
His troubles in this regard do not, however, end with the Play Scene. The test that Hamlet makes Claudius undergo (The Murder of Gonzago) is not a solution to his problem. All this does in reinforce his conviction that Claudius is guilty, but nobody else, apart from Horatio, will be likely to accept any open accusation he may make against his uncle, or to acquiesce easily in the latter’s death at his hands. There is no prima facie evidence of guilt, and no real chance of finding any. Certain knowledge of Claudius’ guilt is withheld from the audience until he confesses all in the Prayer Scene (‘O my offence is rank… III, iii, 36). But Hamlet never gets the kind of proof he requires, and dies without it.
Hamlet senses that vengeance on Claudius will not serve any useful purpose. It will neither restore his dead father nor wipe away what he sees as his mother’s sin. A variation of this theory is that Hamlet’s mind throughout the play is occupied much more with his mother’s guilt than with his obligation to his dead father, that his desire to awaken her sense of guilt is stronger than his desire to kill Claudius. Anybody inclined to dismiss this theory out of hand should examine the number of hamlet’s references to Gertrude’s infidelity and bear in mind what he emphasises in the Closet Scene, where her guilt rather than the crime of Claudius commands the greater part of his attention.
- Another explanation belongs to the realm of depth-psychology (naturally!), and was first proposed by Sigmund Freud (who else?!). According to Freud, Hamlet has an ‘Oedipus Complex’. Briefly, this means that Hamlet, as a child, bitterly resented having to share his mother’s affections even with his admired father. His deepest instincts, therefore, rebel against killing his uncle, whose crime has coincided with his own subconscious wishes. When he denounces Claudius, he is, in effect, denouncing himself. According to Freud, the true nature of his problem remains hidden from him, so that he cannot fully understand the reasons for his vacillation. This theory would certainly account for the extreme puzzlement Hamlet expresses in relation to his lack of action.
- There are those who argue that Hamlet’s philosophical cast of mind inhibits practical action. In favour of this idea is Hamlet’s own testimony – a valuable kind of support. He sees himself as ‘a dull and muddy-mettled rascal / Like John-a-dreams’ (II, ii, 541). He finds that ‘the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (III, i, 84). He talks of his habit of ‘thinking too precisely on the event’ (IV, iv, 41). He admires the active Fortinbras, whose decisiveness he contrasts with his own inaction. But this evidence is all from his soliloquies. He can be as decisive as anyone else at times, as Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Claudius learn to their cost.
- There is still one other line of approach to be considered which, if accepted, puts the problem of delay into a different perspective from any of those views considered above. This involves considering the kind of play Hamlet is, and considering also what happens in plays of a similar kind. The major point to make here is that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, and it is a valuable exercise to examine it in the light of other plays of the same kind. The essence of any revenge tragedy is that the hero has not created the situation in which he finds himself and which brings about the tragedy. The initial situation is created by the villain (Claudius here), but it is the villain who also unwittingly creates the situation which brings about his own undoing and the revenger’s triumph. It is important to note that in revenge tragedies the downfall of the villain is not the result of a successful scheme carried out by the revenger. Claudius arranges an elaborate performance in order to destroy Hamlet, but is himself destroyed and destroys Gertrude. The revenger’s role, then, is a waiting one. Delay is not something we should reproach Hamlet with, or try to account for in terms of this or that kind of ‘flaw’ in his character, but something we should see as part of a pattern which is made clear at the end.
The safest answer then to the question of Hamlet’s delay is that there is no single answer! There are, as Alfred Harbage has argued, ‘many answers, or combinations of answers, with each member and each combination susceptible to innumerable degrees of emphasis. The possible range of variation of response is therefore unlimited. It is useless to debate the extent to which all this was a matter of conscious calculation with Shakespeare’ (Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It). Many plausible explanations for Hamlet’s actions and lack of action are suggested or implied in the text, but there is no final commitment to any of them. Single explanations of the delay are based on carefully chosen parts of the available evidence.