“Am I a Coward?”- The Question of Cowardice in Hamlet
The question of cowardice in Hamlet was much debated by critics. Virtually all of Hamlet’s monologues are a meditation on the question of action, cowardice or suicide. Hamlet is perhaps the most complex of all of Shakespeare’s characters, almost defying any interpretation. Like the most important Shakespearian characters, he evolves throughout the play, from the moment of understanding of the “foul play” that happened in Denmark during his absence and to the final resolution of the conflict.
There are many elements in the play that contribute to Hamlet’s deferral of action.
One thing that is important to note in Hamlet’s attitude of deferral is the fact that Hamlet, as a Renaissance man, regards the events that have taken place in correlation with the whole universe. Thus, the act of revenge that Hamlet is asked to fulfill is synonymous with the restoration of order and harmony in the world, by eliminating the cause of disturbance.
Everything is connected, and in the human universe, the king of a state is no less than the highest link in the chain of being. In this understanding of the world, the treacherous murder that happened in Denmark is an overwhelming mission: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.”(“Hamlet” I. v.196-197) The world seems too much, a “sea of troubles”, and he implies that the only difference between life and death is that life is a sleep fraught with dreams, while death may be just a sleep without dreams. It can be said that Hamlet’s attitude is one of revolt in front of life and the world, although he does not act, but seems to remain passive all the time.
The next element in this question of cowardice is Hamlet’s own disposition as a melancholic. Hamlet is a scholar with a philosophical and meditative disposition, used to contemplate the world rather than to take active part in it. He sees the world idealistically, in a Platonic manner. This fact is best expressed in his monologue on the nature of man, where he praises the qualities of human spirit, which are close to the divine image, but at the same time, he remarks that man delights him not since, in the end, man is nothing else but a “quintessence of dust.”(“Hamlet”, II. i.308) His disposition hampers him from taking action, and he remonstrates himself on this account. In the second scene of the second act, Hamlet seems to undergo a transformation. After berating himself on the question of cowardice and comparing himself with the actor in the play who was able to get into a passion only for a show, Hamlet resolves to take action and organize the play that would “catch the conscience of the King.”(“Hamlet” II. ii. 601) Interestingly, it is this analogy with the play that makes Hamlet take action. Therefore, he curiously finds his courage in art, in theatre, and not in any real event.
At the end of the play, we can notice that Hamlet has undergone a definite change, as he suggestively replace his “to be or not to be” dilemma with a “let be” or readiness as he says, the mark of certainty and determination. This can obviously be interpreted in more ways. First of all, it is plain that although Hamlet’s view of the world is clearly a personal one, his soliloquies are always delivered as general discourse, from an objective point of view. This means that Hamlet cannot help extending his own troubles to a general description of how things are in the universe and to the condition of man in general. He never complains about his own problems, but always places everything that happens to him in the general context of the world. This is why he does not speak about taking his own life, but about whether death is not preferable in general. This is what actually shifts at the end of the play, when he adopts the opposite idea of providence, and ceases to relate the world to himself and to his own individuality. To “let be” means to leave off judging the events and accept his individuality as part of the providence. Hamlet actually changes radically his view: “Hamlet. Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s 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. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”(“Hamlet” V. ii. 215-220)
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Arden Edition of
the Works of William Shakespeare (Ed. Harold Jenkins). New York: Routledge, 1975.
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