Hamlet – theme of action, not contemplation
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is one of William Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces depicting the complications, conflict and fall of the protagonist; at the same time, voicing the universal pathos of a man trapped by the role and responsibilities of avenging his father’s assassination. Hamlet the prince of Denmark is often labeled as a procrastinator but throughout the play, it becomes increasingly evident to the audience/readers that he is not a weak-minded character swayed from his goal, rather an individual deliberating his way steadily through the mesh of intrigue and conspiracy webbed around him, understanding the murder and the motive, the friends and foes circling him before taking the decisive action of revenge against the real perpetrators of this ghastly crime.
A close examination of the text of the play often brings forth the opinion that Hamlet suffers from lack of action suitable to the Elizabethan Hero due to his prolonged preoccupation with the cause and consequence of his action, deemed unsuitable of the typical duty bound hero setting forth on his mission without questioning the dictates of his destiny.
Prior to the nineteenth century, critics took Hamlet’s long-drawn physical initiative against King Claudius as a technical ploy to heighten the dramatic climax of the tragedy, but the nineteenth century men of literary criticism raised questions about Hamlet’s delay in taking revenge (Wofford). Hamlet is described as a revenge drama, in lines of its notable predecessor The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. The theme of revenge recurs throughout the texture of the play – the attack of Fortinbras is the result of avenging his father’s defeat and death. As Claudius states:
He hath not fail’d to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother.
(Hamlet, Act I,Sc ii, 17-25)
When Polonius is slain by Hamlet in a frenzied fit of misunderstanding, Laertus is sworn to revenge this unfortunate patricide. There are references to the classical legends of Pyrrhus and Brutus, the former active in war against the hands that slew his father Achilles (Plutarch) and the latter, passive in his vengeance. Hamlet is depicted in the midst of these characters, embodying neither the savagery of Pyrrhus nor the inert temperament of Brutus, nor the opportunist nature of Fortinbras and the grievous misguided revenge of Laertus. When perceived from the angles of others seeking revenge, Hamlet emerges a level-headed hero, certain of his enemies, recognizing and ready for his final action and its consequences.
To be or not to be — is the central pivot of Hamlet’s meditations. He is a son beguiled by his uncle’s words, only to be stripped off his illusions by the appearance of his father’s ghost imploring revenge, dejected by his mother’s disloyalty and dismayed by the hypocrisies and lies surrounding him. While it was a custom of the Elizabethan times to do the honorable deed and take immediate vengeance against the murderers of one’s kin, Hamlet suffers from the delay of decision not because of cowardice or infirmity but because of his inability to accept the grotesque truth of his own near and dear ones’ betrayal. The famous speech where Hamlet questions the spectrum of possibilities before him shows his strength of mind and acknowledgement of his oscillating thoughts.
To be or not to be, that is the question;
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep;
No more; … the dread of something after death,
…conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(Hamlet Act III, Sc I, 56-88)
E. Prosser said that “This soliloquy is a meditation on the central theme of the duties and temptations of a noble mind in an evil world” (“Hamlet and Revenge”). Hamlet the profound philosopher is juxtaposed with Hamlet the son seeking revenge. This comprehensive personality of the speaker makes his actions in the drama delayed but decisive, emotional yet rational.
Throughout the play, there are incidents when Hamlet does lift his hand to strike, yet withdraws it either in moral principle (when he refuses to kill Claudius in his posture of praying in Act III, Sc III) or stumped in error (in Act III Sc IV, when he slashes Polonius hidden in Gertrude’s chamber, precipitating further complications in the play). Critics have debated Hamlet’s procrastination in Act III Sc III. Delving into the ethics of the honorable Elizabethan revenge, it meant vengeance not just physically but spiritually as well. In fact, Claudius is a man of action, if action literally meant making maximum usage of opportunities to further one’s ends without the base of good moral judgment to validate one’s action. Hamlet refuses to mirror his uncle’s evil action even if it resulted in delaying his final climax.
Shakespeare’s plays abound in the conflict of will against destiny. In the tragedy of Hamlet, there is the presence of an overriding force of destiny which turns the tides of affairs in its own fated way. He scorns the capability of man to bring about his own ends, and points out that some divine force molds men’s aims into something other than what they intend. At the same time, he is aware of his resolution and true to his honor bound promise to his father’s ghost. Through his ploy of a play within a play – “The Murder of Gonzago”, Hamlet wishes to fortify his suspicion of Claudius’ crime before the fatal strike against the enthroned enemy. Hamlet is shattered by the possible involvement of his mother Gertrude in Claudius’ sinful act of regicide. In this, Hamlet’s delay is often explained in terms of Freud associating hamlet with Oedipal complex (Muir). As Kenneth Muir explains, Hamlet cannot be accused of procrastination as the dictate of his father’s ghost was to kill Claudius and not to harm his mother; the moment, Gertrude collapses from the fatal cup intended for Hamlet, the latter swings into action striking Claudius dead, himself falling to his own end from the poisoned rapier.
To this day, Hamlet remains one of the most intriguing characters of Shakespeare and his tragic persona is still shrouded in mystery and open to critical examination and interpretation. While his meditative analysis, moral dilemma and philosophy might tag him the hero of contemplation, it is evidenced throughout the play that Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark was a man of action, not impulsive action but a well planned decisive action at the right moment.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Philip Edwards, ed., updated edition 2003. New Cambridge Shakespeare.
Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. New York: W. W. Norton, revised edition, 1989.
Muir, Kenneth. “Freud’s Hamlet.” Shakespeare Survey Volume 45: Hamlet and its Afterlife. Ed. Stanley Wells. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 18 November 2008. DOI:10.1017/CCOL0521420555.007
Plutarch. “Pyrrhus”. Translated by John Dryden. 4 October 2000. The Internet Classics Archive. 18 November 2008.
Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford University Press; 2nd edition (June 1977).
Wofford, Susanne L. “A Critical History of Hamlet.” Hamlet: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martins Press, 1994.
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