“Hesitation is one of our diseases.” This idea expressed by Ralph Emerson is prominent in the play, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home from university in Wittenberg to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Shortly after, he meets his father’s ghost and the spirit implores Hamlet to seek revenge. During his revenge process, Hamlet is seen to consistently delay in completing his task of murdering his uncle. The much discussed and criticised indecision that the protagonist displays in the play shows a complex character whose ‘fatal flaw’ of being indecisive is not necessarily a negative trait.
Hamlet’s delay in taking revenge may actually mean that he is rational and clever and so does not act on impulse. This is best shown when he is trying to making sure that the ghost was legitimate and that his uncle is truely guilty of his father’s murder. In the opening scenes of the play, the Ghost of Hamlet’s late father reveals to him the truth of King Hamlet’s death. The Ghost tells Hamlet that his father’s death was caused by his uncle Claudius pouring poison into his ear. He exhorts Hamlet to avenge the murder. Hamlet’s initial response to the news is to act out the revenge quickly as he swears “Haste me to know’t that I with wings as swift May sweep to my revenge.” However, after the spirit leaves Hamlet begins to have doubts as to the true identity of the Ghost. He understands that in Denmark, currently full of deceitfulness, nobody will tell the truth. Thus he fears that the spirit he has seen may be evil as he states “…The spirit that I have seen/May be the 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.” The use of soliloquy effectively shows the internal conflict in Hamlet’s mind thinking and debating on whether the ghost is actually trustworthy. After much struggle, he eventually decides to gather sufficient evidence to prove his uncle’s guilt before he takes any action. This leads to Hamlet’s design of a play within a play which enables him to find out if Claudius is guilty without seeming guilty. Hamlet’s sensibility and intelligence is best displayed by the clever use of double meaning of the title of the play “Mousetrap” inferring that he is searching out a “rat”, namely Claudius. Through Hamlet’s delay in action, Shakespeare demonstrates to the audience that Hamlet is rational and intelligent. Rather than letting rage and resentment push him into action, he takes time to prove his suspicion. By acting rationally and not on impulse in a world of lies, Hamlet is able to unearth the truth. He demonstrates his cleverness and can be justified in getting rid of the king. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Hamlet reminds me of the Chinese old saying “think twice before acting.” In our society we need to think before we act or else we must face the consequences of our actions, which may not always be good. We live in a world full of lies and it is often hard to tell truth from fiction and a sinner from a saint. Acting on impulse can easily cause miscarriage of justice, violence and irreparable damage. One typical example is the 1989 United States murder of a convenience store clerk by one Carlos DeLuna. DeLuna was executed through the death penalty due to the anger the judge had for the circumstances surrounding the case but DeLuna was later found to be innocent. Unfortunately, the truth was uncovered after evidence was gathered far to late to prevent a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Hamlet’s indecision can be interpreted as a reflection of his kind and loving nature. Hamlet is a modern Elizabethan. During Elizabethan times, revenge for foul deeds was judged as being appropriate and correct (An eye for an eye). That’s why Hamlet knows that he has to act when he hears about his father’s death from the Ghost. However he is a well educated, intelligent, young man who is not a killer in nature but in fact a scholar. He is religious and believes that killing is a sin, suicide is a sin and regicide is a sin and thus the killing of another human being, especially a king is immoral. He is thus torn between his religious belief and his duty to revenge for his father. His soliloquy, “The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite / That I was ever born to set it righ,t” reveals his inner conflict. He is obviously upset at the idea of killing but he knows that if Claudius did kill his father he must kill Claudius for his father. His religious belief and inner kindness naturally leads to his delay in action. To avoid unnecessary killing, he carefully plans to trap the king’s conscience with a play so that he can confirm his father’s murderer and justify his action for revenge. (‘The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.) Apart from his religious belief, Hamlet’s love for his mother also contributes to his indecision. Hamlet displays a substantial amount of distress over his mother’s decisions as he talks to himself “…Why, she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on; and yet, within a month / Let me not think; Frailty, thy name is woman!” Although he is disturbed by his mother’s remarriage to his father’s murderer, he attempts to rationalise her mentality so that he may understand her action. As he loves his mother dearly, he understands that killing Claudius will hurt her as she loves his uncle, her new husband. He doesn’t want to see her complicit in the murder because he wants to save her soul and not risk her going to hell. She must ’Confess to heaven and repent what’s past’. Through Hamlet’s hesitation in action, Shakespeare presents to us Hamlet’s loving nature. Hamlet is a man who believes in chivalry, and finds slaughter repulsive. It is these idealistic qualities which cause the delay and procrastination of Claudius’ death and it is in the moment that Hamlet allows his emotion to dominate over his intellect that Claudius was killed. This makes me think of the power of love. Love can prevent impulsive action and violence. In our world, if we all had a loving heart we would think of the consequences before we took any action and we would therefore have more peace and less violence in our society.
Hamlet’s indecision also shows that he is a noble and a fair person. Although Hamlet bears deep resentment towards his uncle and is certain of his mission, he prolongs acting out his father’s revenge due to the uncertainty of the evidence pertaining to his uncle’s crime. He takes time to prove his uncle’s guilt, which shows his fairness as he only intends to avenge the real murderer and not someone innocent. As Hamlet believes in chivalry, he always wants to take a more noble approach. His soliloquy, “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,” shows Hamlet’s struggle as to what is more noble, whether to suffer from wrong deeds that one has done unto another or is it more noble to end the suffering by ‘opposing’. His fairness is best shown in Act III scene iii, when he lets pass the perfect opportunity to act. Claudius is found alone praying, expressing his guilt and grief over his sin. He confesses being the murderer of his brother and his sin “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t”. At this moment, Hamlet is presented with the perfect opportunity to avenge his father’s death. However, Claudius’ praying makes Hamlet hesitate, thinking over whether he should kill someone who has remorse or whether he should allow this person to correct his own actions. Moreover, when praying, his uncle bears no weapons and carries no defence and so killing him like that makes Hamlet feel that it is not a fair fight. Also, because of his deep religious beliefs about sin and salvation, Hamlet believes that if he ends the king’s life when he was seeking forgiveness for his sin, he would sanctify Claudius and clear him a path to heaven. His soliloquy “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying /And now I’ll do ‘t. / And so he goes to heaven,/And so am I revenged. /That would be scanned/A villain kills my father, and for that,/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/To heaven,” illustrates the reason behind this delay. To him, this is unfair to his father, who has no chance to make his last confession. Thus he decides to wait and kill Claudius in an act of sin so that Claudius is made to suffer in the afterlife just as his father has. Through Hamlet’s further delay in action, Shakespeare shows us Hamlet’s fairness. In a wider world context, sometimes people are faced with the terrible dilemma of avenging crimes that have happened especially within families. For example, recently in the United States, a man was convicted for killing the person who has assaulted his new wife while on their honeymoon. Some would say that the deed was morally acceptable but the courts decided that he should still be convicted.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is torn between his religious beliefs and his duty. Convention demands that he kill his father’s murderer, but murder is a sin. This conflict sustains the play and allows us to see this young man’s development. Hamlet’s procrastination helps us understand his morality – rational, loving and fair, and this builds up our appreciation of this complex character. He is a moral man who finally kills Claudius out of a sense of duty rather than in the rage of revenge. Although the delay in seeking vengeance means that waiting for his anger and final sense of duty are the reasons for the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude and of course his own death, Hamlet’s true character remains unblemished. Indecision is not a flaw and does not cause his downfall. On the contrary, indecision shows humanity in him making him a hero that is remembered.