The essay title refers to the delay between Hamlet discovering the murder of his father and the avenging of him. Hamlet learns of the murder from his father’s ghost in Act 1 Scene 4, and he is enraged and swears immediate revenge. When he calms down he decides that it is unwise to take action until he is sure that the ghost speaks the truth. The play put on in Act 3 Scene 2 confirms it is true, and yet still Hamlet does nothing. Hamlet does eventually kill his uncle in Act 5 Scene 2, when it is too late, as Hamlets own death is brought about. It is this sad storyline that gives the play the description as a “revenge tragedy”
Full of melodrama and violence, revenge tragedies were very popular in England towards the end of the 16th century. Apart from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, one of the most popular plays was “The Spanish Tragedy” (1589) by Thomas Kyd. In this play, the main character Hieronomo seeks to avenge the murder of his son. There is a delay between this decision and the murder, and this is due to practical problems in getting to the murderer. Another popular play was “Antonio’s Revenge” (1602) by John Marston. In this, the revenge is delayed to enhance its brutality.
All revenge tragedies have to have a delay – this is essential as otherwise the play would end too quickly. For this reason, the Jacobean audiences wouldn’t have noticed the delay in Hamlet. The fact that there appears to be no obvious cause for the delay wasn’t pointed out until 1736, by Thomas Hanmer. Since then, several different critics have sought for the reason of Hamlet’s delay. Hamlet is a philosopher, and there are some basic questions that all philosophers ask, which none can answer with certainty. Several of these involve the future – what happens after death? Is there an after life, a definitive heaven and hell?
Throughout the play, Hamlet seems very unsure about his own beliefs concerning death and the afterlife. He puts off the murder when he sees Claudius praying, as he worries that dying in this fashion will send Claudius to heaven. If this were to happen, would he, Hamlet, be avenged? In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet debates the pros and cons of committing suicide: “To die, to sleep/ To sleep, perchance to dream – aye, there’s the rub/ For in that sleep what dreams may come (? )” This suggests that Hamlet is worried about what would happen if he committed suicide, which is the “unforgivable sin”.
He reasons that if death was merely eternal sleep, who would suffer in life? The only reason that people stay alive is for “the dread of something after death”. In the end he admits: “conscience does make cowards of us all/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. ” In this passage, Hamlet is referring not to conscience as it is thought of today, but as consciousness. Here he compares determination to a boldness, which can be imagined as a bright colour, being made paler by the influence of thought. This is certainly true of Hamlet in the play.
It is noticed that the only time action is taken is when no thought precedes it. The murder of Polonius for example, took place very much in the heat of the moment. Even the Queen proclaims it a “rash and bloody deed! ” All this seems to imply that Hamlet believes that there is a form of life after death, be it heaven and hell or an eternal sleep filled with dreams. However, towards the end of the play he begins to voice the opinion that after death there is nothing. “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth… ”
This shows the influences of Montaigne. Montaigne was a French writer who died whilst Shakespeare was in his late twenties, whose works leant towards Epicureanism. This belief system is based on the teaching of the philosopher Epicurus, who believed that everything, including the soul, is composed of atoms, and death means the redistribution of these atoms. Montaigne believed that after death, the body became nothing more than dust. Therefore, no belief systems need to be followed. There is no point to doing anything, so there would be no point in taking revenge.
These are clearly the lines along which Hamlet starts to think – “Dust” is one of the most frequently used words in the play. However, rather than being the reason for his procrastination, this belief could be used as an excuse for not completing his task. The reasons for Hamlet’s delay have been a source of interest for many critics, and several different theories have been but forward. Samuel Coleridge, a poet from the Romantic Era remarks: “Shakespeare’s way of conceiving characters out of his own intellectual and moral facilities, by conceiving any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess and then placing himself, thus mutilated and diseased, under given circumstances.
” This refers to Shakespeare’s writing style, in which the main character in a tragedy, the tragic hero suffers from a ‘fatal flaw’- this idea was derived from the Greek theatre. Tragic heroes were usually good people who had one distinguishing characteristic, and when this was played upon, their entire character would change. For example, in “Macbeth”, his fatal flaw was: “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself / And falls on the other”.
For Macbeth, it was the Witches who drew out his ambition, and for Hamlet it was the Ghost who drew out his fatal flaw. However, Hamlet’s actual fatal flaw is undecided, although many critics feel it is irresolution. Coleridge states: “In Hamlet I conceive him to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to outward objects and our meditation on inward thoughts… ” Coleridge believes that Hamlet’s flaw is that he cannot distinguish between the real and imaginary world. He thinks on the matter too much and because of this he is unable to actually complete the task that he set out to do.
In agreement to this, a German romantic poet and critic by the name of August Wilhelm von Schlegel says “Hamlet”: “is intended to show how a calculating consideration which aims at exhausting, so far as human foresight can, all the relations and possible consequences of a deed, cripples the power of acting… ” This again voices the opinion that Hamlet spends far too much time thinking about the act opposed to actually doing it – he is irresolute. Some critics feel that this may be because Hamlet, despite being 30 years old, still has very childlike tendencies:
“He was a full grown adult, yet he still attended school… it took him a very long time to stop grieving about his father because he didn’t want to move past that part of his life” This may be due to Hamlet’s position in life. After all, he is the Prince of Denmark, and must have very little to occupy his time. He has not fought in battles; all he has achieved is further education and experience of culture in other countries. He has been taught how to think but not how to act, and as a result, he does not know what to do when put in such difficult circumstances:
“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/ That I was ever born to set it right! ” Hamlet is aware that he has been put in a situation that is not suited to him – he is not like “Hercules”. Far from suggesting he is childish, this explains how Hamlet, as a philosopher, is beyond his time. In the voicing of another point of view, the German poet Goethe says of Hamlet: “A lovely, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. ”
Some people view Hamlet’s lack of action as a display of his moralistic nature. They think his innocence and gentleness are repulsed by the mere thought of committing such a heinous act. It is possible that Shakespeare did wish Hamlet to have a moralistic character. Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan age whilst religion was still commonplace, and Revenge was prohibited by Ecclesiastical Law. However, the general Elizabethan view was that, in order for the world to continue properly, revenge must be sought in some cases, such as in the protection of personal honour.
Indeed, Elizabeth I was anxious that if she were ever to be murdered that her death would be avenged, and it is likely Shakespeare had this in his mind whilst writing the play. There were two types of avenger, a scourge, and a minister. A scourge was an evil person who, because he sought revenge, would damn himself to hell, which is what God wished. A minister was appointed by God to take revenge in the name of justice, but this could only happen at the appointed time, or he too would go to hell “But heaven hath pleased it so/ To punish me with this, and this with me/
That I must be their scourge and minister” Hamlet sees himself as a minister, but he has not been given an appointed time, and this may be partly reason for his delay. Here he talks of having to revenge his father as a punishment. It is not certain what the punishment is for, but it may be related to the idea that Hamlet has feelings for his mother. More modern theories on Hamlet’s delay are far more dubious. Many critics have looked to Freud’s psychoanalysis for an explanation. For example, the critic Ernest Jones has suggested that the Oedipus Complex is the main reason for Hamlet’s delay.
Either Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because he identifies with him as they both love Gertrude, or killing Claudius may mean admitting to himself that he is in love with his mother, which is something that disgusts him greatly. When remembering the closeness between his mother and father he exclaims “Heaven and earth, must I remember? “. This may simply be because remembering his father when he was alive is painful, or because at the time it caused much jealousy of his father from Hamlet. It is obvious that Hamlet is disgusted by the marriage between his mother and his uncle:
“O, most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” This suggests that he really would horrify himself if he realised that he was in love with his mother, so this supports the psychoanalysis theory. Despite this, these explanations still seem unlikely, as the critics are trying to analyze imaginary characters. Some of the above theories seem far more likely than others, although none seem to have hit on the right explanation exactly.
The critic A. C. Bradley’s calls him: “The Hamlet who scarcely speaks to the King without an insult, or to Polonius without a gibe; the Hamlet who storms at Ophelia and speaks daggers to his mother…. ” Although Hamlet may look like he is not killing the King because of his morals, close reference to the texts show that his other actions do not appear so good hearted. For example, the murder of Polonius, or the sending of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern to their deaths in England, without any sign of regret. It has also been suggested that Hamlet was weak, but the way he lugged around Polonius’s body after murdering him is not a sign of frailty.
These actions back up A.C. Bradley’s opinion that the main reason for Hamlets delay is not that he is a procrastinator by nature, but that he is suffering from melancholia. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans believed in the “four humours”, which were four fluids that affected your health. The lack or excess of one would put your humours out of balance and you would become unwell. The balance of the humours would also affect your mood. Imbalance of blood would lead to happiness, yellow bile to anger, phlegm to calmness, and black bile to sadness or melancholia.
Melancholia is not simply depression, but the uncontrolled swinging between moods. This theory seems the most likely, as Hamlet may put off the murder of Claudius, but his other actions do not seem to fit the other suggested reasons. In his book “Dyalogue of Comforte Against Tribulacyion”, Sir Thomas More explains how there are two types of sufferers – those who are willing to accept comfort and those who refuse it. Hamlet is of the second group, and members of this category are: “so drowned in sorrow that they fall into a carelesse deaddelye dulnesse regarding nothing… ”
This description appears to suit Hamlet, and it supports the theory that he suffers from melancholia. His melancholia could be thought of as a kind of madness at times, and perhaps this is a deliberate ploy of Shakespeare’s; as the players act out a play within a play, Hamlet pretends to be mad whilst actually being mad. Evidence for this is found by close reference to the text. It is noticed that when Hamlet is sane his speech is written in prose , but on pretending to be mad, his speech loses all structure and just becomes blank verse.
However, in the scene in the grave yard when he is with Horatio and the grave digger, his words are no longer written in prose. This could be Shakespeare’s way of showing that at points during the play, Hamlet’s melancholia is so severe, it could be said he is mad. One example from the text is in Act 3 Scene 4, when Hamlet is reproaching his mother, and he sees the ghost. When the ghost first appeared, the guards and Horatio saw him, as well as Hamlet. This time the ghost can be seen only by Hamlet, and this may be due to his guilty conscience that he is the “tardy son”.
In conclusion, the theory put forth by Bradley does appear the most likely. Evidence to back up this is found in Hamlet’s first soliloquy “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt”. At this point in the play, he has no idea that his father did not die from a snake bite. Despite this, he is already contemplating suicide: “that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon ‘gainst self – slaughter” Even under the circumstances this reaction seems over the top. His “unmanly grief” as Claudius calls it may be due to his melancholia.
It also explains his obsessive attention to detail, his swinging between moods and his hypochondriasis. This is one theory for which evidence can be found throughout the entire play, and which explains all of Hamlet’s actions.