“Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” is a phrase expressed throughout the world. With matters of great importance and urgency, procrastination can be fatal. In the case of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s inability to act swiftly and avenge his father’s murder sets off a chain of events that brings about the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and himself.
The wheels of impending doom are set in motion when Hamlet is stirred to revenge. The ghost of king Hamlet appears to him and tells him to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Hamlet I: v 31).
Hamlet asks the ghost to know who has done the foul deed, “that [he], with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, sweep to [his] revenge” (Hamlet I:v 35-37). The ghost reveals to Hamlet that it was the king’s brother. He tells Hamlet that “howsomever [he] pursues this act, [he should] taint not [his] mind” (Hamlet I: v 91-92).
Hamlet then swears that he will have vengeance upon his uncle.
Hamlet has a chance to follow through on his promise when he sees his uncle on his knees weeping and praying over the crime he has committed. As he enters, Hamlet says to himself, “Now might I do it, now he is a-praying, and now I’ll do’t” (Hamlet III: iii 77-78). He then realizes that if he kills his uncle while he is praying, Claudius will go straight to heaven. He determines to kill Claudius “when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed, at a game a-swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in ‘t-” (Hamlet III: iii 93-97).
He leaves, letting the king live. He could have waited until Claudius finishes praying to slay him, but Hamlet lets the chance slip through his fingers, which brings about the death of Polonius.
While Hamlet watches Claudius pray, Polonius is with the queen in her chamber waiting for Hamlet. Before Hamlet enters the chamber, Polonius hides behind a curtain to eavesdrop on the conversation. As Hamlet enters, he harasses his mother, and she cries for help. Polonius echoes her cry, and Hamlet, not knowing it is Polonius, runs his sword through the curtain. The queen says to Hamlet, “O me, what hast thou done?” (Hamlet III: iv 31).
Hamlet replies, “Nay, I know not. Is it the King” (Hamlet III: iv 32)? Hamlet pulls back the curtain hoping to see the King but finds that it is Polonius instead. He speaks to him saying, “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell” (Hamlet III: iv 38). Hamlet is the rash one. He thrusts his sword into the curtain not knowing who is behind it. He should not have assumed it was the king behind the curtain when he had just seen Claudius praying. If he had only slain Claudius when he had the chance, he would have not thought that the king was behind the curtain. Thus, he would not have thrust his sword into the body of the spy, and Polonius would have lived.
The one who takes the death of Polonius the hardest is Ophelia, his daughter. When news of his murder is made known, she loses her mind. She begins singing songs and cannot be calmed down. The king sees this and says, “O, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs all from her father’s death” (Hamlet IV: v 80-81). Laertes sees her behavior that comes as a result of the death of their father, and Laertes says to the king, “And so have I a noble father lost, a sister driven into desp’rate terms, whose worth…stood challenger on mount of all the age of her perfections. But my revenge will come” (Hamlet IV: vii 27-31).
The king and Laertes then contrive a plan to kill Hamlet once he arrives home. The queen interrupts the conversation and says to Laertes, “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, so fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes” (Hamlet IV: vii 187-8). According to Laertes, Ophelia is a bright girl. If she had not had a mental breakdown, she would not have fallen into the brook to her death. The reason she had the breakdown was because of Hamlet’s rash action in killing her father, Polonius, which was a direct result of Hamlet’s inability to take Claudius’ life when he had the chance. Therefore, the death of the one Hamlet professes to love comes as an effect of his own procrastination.
When Hamlet returns to Denmark, he is met with a challenge from Laertes to a duel. Laertes dips his sword in “an unction of a mountebank” to ensure that when Hamlet draws blood, he will die from the poison (Hamlet IV: vii 161). During the duel, Hamlet lays two good strikes on Laertes. Laertes comes back and wounds Hamlet with his poisoned sword. Hamlet, not knowing it is poisoned, seizes the sword and wounds Laertes. Laertes realizes that they both are at their last breaths and says, “Hamlet, thou art slain. No med’cine in the world can do thee good. In thee there is not half an hour’s life” (Hamlet V: ii 344-6). Laertes falls to the ground dead from the poison. Hamlet finally kills the king, and then dies from the poison as well. The two young and noble Danes would be spared if Hamlet chooses to kill Claudius when the opportunity first presents itself. He, however, chooses to wait.
Before all of these deaths occur, Hamlet says that he, “with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, [will] sweep to [his] revenge” (Hamlet I: v 35-37). He does not, however, stick to his words and kill the king when he has the chance. If he would have killed the king as swiftly as he says he will, Hamlet would not have mistaken Polonius for the king, Ophelia would not have died mourning over her father, and Laertes would not have felt the responsibility to avenge his father’s death by killing Hamlet. Because of Hamlet’s procrastination, many innocent people died. Putting off responsibilities is making an action. Hamlet’s actions and had an effect on the lives of many others. That’s why it is so imperative to follow through. Everything that is said and done has an effect on the fates of others.