Sample Question

Why does Hamlet procrastinate and fail for so long to avenge his father’s murder?

This is the typical and in fact inevitable Hamlet question. It can be answered in one of two ways. The simplistic answer will be one that Hamlet does not go about things correctly. His father orders him to deal with Claudius (I.iv) and he doesn’t. He pretends to be mad and every time there is an opportunity to kill his uncle, Hamlet decides not to do so (see the chapel scene (III.iii)). You may go on to say that he allows Claudius to gain the upper hand by continually hinting at knowledge of the murder (the play, verbal confrontations) such that in the end Hamlet is only spurred to action when his own death beckons. In this reading Hamlet’s tragedy is the fact that he is all words and no action, his tragic flaw being indecisiveness or cowardice. Fortinbras must therefore be Hamlet’s hero and a saviour in the action-hero sense.

There is, however, a much more interesting and convincing way of answering this question and it begins with the fact that we know Hamlet is an intellectual: look at how he speaks to his friends and the artful language he uses throughout. He is cunning, thoughtful and very aware of the sinfulness of murder. He is faced by a ghost and accepts the task of avenging its death: "Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge" (I.v.29-31). Poetically and theoretically he will act, but he must "know ’t" first. The play then follows his path to knowing the truth. In this way Hamlet feigns madness to find out truth and cannot act until he does so. He relies on soliloquies wherein he is forced to consider his own inactivity but it is his very inaction that keeps him from sinful offence. He cannot simply murder his uncle and no opportunity arises.

His tragic flaw is that he gives in to the madness of rage and as a result causes his own demise and those of many others. Remember always the first thing Hamlet asks when he sees his father’s ghost: "Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damned?" It is righteous that Hamlet does not act on the words of a phantasm alone. Read the soliloquies closely to see how the venom that derives from filial distress is the evil and the tragic impetus; and that the so-called procrastination is a correct and natural reaction to unnatural forces. Again, we must admit that Fortinbras is the hero at the end of the play but crucially he is the beginning of a new order. Old Hamlet represented autocratic order ruled by power and fear; Claudius ruled by deception. Fortinbras will surely rule with a firm hand. Hamlet could not rule: he is introspective, thoughtful, sensitive and artistic. He would be an Edward II and not a Henry V (who can detach himself from his innate sensitivity). Thus, Hamlet acts correctly and in a way acceptable to fate.

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