The reluctant character Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has become one of the most cited characters in history. Throughout Shakespeare’s play Hamlet knows what he must do, but avoids it in his mind. The problem is: why does hamlet delay in avenging his father’s death? Hamlet is afraid. He is afraid of failure. Hamlet tries to play off his fear by blaming outside circumstances, like doubting the existence of the ghost when he knows in his heart it is true, and not having the right opportunity to exact revenge. What it all boils down to is a belief in himself, or lack of, that is a lack of self confidence.
Hamlet’s excuse of doubting the ghost is displayed in his actions when they meet. “Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damned,/ bring with the airs from heaven of blasts from hell,/ be thy intents wicked or charitable,/ thou com’st in such a questionable shape/ that I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee ‘Hamlet’,/ ‘King’, ‘Father’, ‘Royal Dane’” (Act 1, Sc. 4, ln. 44-50)(51) Hamlet’s words here clearly illustrate how Hamlet acts confused but honestly knows the ghost is true. Hamlet wants to doubt the existence of the ghost when he tells Horatio and the others, “Never make known what you have seen tonight.”(Act 1, Sc. 5, ln. 160)(65) The mere fact that Hamlet hesitates to reveal that he has seen the ghost at all and swears Horatio and the other sentinels to secrecy, shows his want to keep the proof of his father’s death secret. When hamlet says, “If his occulted guilt/ do not itself unkennel in one speech,/ it is a damned ghost that we have seen,/ and my imaginations are as foul/ as Vulcan’s stithy.” (Act 3, Sc. 2, ln. 85-89)(141) Hamlet here wants to believe the ghost is a demon and tries to persuade himself that it is. Hamlet knows in his self it is real. Hamlet knows the ghost is the ghost of his father, and is afraid to admit it. Hamlet tries to cover his fear of revenge up by acting as if he doubts the existence of the ghost.
Another way Hamlet covers up his fear is by blaming the wait to kill Claudius on his lack of perfect opportunity. Once Hamlet believes that Claudius is truly the murderer he says, “And now I’ll do’t./ And so he goes to heaven,/ and so I am revenged./ That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that./ I, his sole sun, do this same villain send,/ to heaven.” (Act 3, Sc. 3, ln 78-83)(167) Hamlet can kill Claudius as soon as he chooses, but decides to wait to kill him and blames this on ensuring that Claudius’s murder is valid and that he will not be elevated as a martyr or a victim. This is not necessary, Claudius’ death must come and waiting is cowardly. Hamlet was ready to kill Claudius at one time, but Claudius was busy praying, and Hamlet says, “when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,/ At game a-swearing, or about some act. That has no relish of salvation in’t-/ Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven’/ And that his soul may be as damned and black/ As hell, whereto it goes.” (Act 3, Sc. 3, ln. 94-100)(169) Hamlet is given a perfect opportunity to revenge his father’s death while Claudius is praying, but Hamlet decides against it. Yet another display of his cowardliness. Hamlet has the opportunity throughout the play, and perfect timing is not important, for if Hamlet does not kill Claudius then he has not done his job. Hamlet is a coward and again tries to play down his cowardliness by blaming circumstances such as imperfect timing among other things.
With all this in mind, the biggest reason Hamlet does not immediately follow through with his plot for revenge after Claudius’ guilt has been assured is that Hamlet believes himself weak and incapable of completing his task. The most famed line in the play is at a point when Hamlet is at the lowest point. “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.” (Act 3, Sc. 1, ln. 64-67)(127) Hamlet seems to reach a point of self-pity so low he debates the point of existence at all. Later, he compares himself to Fortinbras to make his spinelessness even more apparent. “How stand I then,/ That have a father killed, a mother stained./ Excitements of my reason and my blood,/ And let all sleep, while to my shame I see/ the imminent death of twenty thousand men/ That for a fantasy and trick of fame/ Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot/ Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,/ Which is not tomb enough and continent/ To hide the slain?” (Act 4, Sc. 5, ln. 59-68)(205) Hamlet knows himself to be a coward and shows how low he is when he compares himself to Fortinbras in a way that makes him look lower than he is. “A thought which to be quartered, hath but one part wisdom/ And ever three parts coward. I do not know/ Why yet live to say, ‘this thing’s to do,’/ Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means/ To do’t.” (Act 4, Sc. 4, ln. 44-49)(203) When Hamlet can call himself a coward it must be true. “Am I a coward?/ …’Swounds, I should take it! For it cannot be/ but I am pigeon-livered and lack gall.” (Act 2, Sc. 2, ln 598-600)(117) Again Hamlet questions his cowardliness, and claims himself to have no gall and as he puts it, ‘pigeon-livered.’ This lack of self confidence is a major reason in Hamlet’s delay and hesitation to exact revenge.
Hamlet is a cowardly individual, of that there is no doubt. He blames outside circumstances, such as his fear that Claudius would go to heaven unless killed sinning. He makes excuses, like disbelieving the existence of the ghost even though his heart believes. He hesitates because he is afraid of failure: failure to his father, mother, and to himself. And furthermore, the tragedy of Hamlet would not have been much of a tragedy had Hamlet not procrastinated. If he had killed Claudiuds the night of the play, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude and Laertes would not have died.
Some critics may say Hamlet did not delay. Some critics may ask the question, What is delay? Delay is to put off to a future time. Hamlet definitely puts off the killing of Claudius until the end of the play. Even if he has valid reasons to delay, he delays non the less. So critics who ask the question of whether he delays or not are completely wrong because there is no doubt in whether he delays or not, because he does.