Why Does Hamlet Act Essay, Research Paper
Why Does Hamlet Act ?
In the first act of Shakespeare s Hamlet, the young prince learns that his father,
King Hamlet (who has been dead for two months), was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet s
uncle, who is now the new king. Near the end of Act I, the ghost of king Hamlet appears
before his son to inform him of this foul, strange, and unnatural treachery. The ghost
tells Hamlet that Claudius poured poison in his ear as he lay sleeping. Finally, the ghost
commands Hamlet to avenge the murder. Remember me, the ghost says, departing.
At first, Hamlet appears more than willing to comply. He is already upset that
Claudius has married Gertrude, his mother. Moreover, Hamlet intimates that he already
suspected some kind of treachery. When the ghost relates what Claudius has done, Hamlet
utters, O, my prophetic soul! Then, in a moment of passion, Hamlet vows to sweep
to his revenge. For most of the play, however, he does not sweep to anything. In Act II,
we learn that two months have passed since the ghost told Hamlet of Claudius treachery.
Hamlet does finally kill Claudius, but not until the end of the last act. Knowing this,
many readers have asked the question, why does Hamlet delay? Of course killing Claudius
in Act II makes for a very short play. With this aside , however, a number of different
interpretations have been offered to account for Hamlet s inaction, including one by the
character himself, which I believe is at least as relevant as any other.
It is not clear what has happened during the two months since Hamlet spoke with
his father s ghost, but it is clear that Hamlet is aware that he has not taken action. In Act
II, he raises the question whether his inaction is a sign that he is a coward. He does not,
however, pursue this question. Instead, he tells himself that he must be sure the ghost was
not a manifestation of the devil, tempting him to commit a mortal sin. If Claudius did not
murder his father, then killing him will damn his soul. To resolve the question, Hamlet
devises a plan to test the truth of the ghost s story. He arranges for the performance of a
scene from The Murder of Gonzago , a play depicting a murder very similar to the on the
ghost related. The play s the thing, Hamlet says to himself, Wherein I ll catch the
conscience of the King.
Hamlet wants to make sure that his own observations are accurate, so he asks for
help from his friend Horatio, a prudent man, not passion s slave, who already knows the
story the ghost has told. Horatio is the first to suggest to Hamlet that the ghost could be
an agent of the devil. Hamlet ask Horatio to watch him, to observe how Claudius reacts
during the play, especially when one player pretends to pour poison into the ear of a
king fast asleep. As it turns out, when this does happen, Clouds stands up abruptly,
exclaiming, Give me some light. Away!
After Clouds leaves the room, Hamlet checks with Horatio, who confirms that
Claudius did act like a guilty man. Still, although Horatio s observation appears to
convince Hamlet of Claudius guilt, he does not follow his uncle out of the room. Why he
does not do so is not clear. Perhaps he does not want to kill Claudius at all, or at least not
for his father s sake. Perhaps this is why he has delayed for two months. Finally, however,
it is not clear at this point clear at this point is that Hamlet remains in the room speaking
with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends from school, who are actually spies for
Eventually, Hamlet is approached by Polonius, a busy-body who has come to tell
Hamlet that his mother wants to see him in her bed chamber. On his way there, however,
he comes across Claudius praying. Although his uncle s guilt is no longer in question, even
now Hamlet does not strike (and not just because the play will be over if he does). Hamlet
reasons that if he were to kill him during prayer (or in any state of grace), Claudius will go
to heaven. This is not revenge, Hamlet concludes (in an aside ). He must wait until
Claudius is fit and seasoned for a passage to hell, not heaven. He must wait until he
finds him in a state of unrepented sin.
Although we know that Claudius has not repented, Hamlet does not know this.
Based on what he sees, his inaction is sensible, at least given his belief about dying in a
state of grace. Later, as Hamlet is speaking roughly to his mother in her chamber, he hears
a voice cry out from behind an arras, where Polonius is hiding. Believing that it is
Claudius, Hamlet stabs through the arras without hesitation, killing Polonius. This is an
important scene because it undermines some interpretations for Hamlet s delay. Some
critics have argued, for example, that Hamlet is incapable of action because he thinks too
much. Although this theory could account, perhaps, for Hamlet s inaction up this point,
the fact that he strikes swiftly now undermines the interpretation that Hamlet is too
intellectual to act. The swiftness of his action in his mother s chamber undermines other
interpretations as well, such as that he does not want to kill Claudius at all, or that he is a
coward, or that he is worried about what the people will think of him.
Another theory advanced by some critics is that Hamlet cannot commit an act of
vengeance because it is a pagan act. Hamlet is constrained, these critics argue, by his
Christian faith. There is no doubt that Hamlet does believe in some Christian tenets, such
as the existence of heaven and hell. It appears, however, that he subscribes to the Old
Testament tenet of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, rather than to the injunction of
Jesus Christ, which is not to kill anyone ever for any reason. Hamlet strikes without the
slightest hesitation when he believes that he has found Claudius in a state of sin. Whether
Claudius presence in the bedchamber of his wife is actually a sin is not the point. Hamlet
believes that his presence is a sin because he believes the marriage between Claudius and
Gertrude is unnatural, even corrupt.
After Hamlet learns that he has killed Polonius by mistake, he still does not kill
Claudius probably because his former reason for waiting still applies. Claudius is still in a
state of grace, having repented his previous sins, or so Hamlet believes. Again, the fact
that Claudius did not repent his sins as he knelt in prayer is not the point. Hamlet believes
that he did, so he cannot kill him yet, and let Claudius go to heaven.
Arguably, it is not until the final scene of the final act that Hamlet, in his mind,
catches Claudius undoubtedly in a state of sin. After Claudius fails in one plot to kill
Hamlet, he summons the young prince to court, where he essentially commands Hamlet to
engage in a duel with Laertes, the son of Polonius. Laertes wants to avenge his own
father s death, and Claudius is more than eager for this to happen. Indeed, to make sure
that Hamlet dies, Claudius poisons the tip of Laertes sword as well as poisons a cup of
wine for Hamlet to drink. In the end, it is Gertrude who drinks the wine, shortly before
Hamlet is wounded by Laertes. Before Gertrude dies, she announces that she is poisoned.
Laertes then relates that Hamlet too is doomed and that Claudius is to blame. Hearing all
this, Hamlet immediately strikes Claudius with Laertes sword. Claudius dies shortly
before Hamlet dies, and the play is all but over.
It is possible that Hamlet kills Claudius at this point because he knows that this is
the last chance he will have, once he knows that he himself is about to die. This
interpretation still cannot account, however, for the fact that Hamlet strikes swiftly in his
mother s bedchamber. Nor can the interpretation that Hamlet suffer from an Oedipus
complex that, subconsciously, Hamlet desires his mother sexually. The extension of this
theory is that Hamlet wanted to kill his own father, who stood in the place he desires.
Therefore, Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill Claudius because Claudius has done no
more than what Hamlet himself wants to do, which is to kill his father and marry his
mother (and become king?).
I am convinced that the Oedipus theory works here. Hamlet does in fact try to kill
Claudius. The theory says he cannot. The theory can explain why he delays, but not why
he does act. It is a fact that Gertrude is present in both instances when hamlet acts swiftly
to mortally strike Claudius. In each of these instances when Hamlet s own interpretation
works at least as well as any other. In Hamlet s mind, in each case, Claudius is in a state of
unrepented sin. It is time to send him to hell. It is also, of course, the end of the last act.