Written by: Gacee Ezekiel
Perhaps one of the most debated questions in modern-day literature is why Hamlet took so much time to avenge his father. As he struggles with his suicidal despair, Hamlet cannot make up his mind, a situation that portrays him as the ultimate procrastinator. Nonetheless, some interpret Hamlet’s delay as resulting from a myriad of reasons among them the possibility that his father’s ghost could be a misrepresentation of his dead father’s wishes, further adding to his speculation that he shouldn’t do it.
So firmly was Shakespeare trying to carry out the idea of Hamlet being reluctant to slay the king least his soul went to heaven. Hamlet was perpetually putting off killing the king because he thought that it was not the right time to do it. He felt that he should wait up to the time when he decided to strike the king; his soul would go to hell rather than heaven. Hamlet questions the idea of hitting the king from behind and questions the rationale of slaying the enemy from behind.
From the onset, it is evident that Hamlet’s father’s ghost sent him on a difficult mission, a situation that might explain his reluctance to avenge his father’s death. As much as he wanted revenge, his most significant concern is the moral standing behind killing a man who had no idea that he was about to be killed. Away from his indecisiveness, there are various schools of thought regarding why Hamlet procrastinated in vengeance.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness comes from the literary representation of the ghost world. Ideally, the ghost world is associated with bad luck and evil; this means that the idea to avenge his father’s death was not from Hamlet but rather his visitation by his father’s ghost. Hamlet significantly questioned the visitation’s timing by his father’s ghost, which was merely a symbol of invisible power. In his capacity, he felt that executing his father’s murderer would send his soul to heaven. He, therefore, perceived it better that he waits for the king’s soul to be at the door of hell, allowing Hamlet to push the door open.
Another possible reason why Hamlet delayed to avenge his father was the accidental murder of Polonius. It is evident that after the accident happened, Hamlet would deliberately procrastinate anything unpleasant, and in this case, avenging his father. Hamlet appears to be a person who always makes excuses, but when confronted with reality, he can act fast.
When he ran through Polonius, he had no time to think or even consider the repercussions of his actions rather than think everything through; according to Alsaif, (132) is why his scrupulous conscience takes over his ability to make decisions. The little sophistries regarding the consequences of killing the king are why Hamlet could not differentiate the thin line between being drawn into sin and not fulfilling an obligation as required. Both scenarios have their consequences.
Alsaif, (132), states that by killing the king, Hamlet would become a murderer, but in a real sense, he already was. On the other hand, not fulfilling his father’s ghost wishes would have meant that he had failed to fulfill his duties as a son. To an extent, Hamlet feels that his father’s ghost could be the devil trying to trick him into the murder but wonders what would happen to him if it turns out that his late father wanted vengeance.
After his exile, Hamlet feels the need to go back to Denmark and kill his father’s murderer. During his return, he proclaims that “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth “(Hamlet [IV, 4). It assumes that after such a declaration, Hamlet would have no trouble avenging his father’s death. However, their graveside scene where Hamlet experiences his morbid fixation about death rekindles the earlier notion that he feels no urgency to kill Claudius.
After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet becomes aware that his destiny is to avenge his father; this is evident from the poem when he says that If it is now, it’s not to come if it is not to come, it will be now….the readiness is all “(Hamlet [II, 2). It becomes clear that Hamlet will undoubtedly kill Claudius, which is a major shift from his earlier reluctance to use murder as a way of avenging his father. Hamlet also has a change of heart regarding committing a crime believing that he is doing God’s work as it is evident from his statement, “it’s not a perfect conscience to quit him with this arm? And isn’t to be damned to let this canker of our nature come in further evil?” (Hamlet [III, 2)
Hamlet’s confusion traces from when he states that “I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do “However, the main interwoven reasons as to why he is reluctant to avenge his father’s death are:
From the beginning, Hamlet appears as a man of reason and a critical thinker; this is why he is slow to act on so many things happening around him. His soliloquies for his failures to act are almost evident immediately he is directed by his father’s ghost to kill Claudius when he laments “The time is out of joint, o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right “(Hamlet[I, 2).
Hamlet appears to be a very religious person at the time he denounces his mother’s sinful ways (“o most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets “(Hamlet [I, 2). It is these believes that ultimately have him questioning the true intentions of the ghost (“the spirit that I have seen maybe the devil and perhaps abuses me to damn me “).
Hamlet’s love for his mother.
Hamlet’s love for his mother is rather unconditional despite her sinful ways; this is why he goes out to seek her confession after the Mousetrap before deciding on whether to kill Claudius (“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound “). By seeking his mother’s confession, Hamlet ends up delaying his revenge but gives his desire to save his mother’s soul the priority “confess [herself] to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come. ”
His fear of Claudius’ powers.
Hamlet is openly afraid of challenging Claudius despite him being the heir to the throne- (“It is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue “) until he is sure that Claudius is guilty (“I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King “(Hamlet [II, 2). This reluctance is part of his greatest fear of going against God. Hamlet is fully aware that if he kills Claudius and turns out that the latter was innocent, he will have sinned against God by spilling innocent blood. In addition to this, killing Claudius could throw the kingdom into turmoil, let alone depriving his mother of the man she loves.
His quest for justice. Hamlet has so many opportunities to kill Claudius but fails to do so; this is particularly evident from the Prayer scene when he stumbles upon Claudius, who is unarmed. Despite the perfect opportunity to avenge his father, Hamlet is reluctant to kill Claudius based on the assumption that by killing Claudius, who was praying, Claudius’ soul would gain eternity, meaning that the king would have escaped justice. Hamlet intends to see Claudius punished when he says that Claudius “soul may be as damned and black as hell whereto he goes “(Hamlet [III, 2)
“Hamlet is a victim of circumstances in every aspect” (Gopinath and Dolphy 6). Worse still is the fact that he had so many opportunities that the audience would have expected him to kill Claudius, but he fails to do so. However, his impulsive rage leads him to kill Polonius even when he thought that he was shooting his intended target. After Polonius’ murder, Hamlet now becomes a real threat to Claudius, which is the main reason why he left England to live in exile. Hamlet will have little or no opportunity to be in the same room with Claudius since he is considered a threat to the king.
Whether Hamlet is intentionally delaying avenging his father or is a procrastinator is subject to a heated debate in modern literature. His personality points out to a man who is very indecisive and slow to act upon things. In other scenes, he appears to seize the moment only to go wrong just when he has the perfect opportunity to fulfill his responsibility. From the play, it is evident that Hamlet is frustrated about not killing Claudius. However, the conflict of not actualizing his plan whenever he has the opportunity is what makes Hamlet a complex character to understand and play an intriguing piece of literature.
Alsaif, Omar Abdulaziz. “The significance of religion in Hamlet.” International Journal of English and Literature 3.6 (2012): 132-135.
Demastes, William W. “Hamlet in his world: Shakespeare anticipates/assaults Cartesian dualism.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 1 (2005): 27-42.
Gopinath, Mohan, and Dolphy Abraham. “THE ROLE OF GUILT IN HAMLET: LEADERSHIP IMPLICATIONS.” The EFL Journal 6.1 (2015).
Shakespeare, William. The tragedy of Hamlet. University Press, 1904.