Hamlet’s Delay in Action: Critical Commentary on Shakespeare’s Hero

Hamlet has every reason to act swiftly in avenging his father’s murderer; we know he can act quickly, as his behaviour on the pirate ship shows. Yet he seems to find it impossible to kill Claudius, and when he does so it is an immediate response to the death of his mother. Critics debate over the Possible Reasons for this delay. The popular theories are:

The Earlier Play: There is a theory- but it is no more than a theory- that hamlet is based on another, earlier play with essentially the same story, but which treated the issues raised more simply- for example, hamlet simply wants revenge, is prevented from enacting it by practical difficulties of killing a reigning king and adopts madness as a ruse to avoid suspicion. This theory coincides with know practice; Shakespeare’s age did not prize originality of plot a great deal and the majority of Shakespeare’s plays are taken from other books or works. The idea also helps to explain some of the apparent inconsistencies and uncertainties of the play.

The story of Hamlet originated in Norse legend.
Books III and IV of Historia Danica (History of the Danes), around 1200 by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus.
Histoires Tragiques (1576) by François Belleforest
Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, meaning “original Hamlet.”

Intelligence:  Perhaps hamlet is too intelligent; he thinks so much that he thinks himself out of killing Claudius, and substitutes thought for action. However, revenge was held in complete disapproval by the church, the law and the state. The act of revenge was dangerous to the body, the mind and the soul. However, once he is convinced that the ghost is truly his father, Hamlet still appears to hesitate. Some critics have explained this by analyzing his situation. Also, if Hamlet kills the king without supporters present to uphold the act, he himself might be immediately killed as a regicide. When Hamlet rushes at the king in the last scene, the whole court with one voice shouts,” Treason! Treason!” although Laertes has already exposed Claudius's villainy. 
Oedipal: All children have a neural envy and jealously of their father because he is rival for the affection of their mother. Claudius has done what hamlet would like to do; become the focus of Gertrude’s attentions- and so hamlet cannot kill him because to do so would be to admit to an impulse with which he could not come to terms. A boy’s possessive love for his mother is known by psychoanalysts as the Oedipus complex after the character in Greek mythology that unwittingly killed his father, king of Thebes, and become married to his mother.

Shock: So much has happened to hamlet in so short a time that he is in a state of shock, and needs time to recover before he can act. Also, murder is terrifying act, and there is bound to be a totally natural reluctance on the part of a good man to do it.

Uncertainty: There may be nothing at all odd about the delay; hamlet has to find out if the ghost is telling the truth, find an opportunity to kill Claudius, and must wait to see if he is destined to be a ‘scourge’ or a ‘minister’; the delay may therefore be seen as the result of intelligent prudence. Hamlet delays to avenge his father's death because he is unsure if the Ghost is his Fathers' or an evil form from the darkness. He waits for the perfect moment when he puts on a play of a scene that he thinks might be comparable to that of King Claudius murdering his father. He does this for a good reason. 

Reference: Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism , ed. Thomas M. Raysor (London: Constable, 1930).
Shakespearean Tragedy
by A. C. Bradley (Macmillan & Co., 1904).  "Hamlet and His Problems" from Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950).

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