Think V. Act In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Essay, Research Paper
Hamlet: Thinking v. Acting
Riddled with doubt, haunted by sorrow, and sluggish in dealings of fate, Hamlet chooses slow demise in the Shakespearean play rightly titled, Hamlet. His delay of revenge upon Claudius prompted William Hazlitt to write of Hamlet in 1817: “His ruling passion is to think, not act.” Indeed, it is not for lack of instruction or opportunity that Hamlet fails in his mission. The further he strays from his purpose, the more muddied the story line becomes. Hamlet thinks nonconfrontationally, indirectly, self protectively, and justifies his inaction. The action he finally is forced to take is sporadic and blindly compulsive; a price for which he, his friends, and family must pay.
Although a man given every legitimate reason to assert public revenge for the murder of a brother, father, and king, Hamlet chooses to react non-confrontationally. A device Hamlet uses to avoid direct conversation with those in question around him is a veil of madness. By acting thus to Ophelia and Polonius and later to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his burden of discourse with the King and Queen is removed because others report in his place. The perfect catalyst for his madness is Ophelia s shuttering of her love, and so she is the first to encounter his madness. “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced and with a look so piteous in purport as if he has been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors—he comes before me,” relays Ophelia to her father (Shakespeare 2.1.lines 88, 92-94). Upon hearing his daughter s confession, Polonius declares: “I will go seek the King (you) hath made him mad,” (113, 123). And to the King he reports, “I have found the very cause of Hamlet s lunacy,” which of course he claims is the lost love from his daughter (2.2.51-52). Similarly Hamlet feigns madness for the daft duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who report their meager findings to the King. As further proof of his unwillingness to confront the guilty parties, Hamlet asks the players to perform The Murder of Gonzogo which mirrors the dark plots in Denmark. Additionally, he composes 12 lines in iambic pentameter to insert into the play he has selected to further ruffle the royal feathers and hopefully the royal conscious. This action allows him to observe rather than take a active role. The veiled speech cuts directly to the heart of the foul play and has the opportunity to verify the criminal reports. Hamlet s ability to use language to his advantage is exemplified in passages particularly toward the King. “Farewell, dear mother,” he bids his father the King (4.4.58.) While there is sound logic behind the fact that his father and mother are of one flesh as a result of their marriage, Hamlet toys with the King s mind rather than approach the real issue.
The indirectness with which Hamlet approaches those while under his madness can at times frustrate the reader who longs for legitimate action. He drops snide comments to those around him such as while speaking of his Uncle/Father the King: “A little more than kin and less than kind,” he jabs (1.2.67). His first entire conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is spiced with allusions in that he is not mad, only selectively and opportunistically crazy. Yet he never states simply enough for the duo that he is only playing a part, as are they. ” there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” he says to them (2.2.268 70). Osric is another individual that Hamlet has enjoys toying with.
Osric: I thank your lordship; it is very hot.
Hamlet: No, believe me, tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
Osric: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
Hamlet: But yet methinks it is very (sultry) and hot (for) my complexion.
Osric: Exceedingly my lord; it is very sultry (5.2.107-113)
Although the content of the discourse is meaningless in fact, the tone exemplifies Hamlet s ability to twist reality and approach it indirectly and enigmatically.
Self protection is likely the root of Hamlet s inability to act and reason under the facade of madness. Madness allows him to strike back at Ophelia for her denial of him and subsequent obedience to her father. “By focusing his anger at a single individual with which he himself had conflict and vested interest in, the perfect cycle of revenge is played to its fullest,” (Reed 182). In addition, all actions done while mad are easily excused as unfortunate responses of an individual under extreme personal duress. “This is a clear classic example of the reappearing theme of appearance verses reality. Hamlet plays his cards perfectly and so the facade is believable.” (185) Madness allows him to see quasi-results of his actions, though still blind to the fact that his ultimate goal is untended. Madness causes reaction, but brings Hamlet no closer to avenging his father s murder. “The plays the thing wherein I ll catch the conscience of the King,” proclaims Hamlet, yet he takes no action to extend upon this duty on behalf of his father (2.2.633-34). This puzzling delay has lead critics to question the possible personal gain with which Hamlet could weigh the task before him. “Revenge could not bring him any closer to Ophelia or to regaining his father. Hamlet could only loose, his mother, his crown, and his life,” (Detmold 26). Perhaps if he saw the personal attraction to avenging his father s murder earlier in the play, his actions would have been more decisive. In theory, non-action calculates as decreased loss on Hamlet s part. By failing to kill Claudius, grief is the only negative aftereffect. Dreams of clean cut action are more easily constructed when oneself is not at stake.
Through self protective reasoning, Hamlet is able to justify inaction as a logical form of action. Justification for the altered play rests in verification of guilt. Hamlet instructs Horatio to keep a keen eye on the King during the play s performance: “Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt do not itself unkennel in one speech, it is a damned ghost that we have seen, and my imaginations are foul Give him heedful note and , after, we will both our judgment join in censure of his seeming,” (3.2.85-92). However, even once the guilty reaction has been established, Hamlet is able to justify his slow inaction as simply a matter of process. As fate would have it, the instant he decides to respond to his father s murdered cry, he discovers the helpless King kneeling in prayer. For fear that the King might ascend to heaven with the blow of his sword, Hamlet falters once again is no further for the action. “And am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No,” he reasons (3.3.89-92).
Yet the action Hamlet does take, mainly toward the finale of the play, is sporadic and compulsive. The audience is offered glimpses of this trait with the arrival of the ghost. The typically passive Hamlet proclaims of the ghost, “I ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape and bid me hold by peace,” (1.2.266-67). While conversing with the ghost he begs permission to be speedy in his revenge, “Haste me to know t, that I, with wings as swift as thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge,” (1.5.35-37). It is all or
nothing with Hamlet as the next several acts prove. When he finally has enough of inaction, his course is brash and violent, as is the murder of Polonius. As the play draws to a close, Hamlet s actions become fatalistic. He realizes that he must be willing to put his own life in jeopardy in order to fully enact revenge upon Claudius. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be (not,) tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it (will) come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is t to leave betimes? Let be,” (5.2.233-36). Hamlet is suddenly willing to take ill weighed chances, such as the fencing match with Laertes, against his better judgment. The most clear example of compulsion comes in the last scene where in attempts to make up for lost time and fervor, Hamlet kills Claudius not once by “venomed point”, but twice, by cup as well. “Here, thou incestuous, (murd rous,) damned Dane, drink off this potion. Is (thy union)here? Follow my mother,” (5.2.356-58). “Hamlet attempts to reclaim what honor he has remaining when he realizes the folly of his elaborate delay. He is thus compulsive, not by nature but by necessity, to act and act swiftly,” (Hapgood 342).
Ruled by thought when course allows, and blind rage when inaction does not allow, Hamlet is a man who s path is ruled by inner turmoil and ill-fated destiny. He is finally left in a situation in which he cannot not act. The further he strays from his promise of revenge and restoration of the state of Denmark, the more tainted his path becomes. He is caught in a cycle of rash behavior and justification of that behavior. To be ruled by thought is to be ruled by inaction and thus be damned to the tides of fate and the ill dealings of others. Inaction cost Hamlet his mother, his love and finally himself.
Detmold, George. “Hamlet s All but Blunted Purpose.” Rev. of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Association Bulletin Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Jan. 1949: 23-36.
Hapgood, Robert. “Hamlet Nearly Absurd: The Dramaturgy of Delay.” Rev. of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The Tulane Drama Review Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1965: 132-45.
Reed, Robert R. “Hamlet, the Pseu-do-Procrastinator.” Rev. of Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring 1958: 177-86.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Johnson, Edgar. The Dilemma of Hamlet. Boston: Cooper Square Publishing, 1964.
Jones, Ernst. The Psycho-Analytical Solution. New York: Doubleday, 1954.