The story of Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet revolves around the hero Hamlet, who is rather than being an action hero is (contrary to the expectations of the audience) a hero of INACTION. Revenge is the main motive in the play. But it is the delay in action rather than action that brings about a great downfall in which the hero also meets a tragic death along with his revenge victim, involving many more deaths, which could have been avoided.
There may be different interpretations of the character of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and different approaches to him, but there can be no doubt that he is the center of our interest. The central conception of Hamlet as the speculative man, irresolute, wavering, and lacking in the capacity for premeditated action, is clear enough. The theme of the play is, clear cut: Will the son avenge his murdered father? And the tragedy lies in Hamlet’s vacillation and procrastination. The theme is kept before us throughout, with the heightening effect of Hamlet’s irresolution and Claudius’s counterplotting.
Hamlet vows to take revenge against his uncle Claudius, the King of Denmark. On his return from Wittenberg where he was a scholar, Hamlet comes to know that his father is dead and that his uncle Claudius has become the king. He also finds that his mother Gertrude has married Claudius. Soon his father’s ghost appears before him and tells him that he was murdered.
Hamlet is, however, a learned and judicious man. He can not kill a man following a ghost’s testimony. He must first satisfy his conscience and confirm his uncle’s guilt with solid evidence. Hence he decides to feign madness.
As I perchance hereafter shall think to meet.
To put an antic disposition on. (ActI.SceneV.L179-80)
The most striking quality of Hamlet is, perhaps, his philosophical nature and his intellectual depth. This quality is clearly seen in all his soliloquies. His soliloquies show him to be a man of a deeply reflective and meditative nature. When we first see him in the play, Hamlet is clearly a sensitive and idealistic young man. He has taken the world at its face value, supposing mankind to be only a little lower than the angels. Now, in his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage, he discovers evidence of something bestial. Introspective as he is, Hamlet is constantly analyzing himself inwardly. He is forever looking into himself, delving into his own nature to seek an explanation for this or that.
Hamlet is thus a philosopher and not a man of action. But we must note that although Hamlet is not capable of planned and premeditated action as seen in his procrastination, he is capable of impulsive action. He kills Polonius on the spur of the moment. He boards the pirate ship alone; he leaps into Ophelia’s grave after Laertes does so.
Hamlet lacks the courage to act. When he sees his uncle alone praying he puts off the revenge act. He does so on the ground that if he were to kill the king during prayer, he will send Claudius to heaven.
The Revenge act is not accomplished as quickly as expected because Hamlet keeps procrastinating. Every time he finds an excuse to put off the act. He will wait till his conscience is fully satisfied he is not punishing an innocent man. This shows Hamlet’s unpredictable nature.
Thus Hamlet’s irresolution is unmistakable. During the course of the play, there are many circumstances that goad him to action but Hamlet lacks the capacity for vigorous action. Hamlet is thus a philosopher and an idealist who is expected to fulfill the role of an avenger. Hamlet is not ineffectual under ordinary circumstances. He has a deserved reputation in Denmark for manliness and princely demeanor.
Hamlet appears to us a man of great talents, almost a genius, whose rich imagination, extreme sensitiveness, imitative gifts, and aesthetic interests are those of an artist, but are combined with a great thirst for knowledge. Hamlet is an artist whom evil chance has made an avenger of crime, and who, destined by Nature for genius, is condemned by fortune to madness and unhappiness.
Hamlet is essentially the victim of circumstances. Sworn to the duty of wreaking vengeance on his father’s murderer, the young Prince is confronted with a task essentially foreign to his nature and destined to bring out in him all of the weaker traits in his character. Grief at his father’s passing has brought melancholy to Hamlet who has a normally cheerful, although quiet, disposition. Realization of the wretched scheming which brought about the death of his father, and the new responsibility of taking revenge, complete the transformation in Hamlet. As his melancholy deepens, so do we see marked changes in his character. His deep thinking mind reflects on the futility of life, and he contemplates suicide; his former sparkling wit gives place to bitterness and sarcasm; he becomes cunning and cruel, determined to outwit the rogues.
Hamlet is a character of extraordinary complexity. No simple formula can serve to solve his mystery. Hamlet, by his ill luck, his errors of judgment, and by his involvement in evil, has been the cause of misery to others. If he had been single-minded and ruthless as Fortinbras and Laertes, he might have accomplished his revenge without the trail of deaths that he left behind.
The time is out of joint, O curse spite,
That e’er I was born to set it right! (Act I, Scene v, 196-7).