In the play ‘Hamlet’, by William Shakespeare, a complex plot is created right at the commencement of the play including the murder of King Hamlet of Denmark and the hurried marriage of Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) to the late king’s brother, Claudius. The play however revolves around the task undertaken by Hamlet to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet who seems eager to take revenge for the murder of his father gives the audience the impression of delaying the task throughout the play. There is no direct rationale presented in the play for the delay, giving the critics and the readers enough room and ample scope to wonder why there was a delay on the part of Hamlet, resulting in a multitude of reasons.
‘Hamlet’ by Shakespeare alternates between vengeance, execution and treachery. Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father, the earlier ruler of Denmark, regarding the treachery relating to his murder (act I, scene v, 25 to 31). Hamlet is ordered by the ghost to take revenge, but Hamlet is unable to accomplish his mission although Hamlet is a man of action. Why then does he delay the action so much?
This question has puzzled the literary community for centuries. Soon after Hamlet’s exchange with the Ghost of his father, he seems resolute to comply with the wishes of his dead father. However, when Hamlet later appears in the play, he has not yet committed the murder stating his reason for the same as “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.627-629). With his mind full of doubts now, Hamlet is unable to execute the action. It is this indecisiveness, which prompts him to confirm the actions of Claudius before taking any concrete steps.
Some literary critics argue that Hamlet’s strong spiritual connection prevents hamlet from executing the sinful murder while some others believe Hamlet to be a despondent and intellectual person with a resultant inability to kill his uncle. Psychologist, Sigmund Freud, stated that Hamlet had an Oedipus complex and could not kill Claudius because he secretly desired to be in Claudius’ position.
In order to execute the action of murder and revenge, Hamlet first needs to confirm Claudius’s guilt in the murder of his father. By doing so he would then be able to expose his action of the murder of Claudius to the people of Denmark as justice meted out to his father, the former King. Killing Claudius, whose claim to divine right to be the chosen one by God to rule over the people of Denmark, would initiate new perils and dangers particularly so if Hamlet lacked any proof to support his allegation.
Further, to hamlet, timing plays a crucial factor, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!”(Hamlet 36), implying Hamlets firm belief in the sense of right timing in justifying the murder to the people of Denmark.
For these reasons, Hamlet embarks on a mission for truth, with the motive of proving Claudius’ guilt and to achieve these objectives, Hamlet wastes excess time in planning with no execution of action thereby making the murder seem more complex.
Another reason for the delay and difficulty of Hamlet taking revenge on Claudius is his love for his mother Gertrude. Hamlet discloses his fear of avenging his father’s death on Claudius because he has suspicions regarding the existence of the ghost (lines 551 to 556). A few critics have attributed the delay or the inability of Hamlet to act to the ‘Oedipus complex’. According to this complex, Hamlet in his unconscious psyche has a yearning to act precisely the way his uncle has in killing King Hamlet so that he could have Gertrude for himself. If this were to be the actual case then Hamlet definitely delays the act because he is constantly fighting his unconscious mind and knows fully well that he desires an evil wish and if he did accomplish his mission then he would be as evil as Claudius.
A further attribution to the delay in Hamlet’s action is that he basically thinks in excess. Hamlet wants to portray the murder of Claudius as the administration of justice due to the wrong done to his father and wants the murder to be faultless. It is essential to Hamlet that Claudius must go to hell and the people ought to know that Claudius has murdered his father. Each and every opportunity that he gets to perform the act, Hamlet counters with suspicion or explanation for his ineffectiveness.
For instance, he wants to avenge his father’s death on Claudius only when he is absolutely sure that after having executed the murder, Claudius, after his death, would go to hell and not to heaven. Consequently, he wastes too much time in planning and not enough time in action. He plans a play within the play itself, but does not succeed. On the contrary, he becomes more careful with Claudius since the play reveals his sense of guilt to the incestuous king.
Even after the conclusion of the play within the play, Hamlet fails to act until he sees everybody dying, even himself. Tragically, it is only then that he finally realizes that he should not have acted instantly in killing Claudius and not waited so long. However by the time this realization dawns on him, his father has already been murdered, his mother too is dead, he himself is severely wounded and only has time enough to conclude the catastrophic and gruesome parade of fatalities by ultimately killing Claudius and avenging so many deaths.
The revenge however does not seem like revenge at all at this climax of the play but merely comes across as the sad result of unconscious indecisiveness.