Why Hamlet Cannot Act After reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, one comes to the conclusion that Prince Hamlet is defined by his indecision. This indecision has a dire consequence, namely the inability to act, which ultimately leads to his death and the deaths of most of the other characters by the play’s end, thus becoming Prince Hamlet’s tragic flaw.
Due to his tendency to over think, over analyze, procrastinate, and stagnate in deliberation, the majority of the play focuses not on the actual act of revenge, but on all the delays in the events leading up to it.For instance, at first Hamlet is incensed to kill King Claudius after his father’s ghost informs him of the King’s treachery, but then he comes to doubt the ghost’s integrity and thinks perhaps it is actually an apparition of the Devil. This leads him to concoct an entire plan in which he writes a scene in a play depicting similar treachery and plans for Claudius to watch it in order to gauge his reaction. He has Claudius watched, successfully gets the reaction he wants, yet he still does not kill him when he has the chance, coming up with another rationalization.Every time Hamlet has an opportunity to act, he counteracts it with a doubt or a reason for inaction. He spends too much time planning and not enough time doing.
By that time, Claudius, a man of action, becomes suspicious. Hamlet spends too much time thinking of what to do or what not to do, while King Claudius makes a plan and executes it. Because of this, Hamlet and seven others are dead by the end of Act V. But why is it that Hamlet cannot resolve to undertake anything without becoming paralyzed with hesitation?While Prince Hamlet’s flaws, internal conflicts, melancholy, and pretended madness were all contributing factors, his inability to act and his indecisiveness, which ultimately played the key role in his tragic downfall, can both be traced to a combination of internal and external factors. Some critics argue that Hamlet’s indecision is a result of his character, and that he has a propensity to over analyze because that is simply the way he is.
Johann Wolfgang von Goeth supports his assertion that Hamlet’s inability to act indeed stems from his character by pointing to Hamlet’s peculiar response when charged with the task of revenge in scene v of Act I: “The time is out of joint, O cursd spite, That ever I was born to set it right! ” After his father’s ghost visits Hamlet, we do not see a son and a young prince thirsting to avenge his father’s murder and eager to claim his rightful place on the throne. Instead, we see bitterness, sadness and regret.As Goeth so eloquently puts it: In these words, so I believe, lies the key to Hamlet’s whole behavior, and it is clear to me what Shakespeare has set out to portray: a heavy deed placed on a soul which is not adequate to cope with it. And it is in this sense that I find the whole play constructed.
There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shattered. A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. 146) Goethe therefore affirms that Hamlet’s indecision is a part of his nature, his fabric, his essence. Also note that Goethe does not blame the situation Hamlet is in, but the emotional weakness of his character, which is the cause of his inability to confront and deal with his situation. Additionally, Philip Goldstein also insists that Hamlet’s indecisiveness is a personality trait. Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University, a thinker, scholar and philosophizer.
He loves beauty, reason, honesty, balance, harmony, and thought; however, when he returns home, he is thrust into an environment of murder, lies, greed, stupidity, ignorance, hatred, and chaos. The world is painful, and no longer makes any sense to him. But, due to his innate character, he cannot simply accept or ignore this fact for the time being and do what must be done. He has to figure it out, he must decipher and digest it until he understands, and he sinks into deliberation, even going so far as to contemplate if suicide is the answer (Goldstein 72).Further evidence that Hamlet’s indecision is a result of his character comes from the book Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging by Ruth Nevo, in which she analyzes Hamlet’s lack of action in both the prayer scene and the closet scene. Here she she declares that Hamlet’s inaction is the result if an inborn flaw: His mastery is confounded by the inherent liability of human reason to jump to conclusions, to fail to distinguish seeming from being. He, of all people, is trapped in the fatal deceptive maze of appearances that is the phenomenal orld.
Here in the play’s peripeteia is enacted Hamlet’s fatal error, his fatal misjudgment, which constitutes the crisis of the action, and is the directly precipitating cause of his own death, seven other deaths, and Ophelia’s madness. (52) Clearly, one of the facets of Hamlet’s tragic flaw, indecisiveness, involves his his character; however, there is another internal factor closely related to innate personality that can also explain his hesitancy. A certain group of critics insist that Hamlet’s indecisiveness can be traced to his psychology.In Earnest Jones’ article The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery, Jones explains that Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis explains Hamlet’s behavior. The Oedipus complex is a part of a theory by Freud proposing that sons develop their sense of attractiveness in females from their mother’s traits, and thus sons are sexually attracted to their mothers, but this urge is repressed into their subconscious. Therefore, Jones explains, Hamlet keeps delaying in killing Claudius because, unconsciously, he identifies with and empathizes with him.After all, Claudius is everything Hamlet wants to be and he has done what Hamlet has always wanted to do: be with his mother. Hamlet has admiration for what Claudius has done, and that he has done what Hamlet could not.
Consequently, Hamlet hesitates so often because by killing Claudius, Hamlet would be killing himself. This is why Hamlet does not kill Claudius until he knows he is on the verge of death anyway (Jones 76-82). On the other hand, there are many who challenge that Hamlet’s inability to act is a result of innate internal factors.These critics argue that Hamlet is not too weak, but that the extreme situation he is in is too strong. In the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare, Harry Levin comments on Hamlet’s constant hesitation in dispatching Claudius. He contends that the baffling task and the situation he is in causes his deep reflection and thought, not a natural tendency, because he must rectify his expectation of how he thinks of the world and how the world actually is (Levin 5).
The leading voice of the argument that external factors account for Hamlet’s indecision is found in Georg Brandes’ book William Shakespeare: A Critical Study. Brandes proffers that the reason for Hamlet’s inaction is because Hamlet had been living in quiet Wittenberg, and believed the world was ruled by justice, intellectual nobility, faith, and honor. He was an optimist and idealistic. But, from the moment he learns of the murder of his father and the actions of his uncle and mother, his blissful ignorance is shattered and his view of the world turns very dark.This causes him to brood and thus causes his inaction. As explained by Brandes: “The finer a young man’s character, the stronger is his desire, on entering life, to see his ideals consummated in persons and circumstances.
Hamlet suddenly realizes that everything is entirely different from what he had imagined, and feels as if he must die because he cannot set it right” (370). However, this transition is not smooth. Hamlet kept trying to think and find ways to resist this new reality.For example, by doubting the ghost and orchestrating the plot to have the players perform before the King, Hamlet was trying to provide an opportunity to disprove the awful reality of the world that he dreaded to be true.
He wanted to give goodness a chance. Thus, argues Brandes, “But the sole cause of this impotence is the paralyzing grasp laid on all his faculties by his new realization of what life is, and the brooding born of this realization (372)”.Moreover, one of the chief reasons critics dismiss the argument that Hamlet cannot act because of his disposition is because many times during the course of the play Hamlet demonstrates that he is indeed capable of action. For example, he does not hesitate to stab Polonius behind the curtain. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths without hesitation. He purposefully boards a hostile pirate ship. Also, having never lost sight of his original goal, he succeeds in avenging his father before he dies.
Finally, we see that Hamlet’s indecisiveness is a combinations of innate internal factors and external circumstances.Both fuel his indecision. In response to the fact that Hamlet does show an ability to act, Samuel Coleridge still asserts in the second volume of his book Shakespearean Criticism that Hamlet’s character plays a part in his indecision: “Hamlet’s character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical. He does not lack courage, skill, will, or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking” (37). Coleridge explains that Hamlet could have put aside his need to rectify expectation with reality, did his duty nd killed Claudius, and then resumed deliberating, but his character would not allow it. However, Hamlet would not be brooding at all if he was not in the extreme situation he is in.
So, what we have here is an argument that Hamlet was too weak, versus an argument that his situation was too strong. This is a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg argument. In a sense, both are true.
Hamlet’s brooding nature was further exacerbated by his situation, resulting in crippling indecision and inaction. As usual, nothing is black and white, least of all Shakespeare.Works Cited Brandes, Georg. “The Psychology of Hamlet. ” William Shakespeare: A Critical Study. London: William Heinemann, 1911. 307-72.
Print. Coleridge, Samuel L. “The Character of Hamlet” Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 2.
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Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre) (1795-96; Eric Blackall (transl. ), Princeton UP, 1995) Goldstein, Philip. “Hamlet: Not a World of His Own. ” Shakespeare Studies; 1980, Vol. 13, p71, 13p.
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“The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive. ” The American Journal of Psychology 21. 1 (January, 1910): 72-113.
Levin, Harry. “General Introduction. ” Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin: n. p. , 1974. 1-9.
Print. Nevo, Ruth. “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging. ” William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 45-64. Print.
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Hamlet: From a Psychological Point of View. New York: AMS, 1972. Print.