In William Shakespeare's literary masterpiece, Hamlet, the protagonist Prince Hamlet is faced with the task of avenging his murdered father. The King of Denmark was assassinated by his brother Claudius to obtain the crown and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, as his wife. Hamlet is accosted by his father's ghost one night and is asked to kill Claudius to bring justice to Denmark. Hamlet swears to fulfill his father's request and murder Claudius but procrastinates to such a degree that the audience begins to wonder if Hamlet means to follow through with his plan at all. Ian Johnston, a Malaspina-University College professor in Nanimo, BC commented on the theme of revenge in his essay, Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare's Hamlet and wrote (2001), “Revenge is something we all, deep down, understand and respond to imaginatively…The issue engages some of our deepest and most powerful feelings…” (p.2). Shakespeare seemed to have known this because Hamlet is one of the most passionately debated plays of all time. The question of whether Hamlet defers his revengeful act is at the top of the list of literary controversies. Although there are many arguments and ideas of why Hamlet delays the avengement of his father which includes psychological obstacles, morals and sensitivity and his Oedipus Complex, it is certain that he does have conflicting thoughts and feelings of whether or not to perform the act which are revealed in his soliloquies and emphasized by the contrasting behaviors of Laertes and Fortinbras and the Ghost's possible intentions; therefore, Hamlet does procrastinate.
Though some critics argue that Hamlet did attempt to murder Claudius at the most opportune moment, the theory is severely undercut by the content matter of Hamlet's soliloquies. The audience finds evidence of Hamlet himself constantly calling attention to his worry and delay. Johnston reported (2001), “…the delay is not a concept of our imagination, something we impose on the play; it is, by contrast, an issue repeatedly raised by the play itself” (p.3). Later he wrote, “Hamlet himself agonizes over his inability to carry out the deed and is constantly searching for reasons why he is behaving the way he is…he is in the grip of something that he cannot fully understand, no matter how much he rationalizes the matter” (Johnston, 2001 p.6). Clearly if Hamlet recognizes and speaks repeatedly of his procrastination, the audience is meant to take notice and can confidently conclude that he is delaying.
Contrasting Behaviors of Hamlet, Fortinbras and Laertes
The play contains two other avengers, Fortinbras and Laertes, who retaliate because of the murder of their fathers. These two characters act in an immediate, effective and resolute manner, unlike that of Hamlet's. Johnston agreed that (2001), “…it would seem that we are invited to see Hamlet's response to his father's murder something quite different from what a normal prince with a sense of honour might do. Hence the play itself puts a lot of pressure on us to recognize in Hamlet's conduct an unusual problem”(p.3). The obvious contrast in demeanor between Fortinbras and Laertes and Hamlet serves as evidence alluding to Hamlet's procrastination.
The Ghost's Revenge
There also exists a theory that exhibits Hamlet must have delayed because of the Ghost's real intention. As Anne Ridler from the Oxford Press explained it (1962),
…the Ghost of Hamlet's father knew his son's nature perfectly well, and intended Claudius to be, not directly killed but worried out of his mind by having Hamlet's gloomy and threatening figure continually about him. A reproduction of the Ghost's own purgatory around Claudius would be… a much more satisfying revenge than mere straightforward death….it is possible that we have missed the point of the whole play by our failure to attribute sufficient intelligence to that paternal intimate spectre (pp.200-201).
In other words, it could be the will of the Ghost to utilize Hamlet's guaranteed procrastination to better avenge himself. If this were to be proven, there could be no opposing argument that Hamlet did not delay.
Critics have contemplated many theories of why Hamlet postpones his task. One theory blames Hamlet's analytical and philosophical mind for the hindering of the mission. “…it is the reasoning that Hamlet uses to justify his delay that becomes paramount to the reader's understanding of the effect that Hamlet's mental perspective has on his situation” (Hamlet as a comment on humanity, 2001 p.1) When the ghost confronts Hamlet at the onset of the play and assigns him his task, Hamlet accepts it enthusiastically, “Haste me to know't; that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thought of love, May sweep to my revenge” (Shakespeare, 1992 pp.57-58). Hamlet does not question the validity of the Ghost until later when mulling over the task in his head. Hamlet says, “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power T'assume a pleasing shape” (Shakespeare, 1992 p.119). All conviction evaporates, and he lapses into the engagement of meaningless activities such as arguing points to ridiculous lengths and asking absurd questions (Hamlet's Procrastination and Cowardice, 2006). To prove the Ghost's validity and Claudius's guilt, Hamlet composes a play to be performed reenacting the murder of his father. After it's successful, he finds Claudius alone praying. Although the perfect opportunity to do the deed arises, he again fails to act, “Up, sword; and know though a more horrid hent: when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage” (Shakespeare, 1992 pp.167-168). With the audience exasperated at this point, Hamlet turns to his inner self and begins to analyze every detail concerning broad philosophies about life to the point of a psychotic breakdown. “Hamlet becomes a prisoner of his own mind, a man stuck in the imaginary world, an irrational thinker, in a rational society.” (Character Analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello, 2002 p.3) By becoming entangled in the thoughts dwelling in his own mind, Hamlet inhibits himself from taking action. It isn't until the final scene of the play, when all caught in the crossfire along with himself are dying that he kills Claudius, at last understanding the consequences of his delay.
Hamlet's suicidal state of depression is another psychological factor that contributes to his procrastination. He ponders if avenging his father's death is worth the effort or if he should end his own life, avoiding moral dilemmas associated with taking action (Hamlet's Procrastination, 2005). “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.” (Shakespeare, 1992 p.129) There are critics who deem this condition a state of melancholy and label Hamlet as bi-polar. Author Peter Leithart described melancholy as (2006), “a temporary depression that paralyzes him in contempt for everything-the world, the flesh, and himself, not just a habitual excess of reflectiveness” (p. 3). Being melancholic for what he had been through before meeting with the Ghost, Hamlet is said to have been emotionally incapable of responding with normal vigor to the ghost requests although he spoke as though he did. Hamlet's experiences forced him to feel as Shakespeare critic AC Bradley worded it, “Disgust at life and everything in it, himself included-a disgust which varies in intensity, rising at times into a longing for death, sinking often into wearing apathy” (Leithart, 2006 p. 4). This theory accounts for many of the extreme emotions Hamlet feels and for the fact that he does not understand his own inaction and reprimands himself in dismay over his unwillingness to avenge his father.
Hamlet's Idealistic Nature
In contrast, there is another well supported theory that maintains Hamlet has trouble carrying out his act of revenge due to his idealistic nature. Johnston believed (2001), …he is too good for this world, he is too sensitive, too poetical, too finely attuned to the difficulties of life, too philosophically speculative or too finely poetical. This line of criticism has often been offered by people who feel themselves rather too finely gifted to fit the rough and tumble of the modern world. (p.5)
Hamlet communicates his dislike for the dishonesty of the world, the hypocrisy of politics and sexuality. Therefore, a legitimate reason for Hamlet's delay could be that he's too sensitive and romantic for the corruption of the court, proving his procrastination stems from his distaste at condescending to their level. Additionally, Hamlet realizes that killing a King is a great crime. “In seventeenth century, kings have divinity about them, and hurting a king from that period cannot compare to hurting a politician today (Hamlet's Delay, 1996 p.3). Hamlet does not want to be found guilty of such a crime, therefore concern for himself is a contributing factor to his procrastination.
Another theory is born from the fact that Hamlet only postpones Claudius's murder. Hamlet readily slays Polonius and puts his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death without a second thought. He proves that he is fully capable of making decisions and following through with them. However, with the specific task that the ghost assigns him, he undoubtedly falters. Professor Ian Johnston references Ernest Jones, the famous disciple of Freud, and wrote (2001), “It's not that he [Hamlet] is by nature irresolute, too poetical, or philosophical, or suffers from medical problems or a weakness of will. It is, by contrast, that this particular assignment is impossible for him”(p.6). Why this specific murder?
It is a widely accepted theory that Hamlet suffered from Oedipus Complex, meaning he was in love with his mother, Queen Gertrude. Some critics believe that he couldn't immediately kill Claudius because he knew if he were to actually go through with it, he would be no better a man than his murderous uncle (Hamlet's Delay in Shakespeare's Hamlet, 2005). Another theory is that by killing the man who sleeps with his mother, he would be forced to admit to himself his own feelings about her, a confession that would overwhelm and disgust him (Johnston, 2001). It is evident in the play that Hamlet is only able to murder Claudius after Gertrude is dead, and he is about to die. It is at that point that his sexual confusion is resolved, and he is finally able to act. Johnston pointed out (2001),
Hamlet does have a very particular inability to carry out this action and that this inability is not a constitutional incapacity for action but stems from some very particular feelings within Hamlet, feelings which he himself has trouble figuring out and which he often thinks about in explicitly sexual terms…terms which insist upon a pattern of disgust with female sexuality (p.7).
This revulsion to female sexuality is evident when Hamlet speaks to his mother or Ophelia. The outlook provides a further realistic and logical explanation for his procrastination. Hamlet undoubtedly delays as evident by his soliloquies which continually target his procrastination. Also the presence of Laertes and Fortinbras create a noticeable contrast between their resolute manner and Hamlet's faltering one. Although there are many possible explanations of why Hamlet delays, whether his idealism is to blame, his psychological state or his Oedipus Complex, it is apparent that they are all well supported and legitimate theories that prove more likely than not that Hamlet does postpone the avengement of his father; he is, therefore, a procrastinator.