Hamlet's Decisions in Hamlet by Shakespeare


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Hamlet's Decisions in Hamlet by Shakespeare

KING: Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe! All may be well. (He kneels)

HAMLET: Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying;
And now I'll do 't. And so 'a goes to heaven, and so am I revenged.

At this moment the main problem of "Hamlet" could be ended. Hamlet could kill his Uncle Claudius and avenge his father's death, and the case would (excepting the case of some unknown tragedy) be closed. He would not accidentally kill Polonius, and perhaps he, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Laertes would not end up dead. The play might not have such an entirely tragic ending after all.
However, Hamlet chooses not to.

HAMLET: Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in 't --
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes.

By most accounts, this passage would be taken to mean that he does not kill Claudius because at this time the King is praying, and when praying one's soul will ascend to heaven if one should die. Hamlet wants Claudius to burn in hell; for him to go to heaven would make his revenge void. He will avenge his father's death when Claudius is engaged in some other less holy act, in order to insure the King's place in hell.
Of course, by his delaying his revenge, the entire plot of the play goes in a different direction. Immediately after this scene Hamlet speaks with his mother, unknowing of the fact that Polonius is hiding behind a curtain in the room with them. When the Queen becomes frightened by Hamlet's irate demeanor she cries out for help, as does Polonius. Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius and stabs him to death.
This, of course, causes a landslide of tragedy in the play. Claudius exiles Hamlet to England and sends sealed letters to the King of England telling him to kill Hamlet upon his arrival. Ophelia goes insane. Laertes, Hamlet's brother, returns from France with an army, demanding to know why Polonius was killed. Claudius enlists Laertes to kill Hamlet. Ophelia commits suicide. Hamlet and Laertes duel at her funeral; both of them are mortally wounded, Gertrude kills herself and Hamlet kills Claudius.

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Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other, Hamlet names the Norwegian prince Fortinbras as successor to the throne, everyone dies, the end.
It's not quite so cut and dry as this, however. Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character are much more complex than this. Throughout the play we are given the impression that Hamlet is one moody, melancholy dude. Consider his situation: his father died. His father's ghost appears and speaks to him and tells him he has been murdered, and his poor son must avenge his death. This right here is one big problem in and of itself: how is Hamlet supposed to know if this is even his father? How does he know the ghost is not some demon from hell? What if he's going crazy and hallucinating? Another problem: the women in his life. Ophelia isn't exactly a grounding force; she ends up losing her mind and committing suicide. He dares not hurt his mother Gertrude, as the ghost told him not to harm her in getting his revenge. Is he really helping his country by killing the king? Does that do Denmark any good? And murder, of course, is not exactly easy. Already a thoughtful, complex man, whom I might diagnose as manic depressive; Hamlet's slow unraveling throughout the course of the play is due to the many factors that are constantly pressing down on him.
So, when he decides not to kill Claudius in Act 3 Scene 3, is it really because of his need to see the King burn in hell, or is that just an excuse for Hamlet's doubts and misgivings in order to delay enacting his revenge? Hamlet is too intricate a character to be so singularily focused on one goal; it is obvious that there are other reasons besides the one mentioned that he delays his killing of Claudius.
What a piece of work is man.


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