Hamlet's Delay in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hamlet is truly a great play. Any work of literature that generates so much debate and has lasted for four hundred years must be pure genius. One question that has puzzled readers and audiences alike is Hamlet's delay. Why does he wait so long to kill Claudius?
During and immediately following Hamlet
's conversation with the Ghost, he is determined to fulfill the Ghost's wishes. Hamlet already has a plan to catch Claudius
. However, the next time he appears in the play, which is long after the Ghost's visit, he has not yet done the deed. He admits he may have been deceived by the ghost. "The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T' assume a pleasing shape (2.2.627-629).
To fully understand Hamlet’s inaction, it is important to look at revenge. In Richard III revenge is not exacted until Richard is dead and his fowl deeds
found out. In Othello, Iago will not be revenged until Othello is completely destroyed. In Merchant of Venice Shylock wants to humiliate and then kill Antonio. Thus revenge is not exacted until the evil deeds of the offender are revealed and the public knows the truth. Only then does the thought of death come into revenge. Under this light, Hamlet cannot kill Claudius until he can prove that he poisoned the late king. Thus the first two acts are not only for the reader to understand Hamlet, but to allow Hamlet to gather needed evidence against his uncle.
It is not until act three, when Hamlet has not been able to prove his uncle is a murder that he decides to force Claudius’ hand. Hamlet comes up with the idea of the play to prove whether or not Claudius is guilty. But the play also causes another problem. Hamlet discovers Claudius’ guilt but has no evidence to present to the people. Thus, when Hamlet sees Claudius praying he stays his hand until he can absolutely prove his guilt. Another reason why Hamlet stays his hand is because Claudius is praying. It is Hamlet’s fervent belief that if he kills Claudius while he is praying he might go to heaven. Which makes the final lines of that scene so ironic. After Hamlet has left, Claudius says, “My words fly up, my thoughts,/ remain below:/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go”(lines 97-99). Claudius does not think that his words are reaching God. Thus if Hamlet would have killed Claudius, he still would have gone to hell.
Some critics attribute Hamlets inability to act to an Oedipus complex. These proponents say that Hamlet, in his subconscious mind, has a desire to do exactly what his uncle has done; that is, get rid of the husband so that he can have Gertrude for himself. If this is true, Hamlet cannot act because he is fighting against his subconscious; he knows he wants something that is entirely evil, and if he were to go through with it, he would be no better than Claudius.
Still other critics believe that Hamlet simply thinks too much. He wants the murder of the King to be perfect. Claudius has to go to hell. The people have to know about the murderer Claudius. Hamlet spends too much time planning and not enough time doing; thus, making the King's murder more complicated than other murders he has orchestrated. Also, he has to be careful around Claudius after the play because it revealed his sanity to the King as it reveled the guilt of Claudius to Hamlet. After the play within a play, Hamlet has proof and still cannot act. Not until everybody is dying, including himself, does he realizes that he should not have waited so long. He understands the consequences of his delay, all of his pent-up rage explodes, and he murders the King; getting the revenge he was after from the beginning.
Fortunately, because of the great writing of Shakespeare any of these interpretations are valid and can be supported by the text.