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Indecision, Hesitation and Delay in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Powerful Essays
Admonished by the ghost of his poisoned father, troubled by the stench of a kingdom in decline, outraged by his queen mother's incestuous liaison, why did Hamlet wait so long to act decisively? Theories abound. Hamlet had an Oedipus complex. Hamlet was mad rather than merely pretending to be. Hamlet was an intellectual pansy. Hamlet was an existentialist. Etc. T. S. Eliot went so far as to say that the play itself was flawed, Hamlet's Problem actually the author's own, insoluble. I believe that the Problem is actually ours. Perhaps the real issue is not Hamlet's hesitation, but our unwillingness to understand it.

In an ironic maneuver, Shakespeare has Hamlet tell us about the self-destructive power of a tragic flaw:

So, oft it chances in particular men,

That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,

Since nature cannot choose his origin--

By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,

Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens

The form of plausive manners, that these men,

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--

Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,

As infinite as man may undergo--

Shall in the general censure take corruption

From that particular fault: the dram of eale

Doth all the noble substance of a doubt

To his own scandal.

Believers that virtuousness (or enlightenment) guarantees right conduct, take note!

The key to Hamlet's flaw, the stuckness that has puzzled so many readers, is lodged, not in the beginning, but in the end--the place of maximum emphasis--of the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, the most famous dramatic monologue...

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...udies of Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Keith. 1973. 'Form and Cause Conjoin'd': Hamlet and Shakespeare's Workshop.' Shakespeare Survey 26:11-20.

Fineman, Joel. 1980. 'Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles.' In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Coppelia Kahn and Murray M. Schwarz. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 70-109.

Fleissner, Robert. 1982. ' "Sullied" Or "Solid": Hamlet's Flesh Once More.' Hamlet Studies 4:92-3.

Fowler, Alastair. 1987. 'The Plays Within the Play of Hamlet.' In 'Fanned and Winnowed Opinions': Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton. London and New York: Methuen.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953-74. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. 24 vols, trans. James Stachey. London: Hogarth.
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