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Hamlet: Why Delay Essay, Research Paper

In Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, a compound plot is formed at the beginning of the play. Amongst these are the death of King Hamlet of Denmark, and the hasty marriage of Gertrude to the late king’s brother, Claudius. The main focus of the play, however, is the task of avenging the death of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet, eager to avenge his father, seems to delay the process throughout the play. Although no direct reasoning for this is stated, many assumptions can be made as to what delays Hamlet from avenging his father’s death.

In Act 1, the ghost of Hamlet’s late father reveals himself to Hamlet and his friends. Although hesitant at first, Hamlet asks what the ghost wants. The ghost proceeds to tell Hamlet that he did not die; but was murdered. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius, his brother, poured poison into his ear while he slept. He demands, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love/…/Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (1.5.23-25). Hamlet then becomes anxious: “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love,/May sweep to my revenge” (1.5.29-31). After this is said, at the end of the same act, Hamlet’s reluctance for revenge is made obvious, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” So, Bradley says, “…he mutters within an hour of the moment when he vowed to give his life to the duty of revenge; and the rest of the story exhibitshis vain efforts to fulfill his duty, his unconscious self-excuses and unvailing self-reproaches, and the tragic results of his delay” (11)

One reason why Hamlet may be delaying his vengeance is possibly due to the fact that he is not sure that the ghost is really his late father, hence, making the idea of Claudius being the murderer not true. We know that, in Act I & II, Hamlet is not sure of the ghost’s identity. “Thou com’st in such a questionable shape,” Hamlet says (1.4.43). In Act II, he further questions the identity of the ghost saying to himself,

…The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

T’ assume the pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.610-615)

However, Hamlet devises a plan to solve this case of missing identity. He continues to say, “I’ll have grounds/More relative than this. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.615-617).

The play begins, in Act III, with players acting out The Murder of Gonzago, whose plot is extremely similar to what has gone “rotten” in Denmark. Hamlet, after observing the reaction of Claudius during the play, is satisfied that the ghost was his father, and in turn will “take the ghosts word for a thousand pound” (3.2.292-293). After learning this, Hamlet still delays in accomplishing his task of killing Claudius. Instead, he questions himself as to the consequences of such an act..

Towards the end of Act III, after the play, Hamlets walks in on Claudius as he is kneeling and praying. Presented with the perfect opportunity to kill him, he backs off once again. His reasoning being that if he murders Claudius while he is praying, he will go to heaven. Certainly, Hamlet wants him to go anywhere but heaven, considering what he has done. However, Hamlet seems to be either looking for the right time or trying to delay it, possibly due to cowardice.

Another explanation of this delay could be Hamlet’s nature and values. “Our moral impression of Hamlet derives primariily from what he says rather than what he does. It is an almost intuitive awareness of the beauty, depth, and refinement of his moral nature, upon which is thrust a savage burden of revenge and of disallusion” (Ornstein 2). He is always contemplating his options. He is a scholar; always thinking and trying to make rational decisions. “To be or not to be: that is the question:” (3.1.56). Not only is it the question, it is, perhaps the answer; the solution to his dilemma. That question is his rationale behind every decision he makes. It’s answer weighs the consequences of his actions. As a result of all of this rationalizing, his actions never take place because he is too busy thinking about what will happen if he does take action.

Depression could be another factor in his unwillingness to avenge; as he says to Rosencratz and Guildenstern, “I have of late…lost all my mirth” (2.2.303-304). When Hamlet’s father was “But three months dead,” Gertrude, his mother, married her brother-in-law. As this act would still be a somewhat taboo in this era, in Elizabethan times, it was considered incestuous. This act showed little sensitivity toward Hamlet as well as an implication that this marriage could possibly be a continuation of a past, secret love, thus committing adultery. Although not confirmed, Hamlet nonetheless feels let down. He asks his sinful mother, “Have you eyes?/You cannot call it love, for at your age/the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,/And waits upon the judgment…/…/O shame, where is thy blush?…” (3.4.68-71). Similarly, “Hamlet’s problem…[is that] the ghost’s injunction to act becomes so inextricably bound up for Hamlet with the character of the world in which the action must be taken–its mysteriousness, its baffling appearances, its deep consciousness of infection, frailty, and loss–that he cannot comes to terms with either without coming to terms with both” (Mack 17).

Perhaps, Hamlet is struggling with the morality of revenge. As Belsey says, “Renge exists in the margin between justice and crime. An act of injusticeon behalf of justice, it deconstructs the antithesis which fixes the meanings of good and evil, right and wrong. Hamlet invokes the conventional polarities in addressing the ghost, only to abandon them as inadequate or irrelevant. As a philosopher, maybe he feels that he will be committing the very same act he wants to punish Claudius for. Claudius murdered a king. Now, Hamlet wants to murder the king. If the act is carried out then Hamlet would be just as villainous as Claudius. Killing a king is a very serious offense in that era. In the last act, Hamlet, poisoned and awaiting death, is given the perfect opportunity to kill the king. Since Hamlet had a half-hour left to live, morale and philosophy did not matter anymore. He was not going to die knowing that Claudius would be alive after Hamlet’s death and reign again. Claudius was force-fed poison and died.

To conclude, the answer to the question of why Hamlet delayed the vengeance of his father is made obvious: himself. “Were it not for the self-lacerating soliliquies in which he accuses himself of the grossness and insensitivity which he despises in his mother, the though that he delays would not occur to us” (Ornstein 4). It is his own character that prevents him from completing the task. What lied between Hamlet and Claudius was Hamlet’s morality, depression, his nature, values, and his philosophies. Unless presented with perfect opportunity, as was the case, Hamlet would have continued to delay his father’s wishes. Fortunately, Hamlet had the pleasure of seeing Claudius die first. “To be or not to be?” –Not to be…


Belsey, Catherine. The Subject Of Tragedy. Methuen, 1985: 111-16

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. Macmillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1904

Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” The Yale Review, Vol. XLI. Yale University Press, 1952: 502-23

Ornstein, Robert. The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1960

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