Hamlet: Thinking and Ideas as Inaction in the Tragedy
“Understanding kills action.” With these three simple words, Nietzsche explains the idea behind Shakespeare’s development of the acting of thought as inaction, and also the reason that Hamlet hesitates for over 3000 lines of blank verse and prose to avenge the murder of his father. The motif of delay and inaction as thought can be seen in several instances throughout the play, the primary being that of Hamlet, though secondary performances are given by Laertes, Pyrrhus, and Lucianus (in The Mousetrap). These scenes serve as support and emphasis for the central part of the play.
Hamlet expresses his thoughts primarily through his soliloquies, Shakespeare’s vehicle to present inaction and delay; in essence, to act Hamlet’s thoughts. The theory is that if the character is portrayed “thinking aloud early on [in the play] and then again and again and again…[the audience will] realize that thinking with him is an ongoing process” (De Grazia 1). Nietzsche offers an explanation for Hamlet’s tendency toward internal contemplation: “That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” This statement gives a reason both for Hamlet’s constant inaction (in thought) and his biting wit. Hepeppers his speech with contempt, because that which he speaks is dead to him, yet filled with meaning, resulting in many interesting conversations, especially with the adults, Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius. Nineteenthcentury critic Coleridge singles out Hamlet as “representative of modern tragedy because unlike Greek tragedies, Hamlet is driven not by an external agent or principle, but by his own inner prompting, his prophetic soul” (De Grazia 5). This “internalization of the self” represents one of Shakespeare’s greatest contributions, and provides the basis for an understanding of the fundamental idea of the play (Bloom 408-9). Several critics identify the central action of Hamlet as indeed Hamlet’s inaction. This is shown through the opinion that if one only discovers the reason for Hamlet’s delay, he would “have the answer to Hamlet’s character which is also the key to the entire play (for the play is his character)” (De Grazia 4). The most highly favored explanation for Hamlet’s hesitation is that Hamlet is a persona too large for the revenge-tragedy that is Hamlet. Indeed, without the prince (as Shakespeare presents him), it becomes “the revenge of Hamlet,” not The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Bloom 415). Without Hamlet’s hesitation, his constant and deliberate thought, and “antic disposition” (De Grazia 11), the plot would go directly from the Ghost’s briefing of Hamlet to the murder of Claudius, no questions asked. Hamlet’s questioning of the ghost’s validity, and consequently his questioning of everything else writes the play (Bloom 187). Critic Harry Levin describes Hamlet as “a play obsessed with the word ?question’”, and Bloom makes it clear that “the question of Hamlet always must be Hamlet himself” (Bloom 386-7), because everything in the play depends on Hamlet’s response to everything in the play, beginning with the ghost of his father.
Nietzsche, in his explanation for Hamlet’s hesitation, differentiates between Hamlet’s inaction due to knowledge, and inaction due to reflection. Because of the Ghost’s revelation, Hamlet gains knowledge, which, in effect, destroys the desire and the ability to act on that knowledge. From his work The Birth of Tragedy (1873):
“Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom [which]…reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no – true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action…”.
This idea of knowledge and reflection and their effect on action provides insight to Hamlet’s dilemma: without “the veils of illusion”, or the absence of knowledge, he cannot perform his revenge. Hamlet’s knowledge of the blindness and injustice of action outweighs all motives for action. The ugliness of the truth in Denmark’s monarchy so disgusts him, he cannot act.
“Denmark’s a prison” (Hamlet II, ii, 262) – or so claims Hamlet. But of all Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet begins as the freest (Bloom 417-8). Hamlet’s own inwardness and constant questioning denies himself that freedom. And this self-denial forms from itself an ambiguity in Hamlet’s reasoning, because, as stated by Harold Bloom, “Hamlet implicitly defines personality as a mode of freedom” (Bloom 427), but more as something originating within freedom, rather than a product of freedom. Thus Hamlet, perhaps the best-known personality in Western culture, denies himself a means of creating that personality. This paradox also serves to create delay. Hamlet deprives himself of choices, and so denies himself the ability to act.
As a result of Hamlet’s intellect and Hamlet’s reliance on Hamlet, much of Hamlet is in Hamlet’s wit. In a simple and grotesque revenge-tragedy, Hamlet’s inner monologue and quips drive much of the plot between the induction and the conclusion. Hamlet knows the corruption of Denmark is also in him, lending a connection between his “disposition to think” and his “indisposition to act” (De Grazia 2). Hamlet is aware that this burden rests on him, which effects his own actions as well as his reactions to events (those few out of his control). So his hesitation in his actions may be attributed to this overwhelming load. As stated by T.S. Eliot, “we find Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action…so much as in an unmistakable tone.” Hamlet’s essence does not rest in the minimal action of the revenge play, but on Hamlet’s theories, witticisms, and, overwhelmingly, internal deliberation (Eliot 3).
Understanding of the play’s core does not rest solely on Hamlet, though he does carry the bulk of it. Hamlet’s own hesitation and inaction carries Hamlet, but the same characteristics in minor characters serve to underscore the essence of the play. The most deliberate of these assistant scenes is Pyrrhus’s hesitation in the assassination of Priam, in the Player’s recitation of Priam’s slaughter. There are thirteen full lines fall between the raising of his sword and its strike of its mark:
“…For lo, his sword,Which was declining on the milky headOf reverend Priam, seemed i’ th’ air to stick.So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stoodAnd, like a neutral to his will and matter,Did nothing.But as we often see against some stormA silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,The bold winds speechless, and the orb belowAs hush as death, anon the dreadful thunderDoth rend the region; so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,Arousèd vengeance sets him new a-work,And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fallOn Mars’s armor, forged for proof eterne,With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding swordNow falls on Priam” (II, ii, 502-17).
The gods inflict “Priam’s pause,” whose wills are against Priam’s death. But it mirrors Hamlet’s hesitations in its allowing a pause for thought, a moment of inaction. Also, at the end of this break, Pyrrhus shows no regret for his murder of Priam, just as Hamlet shows no remorse or passion, in neither his murders nor his attack on Ophelia. Strangely, Hamlet will not commit his actual commission, the avenging of his father’s death, until Hamlet himself is dying. It is as if his delay throughout the play, and the digressive deaths of other characters, allows him to avoid the looming guilt in his murder of Claudius. Bloom offers an interesting possibility as explanation for this peculiarity, as well as a justification for his hesitations. According to Bloom, Hamletmay not know whose son he is. The question on his mind is, “How far back in time did Gertrude’s ?incest’ go?” Bloom’s suggestion:
“What is really unique about Hamlet is not his unconscious wish to be patricidal…but rather his conscious refusal to actually become patricidal. Gertrude dies with Hamlet…but it is remarkable that Hamlet will not kill Claudius until he knows that he himself is dying, and that his mother is already dead” (Bloom 419).
Only with the death of Claudius would Hamlet feel guilt, and can only commit the act once his mother is dead, so as not to face her disappointment, and he himself has been mortally wounded. Thus, Pyrrhus’s actions (or inactions) reflect Hamlet’s at Claudius’s death, but while Pyrrhus feels no remorse, Hamlet, in this final act, for the first time fears guilt.
The other two scenarios are minor imitations of Hamlet’s behaviors. In Act III, scene ii, Hamlet curses Lucianus for his “damnable faces” (277), a reflection of Hamlet’s contempt for his own dallying, or his looks “as if he had been loosed from hell” (De Grazia 15). Like Hamlet, Lucianus bides his time, until the right moment approaches for the committing of his deed. As Laertes plots his duel with Hamlet, his indecision as to whether or not to go through with the act mirrors Hamlet’s inability to stay the course of his father’s spirit’s demand. As Shakespeare’s plot required, both Laertes and Hamlet commit their crimes, despite their hesitations. Thus these two scenes imitate Hamlet’s actions or thoughts, serving to emphasize Hamlet’s influence over the play.
Unlike many tragedies, Hamlet is driven not by any outside factor or principle, but by the inner consciousness and knowledge of its protagonist. The characteristic themes and motifs of Shakespeare’s masterpiece inspired the use of a new method – soliloquy – to convey an ingenious device: the representation of thought as inaction. This forced not only a change for future Shakespearean creations, but also prompted the revision of most of his previous works (Bloom 400). Thus, the idea of thought’s representation in inaction influences not only Hamlet, but also the creation of drama since its conception.
Bloom, Harold. “Hamlet.” Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood. London: Methune, 1920.
De Grazia, Margreta. “Hamlet’s Thoughts and Antics.” Republic of Letters 2000 Conference at Oxford University. Cambridge, Sept. 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York:Washington Square, 1992.
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