The Outcomes Of Hamlet’s Hesitation To Take A Revenge
A fundamental concept of physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; as well as inaction. Although this is used to describe physical entities, it is still applied to our inherent desire to achieve certain goals and the consequences which may follow. Many grave mistakes can be made when directly addressing an important issue or failing to do so, and could eventually lead to one’s demise. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the indecisiveness of the protagonist is what eventually leads to his death. Prince Hamlet’s oscillation between action and inaction during his quest to avenge his father’s death is a key aspect in advancing the play’s plot; beginning with the appearance of the apparition, then with his refusal to kill Claudius at the perfect moment to strike, and finally with the sudden death of Polonius.
In the opening act of the play, the audience is presented with a scenario as such: Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has recently died. His widowed mother marries his uncle, who then takes Hamlet’s place on the throne. He later meets the apparition of his father roaming the halls of Elsinore in Act 1, Scene 5, in which it is revealed that King Hamlet was actually murdered by his brother, Claudius. Hamlet is called to action by the ghost when it states “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”, to which he replies: “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge”. This command by his dead father is one that gives the play its main plot, to which Hamlet replies by saying to quickly reveal the identity of the murderer so that he may take revenge as quickly as one falls in love. Through this conversation, Hamlet is given his ultimate goal and must spend all his time from this point onwards to fulfill it.
Soon after the ghost disappears, the protagonist is left to his mission of avenging the late king. The audience can assume that Hamlet will simply walk into the court of the castle and kill Claudius, but that would not be the typical case of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy like Hamlet. After deciding to act in favour of the ghost’s wishes, Hamlet says “May be the devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a 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. I’ll have grounds / More relative than this. The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. Contrary to his original plan, to take action, Hamlet thinks that the ghost may be the devil taking form as his father and decides that he must have more proof than the word of a spirit. He was worried that the ghost was going to tempt him into murder so that he would be condemned to hell, and even refers to a verse from the bible that says ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ when he speaks about the devil.
During this scene, Hamlet makes it clear that he will not make any moves until Claudius’ guilt is confirmed. In order for the murder of the king to be valid, the accusation must first be confirmed. The plot changes again at this point: the young prince questions who to trust, the ghost or Claudius, and so he decides not to take any action until he has all the evidence that he needs to prove that King Hamlet was in fact murdered by his brother. Through this choice, the primary conflict in the play becomes established, and continues into the rising action.
Once again, the consequences of Hamlet’s constant fluctuations between his heart and mind are reflected in Act 3, Scene 3, when he is given an ideal opportunity to kill Claudius. He finds the king praying in church by himself, and even hears his confession about the underlying guilt of murdering his brother. As Claudius continues to ask God for forgiveness, Hamlet begins to unsheathe his sword. Instead of finally taking his revenge, however, he hesitates and says “And so he goes to heaven. / And so am I revenged. — That would be scanned. / A villain kills my father, and, for that, / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven. / Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge”. Essentially, Hamlet refuses to take Claudius’ life in a church because of his belief that the king’s soul will automatically be repented, and instead he will go to hell. He succumbs to his thoughts and puts his religious and moral values before fulfilling his one true goal in the play. If Claudius had been killed at this moment, the story would have stopped at the epitasis, and perhaps Hamlet would have avoided playing into the character arc of the hero in a revenge tragedy.
Alternatively, the moments when Hamlet decides to take genuine action are of a very reckless nature, an example being when he mistakenly murders Polonius in Act 3, Scene 4. Hamlet is violently arguing with his mother in her bed chambers over her marriage with his uncle, with Polonius spying on the conversation behind a curtain. Eventually, Gertrude calls out for help. Polonius steps out from the curtain to aid her, but is unfortunately stabbed by Hamlet, who thinks that Polonius is Claudius. After his death, he responds to his mother’s cries of “Oh, what a rash and bloody deed is this!”, by apathetically saying “A bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother”. Hamlet feels no remorse for Polonius’ death, and it is almost justified to him because he believed that it was the king. This scene is the beginning of the overall domino effect of this single, rash decision to stab the figure behind the curtain. If Polonius had lived, Hamlet would not have been sent to England, Ophelia would have lived, and Laertes and Claudius would not have plotted to kill Hamlet, which eventually resulted in the death of all the major characters.
Most tragic heroes or heroines often have a fatal flaw which leads to their downfall. In the case of Prince Hamlet, his hesitation on whether or not to take action led to nine characters’ deaths, including his own. It is difficult to understand if he had just doomed everyone around him by choosing to think ethically at one time and irrationally at other times, or if he had made all the right choices and they were all subject to their own mistakes. As it is seen in the play, all of Hamlet’s choices were a driving force to pushing the plot forward, which is seen in scenes such as when he first sees the ghost, or Claudius praying, or even when he had killed Polonius. For every action that was made, there was a consequence. For every inaction, someone had suffered. Throughout all of the decisions that were made by the protagonist, it is important to ponder: did Hamlet ever really get his vengeance?
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