To Act Or Not To Act

In William Shakespeares tragic play Hamlet, the main character, Hamlet, struggles with procrastination throughout the play. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “No brilliant intellect can be considered valuable if one withdraws from action.” It is this tragic flaw of inaction that eventually brings about Hamlets downfall. In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is given explicit instructions by the ghost to kill his uncle/step-father Claudius to avenge his fathers murder; yet, he fails to do so. Hamlets inaction and hesitation to kill Claudius is justified in his own mind and to the audience. Hamlets initial disbelief in the reliability of the ghosts claim, Hamlets belief in religion, and the fact that Hamlet is trained in thought rather than in action, all lead to Hamlets inaction, and ultimately, Hamlets downfall.
The ongoing duel between Hamlets procrastination and his final action begins with Hamlets perception of the ghost. The ghost appears in form, as Horatio describes it, “a figure like your father, armed at point exactly” (1.2.209-210). When Hamlet first meets the ghost, he immediately calls the ghost by his fathers name and follows it to where the ghost beckons him. In response to the ghosts claim that “the serpent that did sting thy fathers life now wears his crown,” Hamlet answers, ” O my prophetic soul!” (1.5.46-48), revealing that Hamlet has already contemplated this possibility. The ghost does little to persuade Hamlet of the cause of his fathers death because Hamlet is already convinced of his uncle/step-fathers guilt due to his great distrust and dislike for Claudius. Although at first, Hamlet reacts with anger, a thirst for vengeance, and grief, Hamlet becomes suspicious of the ghosts origin. He begins to wonder whether the ghost is a devil, an angel, or a sign of Hamlets own grief. Hamlet says “the spirit that I have seen may be a devil, and the devil hath power tassume 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” (2.2.627-632). Fearing deception, Hamlet has doubts, which initiate his inaction. His hesitation is somewhat resolved in the form of a play. In order to test the truth of the ghost, Hamlet devises a scheme to perform a play to “catch the conscience of the King”(2.2.634), by reenacting a scene similar to the events recounted by the ghost about King Hamlets murder, in order to prove Claudius guilt. Here, Hamlets inaction results not only from his distrust of his fathers apparition, but from his distrust of his own senses. Had Hamlet trusted his father in death as he had in life, Hamlets life would never have resulted in such a tragic end.

Once Hamlet is sure of Claudius guilt, it is Hamlets belief in his religion that leads him to inaction. In Hamlets mind, it is now his rightful duty to avenge his fathers murder. At the end of Act 3 Scene 3, Hamlet has a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, when he sees the King kneeling in prayer. Hamlet enters the King’s private chapel with a sword in hand, ready to kill Claudius. As Hamlet enters he observes, “now he is a-praying, and now Ill do ‘t”(3.3.77-78). But, Claudius is agonizing over his actions. He has committed murder, yet he prays for a heavenly pardon. “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t, a brother’s murder”(3.3.40-42). Claudius realizes that although he may have escaped judgment on earth, there is no escape for him in heaven, except for God’s forgiveness. Though he finds he is in no state to pray or repent, he calls on angels to help and kneels to pray, “Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay. Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel be soft as sinews of the newborn babe”(3.3.73-75). The kings prayers delay Hamlet. Hamlet believes that if he killed Claudius then, after he had prayed for forgiveness, Claudius would be forgiven for his sins and have the opportunity to go to heaven. Hamlet therefore decides to wait for a moment “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, or in th incestuous pleasure of his bed, at game a-swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in t then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes” (3.4. 94-100). Despite his original intentions, Hamlet does not carry out his scheme and, instead, delays the killing of the king. Hamlets belief in religion and his fear that Claudius might be sent to heaven force him to defer from his original intention. Had Hamlet acted without such beliefs he might have avoided much heartache as well as his own untimely death.

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Hamlets delay of avenging his fathers murder is also due to his problem of introspection. Throughout the play, Hamlet is concerned about integrity and righteousness of his action, a concern the ghost recollects when he says to Hamlet, “taint not thy mind” (1.5.92). Hamlet realizes that few taints are more permanent than the murder of an innocent man. If Claudius is guilty, Hamlet wants to carry out his revenge properly. Hamlet has no desire to become a clone of Claudius, the cold-blooded murderer of a relative. All of this thought is what causes Hamlet to delay so much in the action that he promises to take. Hamlet leaps into the role of the avenger without thinking. He swears his allegiance without the introspection that later delays him from fulfilling his promise. However, towards the end of the play, Hamlets emotions are less passionate. Hamlets thoughts about his role begin to become less self-assured. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”(1.5.210-211). Although he feels it is his duty, he is resentful of his apparent fate, and he sees his revenge as a problematic task. Hamlet is a man of philosophy rather than heroic action, he thinks deeply about his feelings and actions, which he sees as a fault, but at thirty years of age, Hamlet has been well educated throughout his life. With such an education, it would be impossible for Hamlet to undertake as serious an action as the assassination of a king without exploring all of his options and their contingencies. When Hamlet does act in haste, the result is the murder of Polonius. However, by analyzing every aspect of a possible action, Hamlet inevitably finds a reason not to act. The recurrent procrastination of serious acts lead to an even more complicated situation. Hamlet is overly conscious and unable to make a decision because of the uncertainty of the consequences that might follow. By constantly questioning every aspect of a possible action, Hamlet ultimately finds a reason not to act. By his inaction, others make Hamlets choice for him, ultimately choosing his death over their own.

Hamlets downfall is due entirely to his inaction. Throughout the play, Hamlet questions his actions to the point that he is no longer able to act. Although Hamlets hesitation is understandable and even justified by his disbelief in the ghost of his father, his belief in religion, and his education, it still brings about his untimely demise. By over analyzing any possible action he might take, Hamlet often finds a reason impeding him from taking any significant action. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge claims that Shakespeare wanted us to realize that action is the chief end of existence, Hamlet proves that inaction is truly the chief end of existence. However, because of his indecisiveness, Hamlet is real; one can identify with him. The uncertainty of his life provides no clear path, but rather a rocky and winding road. Many times there is no right answer. He must use his discrimination to choose the best possibility. Hamlet, unfortunately, lacks this innate ability to decide. Instead of deciding, he chooses to make no decision and instead is left with no choice but death.


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