We often wonder why Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, in the play Hamlet, waited so long after bring told by the ghost, about the evil deed, before carrying out his plan. Everyone contains a tinge of Hamlet in his or her feelings, wants, and worries. Hamlet is not like other tragic heroes of his period. He stands apart from other Shakespeare’s heroes in his much discussed innocence. Is this supposed tragic hero maybe an ideal hero, one without the tragic flaw, which has been a part of the formula for the tragedy since the Golden Age of Greece? This is a question that has been the field for many literary critics’ battles.
The main, and, most often, the only flaw that has been attributed to Hamlet was his delay. This seems to constitute the central part in Hamlet. Critics seem to cling to this detail, as if trying to save the status of Hamlet as a typical Elizabethan tragedy of revenge. According to Aristotle, ” the definition of tragedy, there should exist a flaw in the character of the main hero, who is a great personality that is engaged in a struggle that ends catastrophically”. (Aristotle, 459) If Hamlet had no flaw, what kind of tragic hero is he? No doubt, Hamlet is a tragical drama, for it has many characters that end up losing their lives.
But the play would not lose it’s tragic tone if Hamlet was an ideal hero instead of a tragic one. Which is exactly the case. If just all critics realized this, maybe today we would not have that much trouble trying to decipher Hamlet’s character, just like Elizabethan audiences never raised any questions concerning Hamlet’s delay. Alice Griffin, a drama critic, lecturer, states ” it was only in the last two centuries, that the audience and their perceptions have drastically changed, which causes this confusion concerning the character that was created by Shakespeare for the common people, some ignorant ones among them, perhaps”.
Griffin, 63) Hamlet is an ideal hero with a flaw, a flaw that sparks many questions among critics everywhere, these questions can be answered in a simple concentration of one scene. Hamlet is like a soldier that is thrown into a war where he has to do some things he rather would avoid doing, but under the given circumstances he bites his teeth and carries himself well. In this war, the circumstances brought on by Claudius’s murdering of King Hamlet are Hamlet’s enemy. Morris Weitz, a critic of Shakespearian plays, states, “His dead father, and destroyed country, is the painful truth which leaves so much hatred and resentment in his heart”.
Weitz, 15) Being a loyal prince and son, and one whom an entire kingdom respected, he should seek revenge and bring justice back in the royal court. The whole play would be very simple if this murder was an open assassination. But no, Shakespeare made sure that this murder was a secret, that no one, except maybe Claudius, knew about it. Bernard Grebanier, another critic that focuses on the piece of literature, says, “this puts in a completely different context to the play that was written by Thomas Kyd, a play that is titled Ur-Hamlet, which Shakespeare used as a basis for his Hamlet play”.
Grebanier, 111) This way, Shakespeare accomplished very different development of action, and ultimately one of the best plays in that history. Along with that, Shakespeare created disagreement concerning reasons why Hamlet waited so long before killing Claudius. A careful reader can notice that more than two months pass between Hamlet being told by the aspiration about the evil deed, and Hamlet following through with his plan. One can argue that from this follows that Hamlet procrastinated, have that one flaw – being passive, not daring to act. But Shakespeare never payed attention to this time interval.
According to Grebanier, “an audience was not aware of it, because Shakespeare didn’t want it to be… the rather large time interval was of no consequence, and truly one cannot notice this without a conscious calculation”. (Grebanier, 179) More critics, especially during popularity of Freud, have tried to explain Hamlet’s delay exclusively from psychological point of view. But how can one psychologically analyze a character that does not exist in a physical world; whose existence is dependent is merely on his actions and reactions to the events and other characters from the play?
J. Dover Wilson summarized it by saying that Hamlet is a “character in a play not in history”. (Weitz, 107) From the point of view of these critics, it follows that character preceded the plot, thus shaping it for its needs. But Shakespeare, not to mention all the other play writers, followed Aristotelian view. “Tragedy is an imitation of life … and thus the plot precedes the character”. (Aristotle, 459-460) This, without even knowing Aristotelian method, can also be deduced from knowing that Shakespeare adopted the plot of Ur-Hamlet, and changed it slightly.
A slight change in the plot, however, hardly even the slightest change affects the characters. But one should realize that “preceding” means coming before the other one, and it does not mean eliminating the other. Therefore, the cause of Hamlet’s fall cannot be ascribed exclusively to the situation. That would mean eliminating every element of tragedy, and even drama, from Hamlet. If this would happen then Hamlet would have become a mere collection of fate-dependent events that accidentally so happened not to have a happy ending.
So, the reason for Hamlet’s actions should be understood as a synthesis of original situation, Hamlet’s reactions to it, and then again of the situation that was affected by Hamlet’s reactions. Looking at Hamlet’s reactions, one detail cannot be over-looked: Hamlet does not kill Claudius in church, while he has the best chance of doing so up until that point in the play. This little detail, and it is really a little detail, for if it was more important, Shakespeare would have dedicated to it more than some 100 lines in the play, tends to affect the reader’s evaluation of Hamlet’s delay.
Why did he not kill the King? Understanding this scene is crucial today in understanding Hamlet’s delay, for we seem to be puzzled by it (if we were in the audience, the whole scene would have lasted only moments, but as readers, we have the freedom to ponder about it). At least so was Professor Dowden, to name one critic, who holds that Hamlet “loses a sense of fact, because he puts every event through his mind, filtering it until every deed seems to have an alternative”, In not doing the deed, but by evaluating it even more.
Bloom, 66) Coleridge and Goethe would agree with this, holding that Hamlet’s soul is too philosophical and it lacks ability to instinctually act on impulse, and that he is “too sensitive to avenge himself”. (Grebanier, 159) But if one only reads what goes on in the play, Hamlet could by no means be called too sensitive or passive. After the ghost appears, he ignores the fears of his friends, is strong enough to break off their restraining hold, and follows the ghastly apparition.
He is known in the kingdom as a brilliant fencer, and shows his skills in the match with Laertes, after which he is also able to cut the king and take the glass of poison from Horatio’s hand, all that while dying of deadly poison. “What then is the delay of action? Did Shakespeare make it on purpose so that he can fill the five long acts? ” (Grebanier, 115) Hamlet is very brave and impulsive prince, but the plot seems to prevent him from finding an, according to Bloom, “external model or simple solution for conduct, so that he must depend more on thinking, and less on acting”.
Bloom, 102) He realizes that killing a King is a great crime. In the seventeenth century, kings have divinity about them, and hurting a politician today cannot compare to hurting a king from that period. The proof of this is in the last scene. Even after Laertes speaks out and lets everyone that is present knows that the match and poison were only the King’s plans. To this the crowd yells, as if having an instinct to defend their king: “Treason! Treason! ” ( Shakespeare, Act V ii 312) Even if it was not punishable to assassinate the King, Hamlet would still not kill him in the church.
He might have taken the sword out, but one thing then went through his mind: “If King is murdered, the truth is murdered too, and the King Hamlet’s assassination would be impossible to prove”. “His aim is not to kill the King and get the throne. He is primarily concerned with punishing the murderer of his father, punishing him under the shelter of justice”. (Grebanier, 111- 113) So, Hamlet does delay, according to Stoll, “but with purpose to create his deed momentous when the right moment comes in it’s time”. (Stoll, 87) This is what is behind his procrastination in the church.
Until he has the proof, he must be as patient as possible. His words in the church, then, are not at all excuse for delay when he says that he must wait for the King to be in act that has no relish of salvation in it. Rather, he speaks to himself in attempt to force himself not to use violence, but to be patient. So, instead of showing a flaw in the church, Hamlet shows virtue, his prudent patience. He is now absolutely determined in his plan and all of his actions are directed towards one accomplishment, to justly punish the one who murdered his father.
The proof of this is in the last scene when he orders Horatio to let everyone know the truth, and what went on in the kingdom in the last two months. Hamlet is the only Shakespearian tragic hero who does not have a tragic flaw, which makes him an ideal hero, instead of a tragic one. By him being an ideal hero, doesn’t change the tone of the play. It’s just stating that Hamlet was a very noble and strong willed character, that didn’t have a tragic flaw. He planned everything out, and it just seems like he has a tragic flaw. Hamlet the play still is a revenge tragedy, for Hamlet never lived to see the full revenge.