I want to attribute the cause of Hamlet’s procrastination in carrying out the noble mission, top this fantastic theory, which exercised a major influence on the earlier Elizabethan revenge plays beginning from Gorboduc to The Spanish Tragedy. Of course, I do not over simplify the idea to say that Hamlet delays in taking revenge because Fate makes him do so; what I would state is that in Hamlet Shakespeare tried to give a new dimension to the traditional revenge theme by subjecting it to human consideration, philosophic speculation and ignoring the authority of Providence. It is, I think, the Renaissance, which inspired the playwright to emphasize the human viewpoint by focusing on the greatness of man –
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god ……”
But to his disillusionment he found that human endeavor is not enough; man cannot execute revenge to establish justice willingly; it is the business of Providence –
“Ay, heaven will be reveng’d of every ill.”
[Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (III: xiii)]
Shakespeare shows this human failure by picturing Hamlet as a modern man – a man of complex psychology, reflective philosophy and existentialist apathy. Hamlet is by no means a man of action or a man afraid of violent action; he is not a coward at all. He is a studious philosopher, a sensitive artist and an ardent lover enjoying all the joys of life. But the sudden death of his father devastates his sound mentality. A more violent blow is added to consummate his total mental breakdown when his beloved mother marries, with surprising haste, a man who is far inferior to his father in all respects. The result is the profound melancholia – his total indifference to life, morbid speculations and suicidal thoughts –
“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
[First Soliloquy: I: ii]
The melancholia takes possession of the greater part of his mind, which never responds to external stimuli. When, during his interview with the Ghost, he says –
“Haste me to know it, that I with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep my revenge.”
[At- I, Scene-v]
it is the lesser part of his mind that acts. The Ghost disappears giving him the mammoth task. Noteworthy is that here the desire for revenge foes not come out spontaneously, as we see in Hieronimo’s case in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, from the heart of the avenger; rather the desire is inflamed in him by a supernatural being. This lack of spontaneity plays a role in the delay which has so far escaped the notice of the critics.
In the second soliloquy the follows, Hamlet vows to wipe away all trivialities from his memory except the ‘commandment’ of the Ghost, which he fails to do. I hope to discuss this recurrent discrepancy later in detail. Earlier he says –
“Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up ………”
He feels that his mind has already became dull and inert; time and again the external urges hammer it to rouse but only in vain. So, the problem is quite internal; Hamlet has no external difficulty; even the reasons, which he himself offers arte mere excuses and, therefore, bear no weight; because we hear him saying –
“Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
[Seventh Soliloquy – IV: iv]
Many critics interpret this internal phenomenon to be his indecision, which results from his excessive speculation on the issue – its probable consequences, which delays his mission. Hamlet says –
“Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event –
….I don’t know ….”
[Seventh soliloquy: IV: iv]
Even he himself is ignorant of the exact cause of his delay.
Indeed we cannot deny that Hamlet’s philosophic thoughts carry him so fart that he visualizes the world to be full of evil and he, unknowingly, undertakes the role of a savior:
“Time is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right.”
But to his utter misfortune he fails to take the single action for which he has been deputed by the Ghost of his father. One should not, however, think that Hamlet could have taken revenge if he had avoided speculation; one of his extempore deeds in the play is the killing of Polonius, which his philosophic thinking, if he did any before the murder would never approve. What course of action then should he follow?
The most important reason for Hamlet’s delaying the action lies in his complex mind, which modern psychology has identified as ‘schizophrenia’. There is no link between his thoughts and deeds, he is a case of ‘spilt personality’. He is always driven by his impulses and irrationalities; his deeds can never be rationalized or systematized. When he thinks of doing something, he knows in the heart of his hearts that he will not do it. Two months pass by since his deputation is in surprising in action. The play confirms him of Claudius’s crime and the best opportunity is at hand, “Now could I drink hot blood.” He drops even his handy chance on the excuse that he would not send the killer to heaven. The Ghost comes again in the sermon scene and tells Hamlet –
“Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whit thy almost blunted purpose.”
But Hamlet has a very sensitive mind or a part of his mind is very conscious of his responsibility. So, when any external situation demands him that he is neglecting the duty, he indulges in severe self-reproaches –
“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”
He seems to realize that it is scrupulosity that deadens his action taking enthusiasm –
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”
He, therefore, decides to be bold and active –
“O, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth.”
But, (since we know of his disease) there is no reason to believe as we have already seen earlier, that he is going to do so. Interestingly, this is the point where he drops his enterprise; never again do we find him thinking of revenge.
Having failed, despite his “capability and godlike reason” to play the avenger, he leaves the task to be carried out by Providence. Now that he places himself in the hands of Providence; the weariness of life, the ‘to be or not to be’s are gone; no more soliloquy, no more conflict. In fact, Providence enters into the play much earlier in the killing of Polonius – “But heaven hath pleased it so.”
Hamlet leaves for England with the belief that –
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough hew them how we will.”
And the fact that he discovers the King’s commission that contained his death warrant is a mere chance.
Providence appears with more authority in the denouement of Hamlet. The Queen’s death is purely accidental. Hamlet could have died without fulfilling his mission what would happen if he drank the poison kept for him, or if Leartes poisonous attack caused him a more serious wound?
Before the fencing match begins, Hamlet tells Horatio –
“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”