Why does Hamlet delay his revenge?

Critic Kenneth Muir is right in saying that there are ‘many different explanations’ for Hamlet’s procrastination in avenging his father. Hamlet is delayed by others and delayed by himself, as he grapples with his own conscience in his quest to avenge his fathers’ ‘foul and most unnatural murder.’

Hamlet is clearly grieving for his father. In his ‘inky cloak,’ he chastises his mother for suggesting that he looks on Denmark (Claudius) as a ‘friend,’ and goes on to say that the black that he wears does indeed ‘denote’ him. He tells Gertrude that his demeanour indicates that he is grieving, but it is what is ‘within’ that is the truth, and the truth is that he is bereaved. It is clear to the audience that early on in the play, Hamlet is consumed by grief. Claudius and Gertrude appear insensitive, as Claudius declares that Hamlet’s grief is ‘unmanly.’ it is understandable that Hamlet feels isolated, as those who are supposed to care for him instead patronise him, and do not display empathy. This is in part why Hamlet delays his revenge. Hamlet must be solely focused on avenging his father, as he later realises, but in order to be focused on this task he has to make peace with his bereavement. Before he has done this he is tasked with revenge, and he delays this act so he can come to terms with his loss, and clear his mind to make way for the vengeful act. The true extent of Hamlet’s grief is revealed in his soliloquy in act one scene two, in which he hails his father as ‘excellent,’ and compares him to ‘Hyperion’ who in Greek mythology was the human embodiment of the Sun. His idolisation of his father intensifies his grief, and delays his revenge further as it becomes more difficult to come to terms with. The love that he bears for his father leads to a comparison of his father to Claudius, in which he muses that Claudius is ‘no more like my father, than I to Hercules.’ As well as his grief it appears that Hamlet has an underlying anger towards Claudius as he has replaced his father in every way, and he is not worthy of such a position. With these emotions running around in his head, it is clear that Hamlet is addled.

The Ghost confuses Hamlet further, and causes him to descend into hysteria, in which he swears to ‘remember.’ Hamlet’s initial trusting of the ghost dwindles however, as Hamlet then doubts that the Ghost even existed. It is also this doubt that delays Hamlet’s act of revenge, and it begins with Horatio’s fear that the Ghost may draw Hamlet into ‘madness.’ Hamlet tries to adopt the ideas and mindset of Horatio and accept that the Ghost ‘may be the devil.’ Hamlet assesses the idea, and concludes that this could be the case, and that he was taken advantage of due to his ‘weakness and melancholy.’ Hamlet’s moral compass can be seen here, as he does not want to kill Claudius unjustly, and at first seeks to discover whether the Ghost is truly real. The idea also displays Hamlet’s rationality and intelligence. In the Elizabethan age, ghosts were seen to be an ill omen, and Hamlet acknowledges this and thinks seriously before he allows the ghost to ‘damn’ him, if that is the intention of the Ghost. This doubt leads to a detour in the plot, through the deployment and formation of ‘The Mousetrap.’ A great deal of time is spent on the play, with the soul purpose of catching the ‘conscience of the King.’ If Hamlet was certain of the Ghosts’ existence, and had remained in such an impassioned state, it is conceivable to believe that Hamlet would have avenged his father a lot sooner. Hamlet grapples with the idea of seeming, and being, as the Ghost appears real to him, yet may not be. In the closet scene, the idea is looked into further, as only Hamlet can see the Ghost. This casts doubt over the Ghosts’ existence for the audience, yet it is too late for Hamlet to revoke on what he believes he has seen. It can be argued that, following his grief, this doubt is what truly hinders Hamlet’s revenge, as in the scene after the play, act three scene three, Hamlet appears closer to avenging his father than ever before.

After the Dumb Show Claudius finds it difficult to conceal his guilt. This culminates in a confession, which ultimately condemns the ‘rank’ actions of Claudius, and presents Hamlet with an opportunity to kill Claudius. Hamlet comes close to killing Claudius, but does not carry out the deed. After discovering that Claudius did in fact murder his father in the previous act, Hamlet seems more prepared than ever to kill him, but decides to delay again to ensure that there is ‘no relish of salvation in’t,’ ensuring that Claudius does not go to ‘heaven.’ It appears that Hamlet wants to seek justice for his father at the expense of Claudius, leading him to delay the revenge further. This delay however is different, as it is clear that Hamlet does intend to avenge his father. Hamlet appears to plan his revenge, and wants to slay Claudius in ‘rage’ or in ‘th’incestuous pleasure of his bed.’ Due to his intense planning, one can argue that Hamlet was always going to kill Claudius but could not, as he was unsure of the Ghosts existence and did not trust it’s words. Hamlet’s decision to kill Claudius when he is committing an immoral act is likened to the death of his father, who was killed in the ‘blossoms of my sin.’ Now that Hamlet believes the Ghost, he knows that without the Last Rites, Claudius’ soul too will be ‘doomed’ to burn in ‘fires.’ In Elizabethan England, the sacrament of the Last Rites was a core belief in the Roman Catholic Church, and without it, it was believed that souls could be confined to purgatory. This acts as an incentive for Hamlet, as he wishes for Claudius to be punished for murdering his father, and as he has accepted the word of the Ghost, he knows that Claudius will be. Hamlet’s true anger and feelings towards Claudius are conveyed here, and his desperation for Claudius’ suffering provides the reason for the delay in Hamlet’s revenge, as he wants to ensure that Claudius’ soul has the greatest chance of going to hell.

Hamlet’s feelings towards his mother also play a part. During the closet scene, Hamlet’s outburst of anger towards Gertrude delays his revenge in that moment, but whether this is an overarching theme in the play is questionable to an extent. Hamlet does chastise his mother especially in relation to her ‘o’erhasty marriage.’ In addition to his grief, and doubt over the Ghosts’ existence, Hamlet deals with the repercussions of his mothers’ marriage to his uncle. Hamlet’s many emotions appear to delay his revenge and make him appear indecisive, and one of these emotions is his conflicting hatred and love towards Gertrude. He is angered that she has been ‘stained,’ by Claudius, but also angered that she even accepted him, stating that she has his ‘father much offended.’ The pinnacle of Hamlet’s vexation is exposed in act three scene four, as he clearly cannot understand why Gertrude would marry a ‘murderer and a villain.’ This question is key to Hamlet, and without it’s answer, the idea poses another threat to the carrying out of revenge, as it is another obstacle Hamlet must overcome. His view and respect towards Gertrude has dramatically decreased, as she claims that her marriage vows to King Hamlet are now rendered ‘false,’ as she has married the ‘mildewed ear.’ His exasperation aimed at his mother and his confusion over her decision to marry Claudius weighs on his mind, and temporarily distracts him from obtaining his revenge, as the Ghost agrees. The Ghost tells Hamlet that the conversation has a ‘blunted purpose,’ insinuating that clearly, in this scenario, Hamlet’s release of inner anger towards his mother has directly delayed his act of revenge and is pointless.

However, when trying to decipher the reason for Hamlet’s delay in killing Claudius, one could argue that the answer is simple. Many critics agree, including Goethe, that Hamlet is of a ‘pure, noble and most moral nature’ suggesting the idea that revenge is not in the nature of Hamlet. In act two scene three, even Hamlet himself notes that he is ‘pigeon-liver’d,’ and that his actions lack ‘gall.’ He appears to be stuck in a situation of inaction, and in one instance comes close to killing Claudius, but still does not. In contrast, Laertes is certain that he will have his revenge. Upon hearing of his fathers death and witnessing the madness of his sister, Laertes swears that his ‘revenge will come.’ From act four scene five Laertes’ aim is made clear, and remains clear until the end of the play, unlike Hamlet’s wavering feelings. In this respect, it appears that Hamlet’s indecisiveness and moral compass hinder him from exacting his revenge, and give him the impression that he is not cut out for such an act, unlike Laertes. This could lead one to believe that Laertes looks at the issue of honour differently, and more seriously than Hamlet, as the reason for Laertes’ revenge seeking is because his honour ‘stands aloof.’ As Laertes feels his honour is under attack, he immediately acts to reclaim his dignity, unlike Hamlet. This could suggest that Hamlet delays his revenge as he is not the correct person to carry out such an act, and as he does not take honour so seriously enough as to kill a man for it. Although Laertes displays the positive attitude of decisiveness, one could argue that killing another man as he has threatened ones honour displays irrationality. Laertes appears to follow the ancient Roman religion of Fame. This prized family honour above all things, and as a man’s reputation was all that lived after him, it was imperative that justice was done. It fell to his son to take the law into his own hands, and Laertes can be seen to do this by agreeing to avenge his father. Laertes’ pure motivation to avenge his father is due to his damaged pride, which although Hamlet does mention this, it appears that Hamlet seeks to ensure that his father is justly avenged (ensuring that Claudius goes to hell). When discussing Hamlet in relation to Laertes, it can be said that in comparison, Hamlet delays his revenge, as he is not the correct person to carry out due to his lack of decisiveness and drive. His wish to ensure Claudius’ condemnation also delays him, whereas the issue of Laertes’ dignity being restored means that his revenge can be carried out in any situation, unlike Hamlet’s.

As Hamlet has more weighing on his mind than other characters, and has many more character traits, the reason for his delay in avenging is apparent. In contrast to Laertes, his distinct decisiveness and high regard of honour pushes him to plot to kill Hamlet, but Hamlet’s wish to ensure that Claudius suffers delays him. Shakespeare appears to be unfair to Hamlet, as if Hamlet did not have to manage his grief, along with his feelings about Claudius, Gertrude and the existence of the Ghost, his revengeful act may have occurred a lot sooner.[1]

[1] All quotes from:

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2016).

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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