The conundrum

The most obvious point about Hamlet is that Shakespeare does not give us any neat answers. Hamlet is a conundrum, and this is presumably deliberate: in a play that is full of questions, the protagonist himself poses the most difficult one.

Why does he delay his revenge?

The problem that first springs to mind is, why does Hamlet not immediately kill Claudius once he knows he is the murderer of Old Hamlet? There are various possible reasons, but three may be especially considered:

Hamlet as thinker rather than man of action

Hample thinking, played by Edwin BoothThere is throughout the play the suggestion that, unlike Fortinbras and Laertes, Hamlet is a thinker rather than a man of action (see also Structure for a discussion of the parallels and differences between these three young men).

  • Although Ophelia tells us (Act III scene i, ‘O what a noble mind …') that Hamlet has the skills of a soldier who could use a sword — as we see in the fencing match — she also stresses that he is a scholar
  • Shakespeare provides evidence of Hamlet's tendency to think deeply through the inclusion of seven soliloquies in which he discusses with himself his situation, feelings, attitudes and beliefs
  • Hamlet has no soliloquies in Act V, after his return from England, when some critics feel that we see a changed and more determined Hamlet.
More on the soliloquies: It is always useful to notice which characters are NOT given any soliloquies, and to consider why — for example, we have no insight into Gertrude's feelings and motives.
  • Hamlet obviously values thought and study, and we learn that he ‘walks four hours together / Here in the lobby'; when he enters, he is reading
  • In Hamlet's first conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he describes mankind as ‘noble in reason … infinite in faculties'
  • In Hamlet's soliloquy in Act IV scene iv, he stresses the importance of this gift of reason:
‘Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus'd.'

Given this confirmed belief in the importance of thought, it is unsurprising that Hamlet should think first and act later

Hamlet's religious beliefs

Hamlet's strong belief in God, God's laws and God-given justice makes him different from Laertes when contemplating revenge:

  • In his first soliloquy in Act II scene ii, Hamlet makes it clear that, although he would like to commit suicide, he believes that this would be sinful:
‘Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!'
  • His sense that God's laws matter suggests that his cry of ‘O God! God!' is a real cry to the ‘Everlasting' lawgiver, and not an idle blasphemy
  • His words are full of references to God, heaven and hell, for example, from the same speech: ‘Heaven and earth, must I remember?'
  • Shortly afterwards he reveals that he believes firmly in an after-life when he says to Horatio: ‘Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven / Or ever I had seen that day.'
  • Hamlet's decision not to kill the praying Claudius is based entirely on his belief in divine judgement and mercy. (See Big ideas: Judgement.)

Given these beliefs, it is not surprising that, in spite of his initial cry for vengeance when he hears the Ghost's story, Hamlet soon starts to consider further the question of whether revenge is acceptable.

It is not until Act V that we see him reach the conclusion that it is the lesser of two evils— the greater is to leave such a man as Claudius with the possibility of further acts of wickedness:

‘Doth it not, think thee, stand me now upon —
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother,
Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such coz'nage — is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?'

Oedipus complex

Hamlet and GertrudeShakespeare hints at another reason for Hamlet's delay. Some critics feel that Hamlet's feelings for Gertrude are more those of a lover than a son — the so-called Oedipus complex.

More on the Oedipus complex: The Oedipus complex describes a psychological state of sexual attraction for one's mother, named after a character in Greek drama who unwittingly marries his own mother.

It is possible to make a good case to argue that Hamlet is more concerned about his mother's remarriage than about his father's murder:

  • Shakespeare shows us Hamlet's deep distress in Act I scene ii. Although clearly in mourning for his father, it is on his feelings of repulsion at Gertrude's behaviour in remarrying so fast, and marrying such a man as Claudius, that his soliloquy focuses:
But two months dead — nay, not so much, not two ...
Let me not think on't — Frailty, thy name is woman —
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body …
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer.'
  • In ‘The Mousetrap' in Act III, all the dialogue we hear is a discussion between the Player King and Queen about second marriage (there are no words spoken about the King's murder) and there are some bitter lines which must surely be aimed at Gertrude:
‘Such love must needs be treason in my breast.
In second husband let me be accurst;
None wed the second but who kill'd the first.'
‘I do believe you think what now you speak:
But what we do determine, oft we break ...
So think thou wilt no second husband wed,
But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.'
  • Shakespeare gives Hamlet a long and significant interview with Gertrude which focuses on her sexual relationship with Claudius rather than on the murder of Old Hamlet (even after the death of Polonius). In modern theatrical productions, Hamlet's sexual interest in his own mother is often played quite explicitly, and his words certainly suggest a physical disgust at a scene he has imagined:
'Nay, but to live
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!'
  • Hamlet finally stabs Claudius when Laertes has revealed the plot to poison Hamlet and that ‘the King's to blame'. But it is also immediately following the revelation by Gertrude that she is dying from the poisoned drink and Laertes' confirmation that ‘thy mother's poisoned'. It is in fact Gertrude's death rather than Old Hamlet's or even Hamlet's own (which he knows will happen very shortly) which finally gives him the motive to take revenge on Claudius?

Hamlet and identity

Who is Hamlet?

Another problematic aspect of Hamlet which runs through the play is how he sees himself and his identity, particularly in relation to others. The opening question of the play — ‘Who's there?' — seems to have an especial resonance when applied to Hamlet.

The outsider

When we first see him he clearly feels an outsider, dressed in mourning black whilst others celebrate the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. Claudius attempts to integrate Hamlet into a new role within the family: ‘My cousin [meaning ‘close relative'] Hamlet, and my son'.

Using a pun, Hamlet immediately rejects this — ‘I am too much i' th' sun' — but from then on we see how conscious he is of his anomalous position:

  • as a Prince who has not, as he expected, followed his father to become king
  • within his family — a strong sense of filial duty to his father (a characteristic he shares with Laertes, Ophelia and Fortinbras) yet confused about his mother's remarriage.

What is 'family'?

  • To Guildenstern, Hamlet describes himself as having an ‘uncle-father and aunt-mother' (Act II scene ii)
  • When Gertrude (Act III scene iv) tells him that he has ‘Thy father much offended', she means Claudius, but Hamlet's reply — ‘Mother, you have my father much offended' — refers to Old Hamlet
  • ‘You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife', he tells her, ‘And — would it were not so! — you are my mother.'
  • Leaving Elsinore for England (Act IV scene iii), Hamlet says to Claudius, ‘Farewell, dear mother.' When Claudius corrects him — ‘Thy loving father, Hamlet' — Hamlet retorts: ‘My mother. Father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother.'

Self discovery

It is not until his return, in Act V scene i, that Hamlet seems sure of who he is and should be: ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane!'

Moral or corrupt?

Good or evil?

Critics disagree whether Hamlet is morally good or corrupt:

‘an unweeded garden
That grows to seed: things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.'
  • Other critics feel that Hamlet himself is corrupted by the court, and cite his killing of Polonius, and his apparent unconcern at the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as evidence of this.

Moral and frail

Hamlet himself is aware that he can be simultaneously both moral and full of human frailty:

  • He knows that all humans have the capacity to be both close to angels and yet corrupt and subject to mortality
  • He explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Act III scene ii):
‘What a piece of work is a man ... in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god … and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?'
  • To Ophelia (Act III scene i) he says:
‘I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me … What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?'
  • He may both punish vice in the court and be punished for his own part in it, as he tells his mother (Act III scene iv):
‘Once more, good night,
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.'

Mad or sane?

Acting mad

Does Hamlet really go mad?

  • In Act I scene v he tells Horatio and Marcellus that ‘I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on'
  • The next we hear of him is Ophelia's report that he has appeared in her closet ‘with his doublet all unbrac'd,/ No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd ... And with a look so piteous in purport/ As if he had been loosed out of hell'
  • This seems to confirm that he has begun to put his plan into practice; but we cannot be sure — notice that Shakespeare deliberately does not let us see this scene, or hear Hamlet's version of it. We are left guessing.

The truthful fool

Hamlet next makes some very ambiguous comments to Polonius:

  • Polonius interprets him as being ‘far gone', and mad for Ophelia's love, BUT
  • Polonius concedes that ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in't'
  • Hamlet's parting shot — ‘These tedious old fools' — shows him to be in full command of his sense.

Indeed, many of Hamlet's comments are full of humour, making us laugh with him satirically at the false flattery of Polonius or, in Act IV scene iii, at the hypocrisy of Claudius.

More on Hamlet as fool: Some critics see Hamlet as having a role akin to that of King Lear's Fool, whose apparent madness conceals many shrewd attacks on court behaviour.

It is interesting to note how both in Hamlet's witticisms and in the graveyard scene Shakespeare uses comedy as a means of heightening the underlying tragedy, as he does, for example, with the Porter's scene in Macbeth.

Comic depressive

Although Hamlet responds to him with witty replies, Polonius is convinced that Hamlet has the classic symptoms of melancholy (depression, lack of interest in the world around, gloomy thoughts) leading to madness:

‘He, repelled …
Fell into a sadness, thence into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and by this declension,
Into the madness wherein he now raves.'
Gertrude agrees: ‘It may be, very like.'

But Claudius is more sceptical, especially after he has witnessed Hamlet's interview with Ophelia:

‘Love? His affections do not that way tend,
Nor what he spoke, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood.'

Actors, directors and audiences will have to decide for themselves which viewpoint they agree with.