Why Does Hamlet Hesitate To Kill Claudius
How far do you agree that Hamlet’s hesitation to kill Claudius in Act Three is underpinned by religious reasons? Of all the different motives Shakespeare presents for Hamlet’s lack of action, which seems to be the most important?
Critics have attempted to explain Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father for centuries and the most relevant scene to illustrate Hamlet’s hesitation is in Act Three when Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius but doesn’t. Hamlet says at the time that he does
“this same villain send to heaven.”
It could be said that Hamlet is deliberately delaying his revenge for fear of actually committing it. However, religion was a focal part of people’s lives at the time the play was set and at the time it was written, one would be justified in claiming that Hamlet genuinely didn’t want to kill Claudius while he was praying to prevent him from going to heaven.
Furthermore, it is possible to propose that Shakespeare merely uses this scene to provoke irritation and consequently suspense from the audience. If Hamlet wasn’t given this opportunity to kill Claudius we would have not this insight into Hamlet’s indecisiveness, possible cowardice and inability to kill Claudius in cold blood. It is probable to suggest that through this soliloquy we are shown that Hamlet’s initial passion for revenge after the Ghost’s visitation has faded as the play progresses to merely thinking about killing Claudius.
This scene is in fact a visual representation of Hamlet’s problem throughout the play, this focal problem is open to two different interpretations: either Hamlet has the ability and passion to kill Claudius but he doesn’t have the right time to do it, or Hamlet doesn’t have the self-assurance and courage to do it even when an opportunity is presented to him. It seems unlikely that Hamlet lacks the self-assurance and certainty of Claudius’ guilt as this scene is directly after the scene in which Claudius is overcome with guilt when Hamlet senior’s murder is played out before him. Hamlet discusses Claudius’ reaction to the play with Horatio and says:
“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.”
In other words, he believes the ghost’s accusation. This leaves Hamlet as being a coward or as a fervent revenger without opportunity.
Another interesting thing that happens at this part of the play is that the Player King unintentionally refers to Hamlet’s inaction:
“What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.”
The Player seems to be saying that Hamlet only made his pledge to avenge his father on the spur of the moment when he was blinded by passion and that now that immediacy of the ghost’s accusation has faded he lacks conviction.
Shakespeare sprinkles subtle lines alluding to Hamlet’s apparent cowardice and failure as a classical revenger. In addition to this, Shakespeare may intentionally delay Hamlet’s revenge and remove emphasis from his passion to break the trend of morally blind, obsessive, psychopathic avengers as traditionally depicted in plays such as “The Spanish Tragedy”.
It is ironic that Hamlet doesn’t kill the King whilst he is praying because before Hamlet enters Claudius reveals in his soliloquy how useless he feels that his prayer of repentance is:
“but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ’Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be…”
If Claudius thinks that his prayer of repentance is useless it shouldn’t be an excuse for Hamlet not to kill him, it seems to the audience that it only takes a very small thing to prevent Hamlet from taking his revenge, this enforces the idea of Hamlet intentionally delaying his revenge, although in this case he is not to know.
To fully evaluate Hamlet’s motives for revenge one must look at other scenes within the play. Shakespeare often puts in other hints towards Hamlet’s delay of revenge. Laertes is often thought of as a foil to Hamlet, when we are unsure about a facet of Hamlet’s character we can often look to Laertes to reveal it. It is clear that Laertes is a much more active revenger than Hamlet however, the King talks to Laertes in act four scene seven and tries to persuade him into joining forces with him against Hamlet and he says that the human will is subject to: “abatements and delays”. It is strange to hear this from Claudius because it is like he is justifying Hamlet’s delay in killing him, however this just goes to show how Shakespeare adds odd intricacies and confusions to his plays which makes them all the more interesting.
Earlier on in the play, in act two scene two, Hamlet is spied upon by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who were previously his friends and the King allows Fortinbras to march his forces across Denmark. Hamlet despairs of both of these events and delivers a self-abusive soliloquy to the audience. In this soliloquy Hamlet appears to be overcome by his emotions and he criticizes himself for not having avenged his father yet. In this soliloquy Hamlet says himself that he is a coward:
“But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall”
However, it is still not clear that it is cowardice that is holding Hamlet back because he aspires to set up the play mirroring his father’s murder and watch Claudius’ reaction, one can infer from this that it is uncertainty about Claudius’ guilt that is delaying his revenge. In addition to this Hamlet doubts the ghost’s integrity:
“The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil..”
This reinforces the idea that Hamlet is not actually a coward but is merely uncertain about his uncle’s guilt.
Shakespeare goes on to illustrate that Hamlet isn’t a coward in two further situations. Firstly, Hamlet is fully prepared to kill Claudius in act three scene four, unfortunately, he kills Polonius because he acts so impulsively. Nevertheless, this still proves that Hamlet is not lacking in the courage he merely needs the right situation to arise. Secondly, Hamlet boards the pirate ship one handedly showing incredible valour, either that or complete lack of concern for his own life.
In act four scene four Hamlet delivers another soliloquy attempting to explain his delay in revenge. This soliloquy is a lot less self-abusive. We see here that Hamlet has regained control of his emotions and can take an objective look at the situation he is in. Hamlet says to the audience that he hasn’t had the chance to kill the King and this is why he hasn’t done it:
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge.”
Although it is evident that Hamlet is a lot more in control of his emotions now, it is possible to say that this new found logic and cool-mindedness may have stripped Hamlet of the blind passion that is needed to kill the King. It is only in a rage that Hamlet kills Polonius, it seems that Hamlet doesn’t have the ability to kill the King in cold blood.
However, it is important to consider that regicide, in Elizabethan times, would certainly lead to Hamlet’s death. Also, from a practical point of view, Claudius would have been constantly surrounded by guards making it very hard for Hamlet to even have the cold-blooded opportunity. Shakespeare gives Hamlet the ability to kill Claudius through ‘practicing’ with Polonius and later on cold-bloodedly (but indirectly) killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It has been said by numerous critics that Hamlet’s delay in revenge is one of the ‘biggest red herrings in the history of literature’. Furthermore, Shakespeare proves to us his genius as a playwright through Hamlet’s delay. Surely the most human thing to do when confronted by a ghost and asked to kill a King is to delay, look for proof, as Hamlet does with The Mousetrap (another name for the staged version of old Hamlet’s murder). Furthermore, who can blame Hamlet for not having the courage to kill the King in cold blood immediately, it is essentially committing suicide.
In conclusion, I think that Hamlet has numerous reasons for his delay in revenge. Furthermore, it is definitely probable to suggest that Hamlet’s choice not to kill the King whilst he is praying is heavily ‘underpinned’ by religious reasons, as I have already mentioned religion was a very important part of people’s lives at the time. There are several other reasons why Hamlet didn’t kill Claudius in Act III Scene III, which Hamlet reveals himself in his soliloquies. I think it is fair to say that the most valid reason for Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father is the lack of the right situation. This is most apparent when Hamlet kills Polonius, showing that he has the ability and the courage to kill Claudius. However, the right situation took so long to arise because it must involve Hamlet being in the right, hot-blooded, passionate state of mind as well as Claudius being in the right situation.
York Notes – Hamlet
Arden Shakespeare – Harold Jenkins commentary