An excerpt from Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet
by Kenneth Chan
Hamlet is finally alone, and the stage is set for the soliloquy that gave rise to one of the most persistent mysteries in literature: Why does Hamlet delay his revenge?
Hamlet Ay, so, God buy you. Now I am alone.
Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit1
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,2
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
A dull and muddy-mettled3 rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams,4 unpregnant5 of my cause,
And can say nothing–no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me a villain, breaks my pate across,
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,
Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’th’throat
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
Ha, ‘swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ha’fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,6
A scullion!7 Fie upon’t! Foh!
This is Hamlet’s first long soliloquy chiding himself for his delay in wreaking vengeance. The reason for the delay is of utmost importance because the meaning of the play revolves around it. It is therefore crucial to study it closely.
The reason for Hamlet’s delay has haunted critics for four centuries. Different authors have presented differing reasons for the delay, which, in itself, raises another question concerning this puzzling aspect of the play: Why does Shakespeare give so much prominence to the delay without clearly presenting the reason for it? The answer helps point us toward Shakespeare’s own reason for Hamlet’s delay.
We must keep two things in mind. First, Shakespeare makes it clear that Hamlet is acutely aware of a delay. Second, Shakespeare also makes it clear that Hamlet himself is not sure why he delays. There is no need for Shakespeare to emphasize these two things unless he is making a point. What is that point?
Let us first look at some of the more prominent reasons on offer for Hamlet’s delay. One solution claims that there is actually no delay on Hamlet’s part, or that any delay is due to external difficulties. The truth is that we might not have noticed the delay if Hamlet himself had not brought it to our attention. Shakespeare stresses the point that Hamlet is delaying. Thus, it is meaningless to argue that Hamlet is not responsible for the delay when Shakespeare clearly wants us to see that he is.
In the eighteenth century, critics suggested that the delay is a necessary plot device to extend the action. However, this suggestion does not fit the facts, since there would then be no reason for Shakespeare to make the delay so conspicuous by having Hamlet bemoan it over two long soliloquies.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Goethe proposed that Shakespeare means, in Hamlet, to “represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it.”8 In his words, “A lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away.” Thus Goethe painted the picture of a tender, sensitive youth who could not bring himself to perform the act of vengeance upon his uncle. However, even if Hamlet had this sweet nature before receiving the terrible mandate from the ghost, it hardly describes the transformed Hamlet we see in the play. We find instead a Hamlet who can be terrible and ruthless in his actions, well depicted in his callous taunting remarks after he accidentally kills Polonius and in his offhand manner when relating how he dispatches his former school friends to their untimely deaths. As A. C. Bradley puts it: “If the sentimental Hamlet had crossed him, he would have hurled him from his path with one sweep of the arm.”
In the nineteenth century, the romantics A. W. Schlegel9 and S. T. Coleridge10 offered the solution that Hamlet is rendered incapable of action because of his tendency to philosophize too much. Taking the cue from his own words, they proposed that Hamlet’s “native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” According to Coleridge, Hamlet had “great, enormous, intellectual activity, and a consequent proportionate aversion to real action.” Coleridge concluded that “Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existence.”
The problem with this argument is that Laertes behaves in exactly the opposite way to Hamlet, and compared to Hamlet, Laertes fares even worse. Laertes virtually acts without forethought and becomes a naïve and willing tool of Claudius, the villain himself. Thus, to behave in this manner can hardly be the message that Shakespeare wishes to impart. Also, the behavior of Hamlet in rushing headlong against all restraints to follow a beckoning ghost; in rashly running his rapier through Polonius hiding behind the arras; in boldly boarding the pirate ship in the sea battle; and in leaping into a grave to grapple with Laertes, hardly fits the description of one with an aversion to real action.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, A. C. Bradley proposed another reason for the delay in his Shakespearean Tragedy .11 Bradley argued that Hamlet’s delay is the result of a melancholic state of mind, brought on by the death of his father and the hasty remarriage of his mother. While we may accept that a depressive state of mind causes Hamlet’s inaction, this idea becomes highly suspect when Bradley stated that Hamlet’s melancholia accounts for his energy as well.
Hamlet certainly gives much evidence of energy in his sharp and witty sallies, in his obvious interest in the art of the traveling actors, in his dramatic recitation of the speech on Pyrrhus, in his clever arrangement of the play scene to trap Claudius, and in the way he engineered the demise of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These actions are hardly characteristic of depression. Also, most of these energetic actions are rationally motivated and some even carefully schemed out. If Hamlet is capable of carrying out such actions, he is certainly capable of exacting revenge on his uncle. So if Shakespeare intends melancholy to be the reason for Hamlet’s delay, he certainly does a bad job of portraying it; furthermore, he really has no message at all to deliver in the play.
Another reason offered for Hamlet’s delay was the psychoanalytical one, first suggested by Freud, the originator of psychoanalysis. According to this theory, Hamlet is rendered incapable of acting against Claudius because of a repressed Oedipus complex; he restrains his actions because he has a subconscious desire to replace his father and lie with his mother. However, a strong argument can be made against this proposal, for such an intent on Shakespeare’s part would have been totally lost on the Elizabethan audience. They certainly did not have the benefit of Freud’s theories to rely on, and it would have required Shakespeare to make this reason for the delay a lot clearer than he did. The fact that Shakespeare did not do so reinforces the argument against this proposal.
In fact, it was because T. S. Eliot12 agreed with such a psychoanalytical reason for Hamlet’s delay that he called the play an “artistic failure,” and Shakespeare would certainly seem to have failed miserably in this sense if this was his reason for Hamlet’s delay. Given Shakespeare’s artistic ability, it instead suggests that Eliot’s famous remark actually argues against such a psychoanalytical reason for the delay. Moreover, it is no help to say that Shakespeare may have subconsciously implanted the concept into the play, because it then becomes an invalid explanation for his clear intent to make the delay a prominent issue.
So what was Shakespeare’s reason for having Hamlet so conspicuously chide himself for the delay and yet not understand why he was delaying? We have to come back to the one reason that would, at least, have occurred to the Elizabethan audience: that there was a question of immorality in seeking revenge. Herman Ulrici raised this issue in the nineteenth century, but critics neglected it largely because A. C. Bradley had argued so effectively against conscience being the reason for the delay.
Since Hamlet himself is not aware of the reason for the delay, it is not conscience taken in its usual form that we are considering. It is, instead, a more deepseated inner voice that causes him to hesitate, a voice that Hamlet fails to bring explicitly to the surface of his consciousness. Bradley, however, also objected to this deeper conscience as the reason for the delay. Why, he asked, if this answers to Shakespeare’s meaning, did he then conceal that meaning until the last Act? However, this objection becomes invalid once we fully understand Shakespeare’s reason for the delay and why he highlighted it.
Shakespeare gives prominence to the delay because he wants to emphasize that Hamlet’s course of action is morally dubious. Also, Shakespeare does not try to conceal this meaning until the end; he actually took great pains to suggest it, right from the beginning of the play. He could not, however, allow Hamlet to state it explicitly for a very good reason. If Hamlet had recognized the cause of his delay, it would have altered the course of the action and defeated Shakespeare’s main purpose in the play.
Shakespeare’s aim is not to have Hamlet intellectually argue out the question of whether or not it is immoral to wreak vengeance. His intention is to have the audience find the answer to this question in the experience of the entire play, in its totality. This is Shakespeare’s method of conveying his message, and it is the most effective way to do so. Shakespeare makes us live through it so that we learn through our emotional involvement and our experience of it.
If Hamlet had recognized intellectually that a moral issue was causing his delay, he would certainly have argued it out with himself. It would have been completely out of character for him not to do so. But to have him conduct an intellectual debate on the issue would have totally defeated Shakespeare’s purpose, which was to show and not merely tell, why seeking revenge is a moral disaster.
To do that, Shakespeare needs Hamlet to follow the course of action in the play. If Hamlet had debated the moral issue with himself, he would either conclude that it is morally acceptable, which would contradict what Shakespeare wanted to convey, or he would conclude that it is morally wrong and abandon his course of vengeance. Since neither alternative is conducive to Shakespeare’s plan, he allows Hamlet to delay without explicitly debating the moral issue.
And so, Shakespeare has Hamlet make the same mistake that Brutus makes in Julius Caesar ; this is the reason Julius Caesar is mentioned on three separate occasions in Hamlet . Like Brutus, Hamlet fails to align himself with the divine and does not flow with the Tao. Hamlet ignores his inner voice, his deep conscience telling him that his course of action is wrong, that seeking vengeance amounts to taking the dark path to moral destruction. His inner promptings do cause him to delay, but he does not recognize why, so he tragically follows the route to spiritual desecration. Now Shakespeare is able to achieve his purpose. By the dramatic portrayal of Hamlet’s transformation along this terrible path of vengeance, Shakespeare forces his audience to experience why revenge is wrong.
Even at this stage of the play, Shakespeare has taken great pains to suggest that there is something deeply wrong with revenge. He reminds us many times that the ghost is not an enlightened being and that its counsel is suspect. He impresses upon us the diabolical nature of the ghost’s mandate through the eerie swearing ritual at the end of Act I. He illustrates the effect of this mandate on Hamlet’s mind–the transformation of his world into a sinister and dark prison. He also creates the experience of the horror of vengeance through the terrifying depiction of the avenger in the Trojan War speech.
Now, by placing Hamlet’s self-criticism for his delay immediately after this recitation, Shakespeare again suggests that Hamlet has good reason to hesitate. In fact, the entire play serves to impress upon us the error of revenge. It demonstrates why revenge is wrong and makes us experience it. Thus, Hamlet is far from being an artistic failure; it is close to being an artistic miracle.
Let us now examine more closely Hamlet’s first soliloquy on his delay. He begins by contrasting the passion of the player in his speech with his own lack of positive action and chides himself for it. There is much irony in this attitude. First, the performer is only acting. His passion is conjured up without any actual cause and is merely an outer image made to fit what is conventionally expected. Thus Hamlet is railing over mere appearance.
Also, the absence of a real motive for the actor’s passion dramatically depicts that emotional fervor can arise in the absence of rational cause. This fact reminds us that the thirst for vengeance results mainly from passion, not reason. We know that revenge cannot undo the harm already inflicted and is actually far more likely to aggravate it. Hamlet himself ironically emphasizes this problem of irrational passion later: “Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of hearts…” It is the tragedy of Hamlet that he often does not heed his own wise words.
Another irony lies in the fact that the passion of the actor is that of compassion for Hecuba, whose suffering has been inflicted by none other than an avenger. Hamlet’s self-reproach for his delay in seeking vengeance, therefore, is for a lack of what caused Hecuba’s anguish in the first place. Thus, Hamlet uses a totally inappropriate cue for chiding himself over the delay. By this deep irony, Shakespeare hints at the immoral nature of revenge.
The soliloquy then continues with Hamlet wondering whether he is a coward for delaying his act of vengeance. From his manner of confronting the ghost and his reputation as a model soldier, we know, however, that Hamlet does not lack courage. Thus, Shakespeare’s aim here is to show that Hamlet himself is unsure why he delays.
The soliloquy now ends with the hint that Hamlet doubts whether taking revenge on his uncle is the proper course of action. Unfortunately and tragically, he only admits to doubts on the ghost’s honesty, not to doubts on the morality of vengeance.
Hamlet About, my brains. I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent13 him to the quick. If he but blench,14
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative15 than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
Hamlet thus prepares to spring his “mouse-trap” on the King. He follows the path of vengeance with disastrous consequences. Now we can experience for ourselves why revenge is wrong.
1 conceit imagination
2 free innocent, free from guilt
3 muddy-mettled dull-spirited
4 John-a-dreams a dreaming person
5 unpregnant not quickened to action
6 drab prostitute
7 scullion the lowest of kitchen servants, noted for foul language
8 From Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1795), translated by Thomas Carlyle.
9 See Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature by Augustus William Schlegel (1808), translated by John Black (London, 1846).
10 See Coleridge’s Shakespearean Criticism , ed. Thomas M. Raysor (London: Constable, 1930).
11. Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley (Macmillan & Co., 1904).
12 See “Hamlet and His Problems” from Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950).
13 tent probe
14 blench flinch
15 relative closely related