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  • Subject area(s): English Literature
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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Bidden by the ghost of his father to ‘revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ (Shakespeare 1.5) by his brother, Claudius, Hamlet swears to hastily avenge his father’s death. He then spends the rest of the play failing to fulfill this promise, even when the guilt of his uncle is clear as day. However, it is not so simple for Hamlet, who is confronted with a collection of difficulties and is in emotional stress. Hamlets inner struggle has been clearly stated in his famous soliloquy: whether it is "nobler in the mind to suffer… or to take arms,” to be passive or to fight against the "sea of troubles" in which Hamlet finds himself (Shakespeare 3.1). Although Hamlet believes it is his obligation to avenge his father’s death, he delays his action because deep down he is a moral individual who is fearful of death, opposed to murder, and aware of the corrupt times in which he is living.

During the initial scenes of the play, Hamlet is in the most tormenting circumstances imaginable. He is still grief-stricken from his father’s sudden demise, and his mother marries his uncle within a month of the King’s death, who in turn robs Hamlet of the throne. He just discovered from the ghost of his father that his uncle, Claudius, is responsible for all of it. There is a reasonable likelihood that Claudius will soon attempt to murder the proper heir, Hamlet. Faced with an imminent threat to his life and a promise to his deceased father, Hamlet must kill Claudius as soon as possible, but he is not sure if it is the right thing to do morally. He is faced with two feasible options; both wrong, or possibly both right (Javed).

Hamlet has the right to feel obliged to get revenge on King Claudius.  He sees it as his duty as his father’s son. While revenge is damnable, something is crooked in the state of Denmark. In the words of English Literature professor Kiernan Ryan, “By Act III it is clear to the audience at least that Claudius is a villain; by Act IV Claudius is plotting to murder Hamlet, and most of the court is spying on most of the rest of the court. ‘The time is out of joint,’ and Hamlet believes, as might any Renaissance prince, that he ‘was born to set it right’ (Shakespeare 1.5.188-189).” If he went ahead and killed Claudius at his first opportunity, the tragedy wouldn’t have occurred and the only corpse left at the end would have been his uncle’s. However, Hamlet’s conscience inhibited his immediate action because he dreaded the repercussions.

As Claudius is King of Denmark, opposition to him is considered treason, and Hamlet risks his own death in his plot against him. Hamlet doesn’t consider this entirely bad, and he even contemplates suicide (Belsey). However, the uncertainty of what happens after death is frightening to Hamlet. Catherine Belsey addresses this issue in her journal article, “The Case of Hamlet’s Conscience”.  She writes:

The central problem is not in Hamlet's situation but in his character: the tender, delicate, sensitive prince, unequal to the sacred duty of revenge, endlessly inventing excuses to escape from the harsh reality of action. Thus Hamlet toys in his melancholy with the notion of suicide, but he is incapable even of that…  Conscience forbids suicide to wretches, however intolerable their lives, and also forbids a murder which is simultaneously regicide.

Thus, Hamlet is afraid of the consequences, especially if they involve his death. He is caught between doing nothing and allowing King Claudius to get away with his actions or getting revenge by killing his uncle and potentially facing death.

While part of Hamlet is telling him retaliate against his father’s murder, he also feels it is immoral to answer a murder with another murder. Kiernan Ryan states that killing his uncle “would mean becoming a clone of Claudius, the mirror-image of his father’s murderer, and believing that taking revenge is enough to right the wrong and settle the matter.” He would then become a killer as well, and no real benefits would arise. Hamlet recognizes the ‘time is out of joint’ (Shakespeare 1.5.188), but he believes it cannot be settled by disposing of Claudius, who is simply a product of the cruel period in which Hamlet finds himself (Ryan). Mankind would justify him if he slew the king; thus, it is himself that he cannot satisfy by doing the deed, no matter how impelling the motives may be (Snider). Hamlet’s conscience impedes his action, and he will not allow himself to kill Claudius.

Hamlet begins to shrink from the role forced upon him by his deceased father. The ghost exploits Hamlet to do his dirty work, and Hamlet, as a dutiful sun, feels compelled to carry out his father’s orders.  Hamlet soon realizes that he is playing the cliché role of the righteous avenging son—and failing. Shakespeare makes this point by juxtaposing Hamlet with Fortinbras and Laertes. They too lost their fathers and are determined to avenge their murders, yet neither of them have a problem doing so (Ryan). Thus, it is Hamlet alone who is miscast a role by the world around him and refuses to go along with it. His morality takes over and prevents him from murdering King Claudius.

Hamlet believes that getting revenge will not settle the matter because the source of his conflict is greater than his uncle’s villainy. Kiernan Ryan remarks, “What if Hamlet’s tormented resistance to performing the role of revenger expresses a justified rejection of a whole way of life, whose corruption, injustice and inhumanity he now sees clearly and rightly finds intolerable?” Hamlet does not see a point in killing Claudius if it does not change the fact that he will still be trapped in the “prison” that is Denmark (Shakespeare 2.2.247). Hamlet realizes the entire kingdom is inherently unjust, and with no adequate choice, he stalls his action.

When he at last kills Claudius, it is out of anger on the spur of the moment. Therefore, the play really isn’t about a successful vengeance of a murder; that was taken care of in a matter of seconds during the final scene. Instead, the play is concerned with Hamlets inner struggle to take action and the validity of revenge. While Hamlet acknowledges that it is his sacred duty to avenge his father’s killing, he also realizes the iniquity of murder (Snider). He cannot subordinate these two equally painful principles of action, and they both fight for superiority in his mind.

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