Hamlet has haunted both readers and critics for centuries by his infinite variety of moods and his inscrutable behavior. Hamlet is a man who defies strict definition or any linear character study.
There is not one Hamlet- there are several Hamlet face us in the play. Hamlet, the romantic lover, writes love letters to Ophelia. A Hamlet philosophizes about “To be or not to be.” Again there is Hamlet, who, in his fit of passion, kills Polonius or jumps into Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet, the bereaved son, the dejected lover, a loving genius planning and staging the play within the play. All the Hamlets are equally valid, but Hamlet remains an enigma; we do not entirely understand him. Neither do the other characters understand what is going on in his soul?
Understanding Hamlet’s problem is the main problem in the play.
Hamlet’s Excessive Delay in Taking His Revenge
The most puzzling problem is Hamlet’s inordinate delay in executing the task of revenge that his father’s ghost imposed upon him.
Hamlet procrastinates so that his entire plan of revenge becomes futile because Claudius gets the upper hand in the situation. Hamlet gets caught in the criminal conspiracies by the evil king and runs into his tragic doom.
So, the question arises, why does Hamlet delay so much? Critics have been trying to find the answer for centuries.
Several explanations have been put forward to account for Hamlet’s delay. Some people have tried to say that Hamlet’s delay was due to the external difficulties he could not get at the king because Swiss guards surrounded him.
Moreover, if he had accused the king publicly of the murder, he would have nothing to prove the charge except a ghost story. In that case, the court would have considered him mad and put him into prison. But this view is not well-grounded because Hamlet never refers to their difficulties as severe impediments to his task of revenge.
Critics Accused Hamlet of Being Sensitive
The romantic critics have characterized Hamlet as a sensitive individual. According to them, Hamlet is a man of philosophical mind and refined sensibility, so the task of shedding blood is repulsive to him.
Therefore, although he revolves around killing his father’s killer, he finds the actual task of putting the blade into Claudius a disgusting and distasteful act. But such a romantic picture of Hamlet is far from true because Hamlet never says that he hates killing.
In reality, Hamlet does kill Polonius without much remorse and sends his school friend Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sure death.
Bradley describes Hamlet’s problem of irresolution as the product of his profound melancholy caused by some particular circumstances. His mother’s hasty remarriage has shocked him so much that he is temporarily overwhelmed by deep grief and melancholy.
Before this event, Hamlet was a sprightly young man. As Ophelia testifies, Hamlet was the courtier’s soldier, scholar’s eye, tongue, and sword—
“the expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and mold of form.”Hamlet, Shakespeare
Hamlet Considers Life Meaningless in His Grief
Hamlet, whom we see in the first soliloquy, is a melancholic and morose person who is tired of life and thinks that life is not worth perpetuating. His thought process is already tainted. He has a very colored vision of the world, but the world is full of violence and festering diseases. Even his grief for a dead father is disproportionate and excessive.
Hamlet’s grief is more significant than what is expressed in words. It seems that a world’s grief has seized Hamlet. The most puzzling thing about his character is that we do not know why.
This is what led T.S Eliot to say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure because Shakespeare could supply “The objective co-relative of Hamlet’s emotions.”
Hamlet Is Engrossed in Himself with Illusions
The irony is that Hamlet is in pursuit of himself. He also does not understand his feelings and actions correctly. Hamlet seems to be a victim of illusions. His mental faculties create these illusions, like his idealism, his tendency to generalize, and his perfectionism.
Hamlet is an idealist; he has an ideal conception of the world, love, official bondage, etc. The action of his mother destroys his world of idealism. Hamlet generalizes the frailty of his mother into a notion of feminine frailty:
“Frailty thy name is a woman.”Hamlet, Shakespeare
Hamlet Exeggerrates World’s Condition with Claudius’ Influence
Hamlet generalizes that the world is peopled with Claudius by seeing one Claudius. This habit of thought ultimately makes Hamlet’s task of revenge massive and unmanageable.
When Hamlet introspects on revenge, he thinks that killing one Claudius could not solve the problem because the whole world is peopled with villains. But we know that the ghost’s order was straightforward to kill one Claudius. Even so, Hamlet has, using his vicious imagination, magnified the task out of all proportions.
His illusion and imperfection cause Hamlet’s delay. Hamlet gets an opportunity to kill Claudius while the king is in prayer. But as a sudden flash, Hamlet thinks that killing Claudius now could not be perfect revenge because he will go to heaven if he kills him now.
Hamlet puts up his sword, telling himself that he would wait for a better opportunity to carry out his revenge. Hamlet’s failure to take his revenge at this crucial point seals his fate.
The readers find Hamlet puzzled by himself. He is eventually destroyed because of his irresolution only with death.
The tragic tension in his mind between “To be or not to be” is finally resolved.