Hamlet and the Problem of Inaction

From the lecture series: Shakespeare—The Word and the Action

By Peter Saccio, Ph.D., Dartmouth College

Hamlet is a young prince whose father has been murdered, who has difficulty finding an appropriate response. Severely criticized by many critics, and occasionally he criticizes himself, for not acting more swiftly and carrying out the ghost’s command to achieve revenge. But Shakespeare takes pains to explore some of the alternative possibilities using other characters.

A young man dressed in black with a skull in his hands.
(Image: Suchota/Shutterstock)

Hamlet is a young man whose father has been murdered, but Hamlet is not the only character in this play whose father is murdered. Old Polonius is murdered by Hamlet, leaving behind two children, Ophelia and Laertes, who are in the same position as the tormented prince, with a murdered father.

Thomas Francis Dicksee - Ophelia (c. 1864)
Ophelia, potential wife of Prince Hamlet.(Image: Thomas Francis Dicksee/Public domain)

Ophelia demonstrates what might be called a passive response. There is no doubt that Ophelia is eventually overwhelmed by her circumstances: by Hamlet’s rejection and by the death of her father, she goes mad and she dies. Whether her death is suicide is left uncertain. The priest is dubious and reproving about it. Since she’s mad, it is not a consciously chosen suicide, but it may be unconsciously willed. This is the passive response to the death of a beloved and respected father.

This is a transcript from the video series Shakespeare: The Word and the Action. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Laertes gives us an active response. He returns from Paris in a rage. He raises a rebellion, demands vengeance, threatens the king, and finally adopts any means to get his revenge. He swears of the murderer, “I’d cut his throat in the church.” What he does is not sacrilegious, as an assassination carried out in a church would be, but it is underhanded and dishonorable. Claudius leads him into agreeing to have what is supposedly a friendly duel with Hamlet, only Laertes’ sword is going to be a real sword—an unbuttoned sword with a point to it—and he’ll put poison on the point as well.

Learn more about how Hamlet calls up “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls”

Reason Over Passion in Hamlet

This savage action of going after revenge regardless of its moral status is the kind of act that Hamlet himself had considered earlier in the play. Not in the literal detail of unbuttoned and poisoned foils, but in its disregard for honor and ethics. In his initial response to the ghost’s revelation of the murder, Hamlet had responded, “Oh all ye hosts of heaven, oh Earth, what else? Shall I couple hell?” 

Laertes and Ophelia by William Gorman Wills
Laertes and Ophelia (Image: William Gorman Wills/Public domain)

Laertes is willing to “couple hell” in the achievement of revenge, to cut throats in the church, and to use Claudius’s weapon of poison. He dramatizes a route to revenge that Hamlet rejects. Hamlet’s weapons are not underhanded and he doesn’t cut the throat of a man at prayer, his uncle Claudius.

Laertes and Ophelia thus demonstrate responses to father murder that Hamlet considers but does not act upon. The fact that Laertes and Ophelia are brother and sister, suggests that these two routes are deliberately paired and complementary. Both of them surrender to the difficult situation, both yield wholly to passion, and both risk the damnation that Hamlet himself fears will follow upon the orders of the ghost.

Ophelia and Laertes flank Hamlet, showing the disastrous results of alternatives he could have chosen. These examples of Ophelia and Laertes yielding entirely to passion show that Hamlet, for all his self-blame about delay and criticisms that are written about his delay, shows that Hamlet has not done so badly in hesitating over what course of action he should take. He did not yield to passion. Reason, the sense that there are alternatives, the worry about consequences—these things have restrained his passions.

William Shakespeare portrait. The artist may be a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company.[1]
William Shakespeare (Image: John Taylor/Public domain)

He may resent reason at times, as in his talk about “the pale cast of thought” that blunts “enterprises of great pitch and moment.” Indeed, sometimes he casts off reason altogether and behaves quite madly, but he confines himself to speaking daggers most of the time, rather than using them.

Often in his tragedies, Shakespeare uses a pattern of taking the hero offstage. Hamlet has a climactic section in Act III, similar to Macbeth and King Lear, before then they disappear from the play for a long stretch. The actor gets a chance to rest in the greenroom, subordinate characters take over for a while, and the issues are rehandled so that when the hero returns we can see him in a new light, from a new angle. It’s an important device of structure in Shakespearean tragedy. Whatever else Hamlet has done, we see when he comes back from England, that he has managed to preserve himself. He has not been corrupted by Claudius as Laertes has been, nor has he gone mad and died as Ophelia has.

Learn more about Hamlet—The Causes of Tragedy

To Be or Not to Be—Hamlet’s Soliloquy

Hamlet's Soliloquy - To Be Or Not To Be
Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is really about action vs inaction. (Image: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Perhaps the most famous soliloquy in Hamlet finds him pondering just what response, what action, to make. This soliloquy is not about suicide. “To be or not to be” does not mean to live or to kill oneself, how we might interpret if we had just that line in isolation. Suicide does come up as an option late in the speech, when he talks about a man “might his quietus make with a bare bodkin,” might stab oneself. The soliloquy is about action. The alternatives proposed are endurance, passive fortitude, and the stoic endurance that Horatio demonstrates and that Hamlet praises him for. That’s “to be.” The alternative is action, taking arms against a sea of troubles, with the probable result that you will die in the course of action—that fighting your troubles means risk and eventually, certain death. Hence, that is “not to be.”

To suffer, or to take arms, those are in parallel with each other. It’s that parallelism that is difficult to grasp. The critic Harold Jenkins points out that taking arms will inevitably lead to not being. That Hamlet could possibly mean that by fighting his troubles a man could overcome them, would be a very naïve view. Hamlet believes that troubles are coextensive with life. That is why he has this extraordinary image of taking arms against a sea of troubles—a battle, which inevitably you’re going to lose in the long run. You cannot fight the sea; you might strive against it for a while, but it will overcome you.

Death Considered as a Result of Action in Hamlet

Action, in other words, leads to death. And death leads to what? “To die, to sleep, perchance to dream,” and there lays the trouble because we don’t know what is going to happen in the afterlife. There is passivity in the form of endurance, or there is active opposition. Hamlet is asking, “Can we act at all? Can we act nobly at all?”

He does not fear death; he fears what may happen after death: the consciousness of the soul that has perished, the exposure of the soul that has shucked off the body like a snake shucking off its old skin. The mystery of death is the great unknown in all our equations. Anybody could deal with trouble with a bare bodkin. You can stab your way out of most situations, either by stabbing the person who is bothering you or stabbing yourself. That will end the trouble.

But if you kill yourself, you go out of the world with suicide on your soul. You have deserted your point of duty. This is key in a play that begins with soldiers on sentry guard and ends with Hamlet being given a soldier’s funeral by Fortinbras. Or the other option, you commit murder, for which you will probably be punished with execution. In any case, you’ll end up dead. Entrance to the other world with a guilty soul. Action leads to death, which leads to what?

Thus, “conscience doth make cowards of us all”—a great line from late in the soliloquy. And “conscience” here means both the moral faculty, the ability to discern right from wrong, and what we now call consciousness: awareness, thinking, thinking of the possibilities, thinking of the possible results, the deep-revolving heart, the far-seeing mind, the very range of vision and feeling. Here Hamlet sees as an inhibition to action.

Learn more about how Hamlet embodies the wit, attainments, and lofty ideals of the Renaissance

Is Hamlet Too Much of a Thinker?

Statue of Hamlet, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, United Kingdom, Europe
A contemplative Hamlet at the opening of the final act. (Image: David Hughes/Shutterstock)

Many 19th century critics espoused the theory that Hamlet’s propensity for thought and philosophical reflection, makes him unfit for action, but this is not truly reflective of Hamlet. Hamlet is often very active, putting on plays, stabbing swords through curtains, et cetera. At the center of the play, he perceives the paradoxical relation between thought and deed, between contemplation and action. That makes him very much of a Renaissance man indeed.

The Middle Ages had upheld contemplation as the highest activity open to humanity. The ideal life was to be a monk or a nun, praying, meditating, and contemplating in a retreat, in a monastery, or a convent. The Renaissance still thought that the contemplative life was a good thing, but they thought it was a good thing for the elderly. The old knight could turn in his helmet, let it become a hive for bees, and go into prayer and contemplation as he prepared for death. The young person, the humanistically educated person, should be using his talents in the world. He must not allow his talents to fust in him unused. A potential virtue in a young man or woman is not a virtue at all, has to be put into active use.

As Milton said a generation later, “I cannot praise a fugitive or cloistered virtue that sallies not forth and faces her adversary.” But contemplation by the capable mind—Hamlet’s mind certainly is capable—makes the choice of what action one shall undertake extremely difficult. It makes one realize the stakes of action, in particular, that one realizes that one may act badly. The fear of sinning and the unknown consequences of sin make us all reluctant to take the rebellious steps necessary to combat the sources of our suffering.

Learn more about the nature of Shakespeare’s plays

Hesitation from Moral Integrity—Hamlet’s Conscience

The natural vigor of resolution is enshrouded by intellectual doubt. Hamlet is a person with a conscience. At this point in the play, his conscience is aware that the king’s guilt is as yet unproven, with only the word of a dubious apparition to go on. He must be sure that it is the right thing that he will do, or he will not do it at all. His moral integrity forbids him to act until all possibilities of doing wrong are eliminated. In that sense, Hamlet is the complete opposite of Prince Hal from Henry V. Hal will claim responsibility, will narrow the choices, and say, “Let’s do it.” Hal is the definitive man of action. Hamlet is his opposite.

At this point in the center of the play, all Hamlet’s capacity stands poised—the capacity of his aspiring spirit, his sympathetic heart, and his conceiving intellect. Those capacities stand before a moral choice presented by an ambiguous world. “There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of by our philosophy.”

How then can we responsibly choose among them? As poor Ophelia says, one of the most lucid lines in the play uttered in the mad scene, “O Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Learn More: Shakespeare Then and Now

Common Questions About Inaction in Hamlet

Q: What is Hamlet’s central problem?

Hamlet has many, many problems. His dead father’s ghost is the root of everything. However, Hamlet’s over-thinking of issues, Oedipus complex, and deep melancholy contribute much to his condition.

Q: Why does inaction rule Hamlet?

Hamlet has the problem of procrastination and cannot act from emotions due to a lack of self-discipline. He is a man of reason and denies emotions so that his search for the truth of whether Claudius killed his father is satisfied.

Q: What is the main theme of Hamlet?

Hamlet tells a story of how revenge is a dangerous quest that should not be entertained.

Q: Does Hamlet kill Claudius?

Yes. Hamlet kills Claudius in three ways, all through treachery. He 1) stabs Claudius with 2) a poisoned sword and 3) makes him drink from a poisonous brew. The methods are symbolic of aspects of Hamlet himself.

This article was updated on June 2, 2020

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