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 man whose father has been murdered, who has difficulty finding an appropriate response. And he’s been criticized severely by many critics, and occasionally he criticizes himself, for not acting more swiftly, 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 person in this play whose father is murdered. Old Polonius, of course, is murdered too, by Hamlet himself, and he leaves behind him two children, Ophelia and Laertes, who are in Hamlet’s position, having a father suddenly murdered.

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

Ophelia demonstrates what might be called the passive response. There is no doubt that Ophelia is eventually overwhelmed by her circumstances. She is overwhelmed by her rejection by Hamlet and by the death of her father and she goes mad and she dies. Whether that death is a suicide is left uncertain. The priest is dubious and reproving about it. Since she’s mad, it is obviously 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 the active response. He returns from Paris in a rage. He raises a rebellion, he demands vengeance, he threatens the king, and finally adopts any means to get his revenge. He swears that he would cut the murderer’s throat in the church, “I’d cut his throat in the church.” Now what he actually does is not sacrilegious, as an assassination carried out in a church would be. It’s just very underhanded and dishonorable. Claudius leads him into agreeing to have what is supposedly a friendly duel with Hamlet; only his 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

Now this kind of thing, this savage going after revenge regardless of its moral status, is the kind of thing 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 is willing to “couple hell” in the achievement of revenge, to cut throats in the church, 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. A whole scene is devoted to dramatizing that.

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

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, that they are 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, as it were, 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 for all the critics have written about his delay, show that Hamlet has not done so badly in hesitating over what course of action he should take. He has not yielded to passion. Reason, the sense that there are alternatives, the worry about consequences—these things have restrained his passions.

He may resent reason at times. He talks about “the pale cast of thought” that blunts “enterprises of great pitch and moment.” And 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.

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)

Often in his tragedies, Shakespeare uses a pattern of taking the hero offstage. He has a big climactic section in Act III, Hamlet does; so does Macbeth, so does King Lear, and 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 a very 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. He has not 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 myself, which is the interpretation one might come to if one just had 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, 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, certainly, death. Hence, that is “not to be.” “To be, or not to be.”

To suffer, or to take arms. Those are in parallel with each other. And 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 you’ll really get into 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 itself. 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 and that’s very important in a play that begins with soldiers on sentry guard and ends with Hamlet being given a soldier’s funeral by Fortinbras. Or 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, 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. 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)

Now I’m not espousing the theory held by many 19th century critics that Hamlet’s propensity for thought, for philosophical reflection, makes him unfit for action. Hamlet is often very active, putting on plays, stabbing swords through curtains and things like that. I’m saying that here, at this moment, at the center of the play, he perceives the paradoxical relation between thought and deed, between contemplation and action. And that makes him very much of a Renaissance man indeed. For 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 and meditating and contemplating in a retreat, in a monastery, in a convent. The Renaissance still thought that the contemplative life was a good thing. But they thought it was a good thing for old people. The old knight could turn in his helmet and 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. It 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, and 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. It particularly makes one realize that one may act badly. The fear of committing sin and the unknown consequences of sin make us all reluctant to take the rebellious steps necessary to combat the sources of our suffering.

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, and 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. It particularly makes one realize that one may act badly. The fear of committing sin 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 unproved. He has only the word of a dubious apparition to go on. He must be sure that it is a 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. And, 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. It’s one of the remarkable things about Shakespeare, that he could create them both and almost back-to-back. Henry V was written in 1599; Hamlet was written in 1600 or 1601.

At this still 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.” That’s action arrested.

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 lack of a certain 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 7/30/2019 

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