The Problem of Delay in Hamlet
Hamlet-a great play by Shakespeare.The critical essay is written for M.A. English students and generally for literature ...
THE PROBLEM OF DELAY IN HAMLET: Hamlet’s delays in carrying out the command of the ghost by killing his uncle and its causes have been the subject of endless controversy among critics. Some modern critics like T.S Eliot refused to take notice of it. According to them it is certainly an artistic flaw. Others like German critic Hanner and American critic Stoil explain this matter in a very simple way by saying that if Hamlet had killed the king, the story would have ended somewhere in Act-II. Shakespeare was therefore forced to delay his revenge. Suppose he had done so, there would have been no tragedy of Hamlet. Some critics argue that there is no delay at all, every thing that hero does is calculated and deliberate. German critic Werder remarks that Hamlet is intelligent and passive. Passive in the sense that he understands the difficulty of his task, he goes to the mark straight in the heart of crime and by no mean slowly. These are, no doubt, two extreme views. When we study the plays we feel that there has been delay on the part of Hamlet. When we say that there is delay, the question arises what were the causes? To answer this question, a number of theories have been advanced. These theories can be divided into two groups: External Causes; Internal Causes. Those who believe in external causes hold the circumstances responsible for the delay of Hamlet. While those who believe in internal causes are in majority and hold Hamlet responsible for this delay:
External Causes: This theory of Hamlet’s delay due to external difficulties was expounded by the German critic Werder. The main arguments advanced in favour of this theory are, what was Hamlet to do when ghost had left him with its command of vengeance? The king was surrounded not merely by courtiers but also by Swiss body guards. How was Hamlet to get at him? Was he able to accuse him for murder publicly? If he did what would happen? How would he prove the charge? All that he had to offer in proof was a ghost story. Others, to be sure, had seen the ghost but no one else had heard its revelations. If the court is honest it would vote for Hamlet’s madness or would punish him. It is true that immediately after “The Mouse Trap”, he got a chance. He found the king defenseless. But what Hamlet wanted was not a private revenge He wanted a public justice with the king, so he spared the king. But, on the voyage, he discovered the king’s commandment to the king of England to put him immediately to death. He with this letter in his pocket comes back to Denmark. He had now a solid proof that the king attempted to kill him. This would also provide him a proof for his father’s death but his enemy was quick enough. This public indictment of his enemy can also go with his own death. Though this story was rejected by the late critics on the plea that no where in the play does Hamlet make the slightest reference to any external difficulty. On the contrary, he has asserted many times that he can obey the ghost as he says in his mothers closet: “I shall lug the guts into the neighbour room.” But this theory we can not ignore. Firstly, it is quite probable that when Hamlet was thinking quite precisely on the event, he was considering other things, the question, how could he avenge his father without sacrificing his own life. Secondly, he was anxious that his act of vengeance should not be misconstructed. In the end, he requests his friend Horatio to explain his act .Hamlet says: “Horatio, I am dead, Thou livest, report me and my cause aright To the unsatisfied.”
Internal Causes: When we take internal causes of Hamlet’s delay, we see four important theories. (i) Sentimental theory presented by Goethe. (ii) Weakness of will theory presented by Coleridge. 1
(iii) Conscience theory presented by Ulrich (iv) Melancholic theory presented by Bradley.
Sentimental Theory: Sentimental theory is outdated It presents the picture of Hamlet as a graceful youth, sensitive, full of delicate sympathies and aspirations, shrinking from the touch of every thing gross and earthly. He is frail and weak. This picture of Hamlet though not rootless, yet is certainly untrue. This picture of Hamlet is not fit to be the hero of the tragedy.
The Weakness of the Will: “The weakness of will theory” is widely accepted. According to this theory, the cause of Hamlet’s delay is irresolution, that is, excess of reflective or speculative habit of mind. Hamlet is an intellectual and prefers to live in the world of idealism and thus he is unfit to perform the duties of the world. He cannot concentrate his attention on the work in hand. He is never satisfied, never resolute and always remains in state of “to be or not to be.” “Thus conscience does make coward of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought.” Though this theory is supported by Hamlet’s own words in his soliloquies, yet it is a partial theory and leaves much unexplained. This theory does not take into view the element of fate, which instead of helping him, conspires to paralyse him.
Conscience Theory: According to conscience theory, it is not the will that renders him a coward. The king, after all, is his uncle, brother of his father and husband of his mother. He cannot kill him without thinking over the matter from all sides. He is scrupulous. The ghost also seems to him doubtful. “The spirit that I have seen May be a devil, and the devil hath power, T’ assume a pleasing shape.” This is the main reason for his designing the play scene. He wanted to trap the king’s conscience. He cannot kill Claudius while he is praying because his conscience is not satisfied. Conscience theory explains the cause of Hamlet’s delay to a certain extent. But obviously, we cannot say that conscience is the chief hindrance in his action.
The melancholy theory: The melancholy theory of Hamlet’s delay was advanced by Bradley. In his book “Shakespearean Tragedy”, he says: “Melancholy accounts for Hamlet’s inaction.” The immediate cause of this is simply his feelings and ideas full of disgust with life, and every thing in it. Such a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to any kind of decided action. His body is inert; the mind is averse to response. His killing of the king is a violent, dangerous and a difficult task. But It sinks into the sea of his diseased feelings. None of the above theories explains completely the cause of Hamlet’s delay. As Hamlet is a complex character, his delay may also be due to several causes. Every critic has given his own interpretation of character and causes. But however, in the end of the whole discussion, we may come to the conclusion that Hamlet hesitates not because he is devoured by nervous reflexes and apathy but because he is afraid of taking a false step. Hence “the weakness of the will theory” is the most widely accepted theory. Written&Composed By: Prof.A.R.Somroo M.A.English&Education. 0661-610063