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Hamlet: Action vs Inaction

Updated on July 18, 2012
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The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

“The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” written by William Shakespeare, takes place in Denmark in the medieval era. Like other tragedies of William Shakespeare such as “Romeo & Juliet,” “Macbeth,” and “Othello,” “Hamlet” ends in death. Whoever holds the name in Shakespeare’s title is not looking forward to a happily-ever-after type of conclusion in Shakespeare’s plays. The protagonist of “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” Hamlet, is whom the play is centered around. In the play, Hamlet struggles with indecisiveness and uncertainty which results in failure to take action. Shakespeare brilliantly illustrates the uncertainty of people and the consequences of their actions and inactions.

When the Hamlet Sr., King of Denmark dies, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, Queen of Denmark marries the king’s brother, Claudius; making Uncle Claudius the new King of Denmark and Hamlet’s stepfather. Religiously speaking, this is tradition. Deuteronomy 25: 5-6 (New International Version) states that, “When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” The problem is that Gertrude and Hamlet Sr. already had a son to take place as King of Denmark. So when the Queen wed Uncle Claudius, this took future royalty away from Hamlet, which enraged him.

In the beginning, the audience learns of another situation: Prince Fortinbras of Norway is trying to take over the kingdom of Denmark which could result in a war. But when the ghost of the king comes to Hamlet requesting him to defend his death, Hamlet can think of nothing else but revenge. The ghost claims that his death was no accident and that he was murdered by Claudius. Strangely, Hamlet delays his revenge. Immediately following the appearance Hamlet’s father’s ghost, the audience expects to see some action. But instead, it is postposed by Hamlet’s uncertainty. Hamlet tries to grasp exactly what he is going to do. Some people like the other character in the play, act without thinking. Hamlet, on the other hand, is struggling with questions that most people would have not recognized. When dealing with these conflicting problems, Hamlet himself goes crazy which leaves him with another question of uncertainty: Was the ghost even real to begin with?

Eventually, Hamlet learns the cruel truth that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father. But by this time, it is too late for revenge. It is hard to take revenge on Claudius now that he knows Hamlet is aware of the truth of his father’s death. If Hamlet hadn’t have procrastinated, he could have had a better shot at revenging his father’s death. Everyone dies except Hamlet’s friend, Horatio. But thankfully, Hamlet does kill Claudius before he dies from a poisonous sword. Gertrude also dies by poison leaving no heir to the throne. Ironically, Prince Fortinbras of Norway invades Denmark and becomes the new King. It is ironic that Fortinbras becomes King without a fight because it should have been everyone’s main focus. In the end, no one establishes power due to actions and inaction.

I do not think Shakespeare used any symbols that represent a general idea. I do not think there is any significance to the ghost depicted in the play either. The ghost could have been anyone or anything. If the ghost had been a peasant, for example, I believe that Hamlet would still struggle with uncertainty and inaction. Shakespeare did not pollute the play with symbols to support his theme. The moral of the story is hidden within the plot. Ingeniously, Shakespeare turns this revenge tragedy completely around. Shakespeare wrote a revenge play, yet the man seeking revenge, Hamlet, delays. Hamlet is the type of person who thinks way too much yet acts too little. Hamlet’s inactivity results in his tragic end. On the flip side, the other characters in the play do take action but also fail. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” does not have a prologue or epilogue stating the moral of the story like Shakespeare does in “Romeo & Juliet.” Instead, Shakespeare makes the acute pessimistic idea that death is the only outcome to both action and inaction.


Shakespeare and Company: Hamlet

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