In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled prince has a major flaw, which is his inability to deal with tasks at the proper opportunity. Throughout the play, Hamlet frequently delays opportunities he has to kill Claudius, the king of Denmark. Hamlet has several personal characteristic traits which lead to this flaw of procrastination and delay. During the play, Hamlet is commonly distracted by his own antic disposition and through this, is very rarely able to carry on a conversation or make decisions. Hamlet also shows a great deal of disrespect and unwillingness to listen to authority, regardless of whether or not he likes the person. For Hamlet, delay is also a problem, because he is only able to act on pure impulse and cannot plan complex acts such as killing a king. Finally, Hamlet’s self-centered attitude gets in the way of his ability to restore order and kill Claudius.
The first issue for Hamlet, when it comes to the matter of his delay, is the antic disposition which he showcases throughout the play. The display of antic disposition shows that Hamlet is an easily distracted person. There are points where he should be concerned with how he should go about killing Claudius. Yet, he spends way too much time trying to prove to his friends and family alike that he is a crazy individual. There are points in the play where it is obvious that Hamlet is mentally unstable. Although Hamlet should be concerned with helping avenge his father’s death, there are points where he is just more concerned with allowing people to believe that he is crazy. Hamlet’s antic disposition makes it evident that he is, along with being mentally unstable, a distracted individual. Hamlet’s mind is never quite focused on one thing and this causes him to consistently lose his drive to achieve goals throughout the play. Hamlet issue with distraction is a “cause of his inaction for thinking too precisely on the event”( Reading on Tragedies of William Shakespeare, 107). Due to this lack of desire and distraction, the only way in which Hamlet can realistically achieve a task is through impulse.
Over the course of the play, it becomes very obvious that Hamlet is a character who acts on impulse. He first displays this by the way in which he talks to the other characters in the play. For instance, when Hamlet talks to Ophelia, he puts no rationality or thought into what he says. While talking to Ophelia about how he doesn’t love her, he says, “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.119). Through quotes like this, the reader understands that, though Hamlet could have chosen to be more patient and understanding with Ophelia, instead he blurts out the first thing that comes into his head. “One of Hamlet’s tragic flaws is in his impulsive behavior every time he begins to understand or recognize a situation” (Delano).
If Hamlet’s distracted mind begins to wander, he is unable to think. He demonstrates this through the famous soliloquy used in Scene 1 of Act 3. Hamlet says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”(3.1.83-85). When Hamlet begins to think about a matter, his conscience starts to get the better of him, which is why he prefers to act mainly on impulse. For example, the scenario in which he killed Polonius is a result of an impulse-based reaction. He decides right there at that moment that he wants to kill the individual whom he believes to be the king, for listening while he is talking to Gertrude. This shows that Hamlet is capable of killing, but only when it can be done without rationality or thought process. Earlier, in the play, Hamlet has a golden opportunity to kill Claudius but his conscience manages to get the better of him when he sees that Claudius is immersed in prayer. When he is ready to strike Claudius, he begins to think of whether or not Claudius will be sent to heaven because he is in prayer. Instead of carrying through with the act, his mind wanders and he loses his impulse. Along with impulse, if Hamlet had the ability to listen to authority and take advice, the delay which occurs through the play would be nowhere near as long.
Hamlet shows a refusal to listen to any real form of authority throughout the course of the play. At the start of the play, Claudius makes an effort to try to help Hamlet with his problems as he can see that he is somewhat of an unhappy person. But every time he deals with Claudius, Hamlet shows a lack of respect in the way he acts and talks towards him. Hamlet always has a cynical or unnerving remark to make to Claudius, regardless of the circumstances. Hamlet also reflects this attitude in his dealings with other people who are older and more experienced than him. Hamlet’s opinion of those who are older than him is also reflected in his dealings with Polonius, who appears to be a pompous man. Hamlet is quick to throw insults at Polonius whenever the opportunity is provided. Hamlet’s insults include referring to Polonius as a “fishmonger” (2.1.172). Although Claudius and Polonius are people that Hamlet dislikes, the way in which he treats them plays a factor in his tendency to delay. The fact that Hamlet is so willing to insult these individuals, even though they are concerned about him in the initial part of the play, shows that Hamlet is more interested in being hostile than accepting their help.
Not only does Hamlet refuse to take advice from those he hates, such as Claudius and Polonius, he also has a difficult time listening to people he adores, such as Gertrude and the ghost. When Gertrude tries, as any mother would, to calm her son, who is so distraught over the loss of his father, he chooses to remain hostile towards her. When Gertrude talks about how Hamlet has offended Claudius, Hamlet responds by saying “Mother, you have my father much offended” (3.4.10). It is evident from the way that he speaks to someone he actually cares for that he is incapable of listening to anyone who has an authority over him.
Although Hamlet appears to appreciate the advice the ghost gives him, he still does not really follow up on it. The ghost initially advises Hamlet to restore order in the castle in the first act of the play, and yet Claudius is not killed until the fifth act of the play. This is the final evidence that Hamlet listens to no one other than his own impulses when it comes to decisions. He feels as if he is acting on behalf of the ghost and yet he still delays for a very long period before actually killing Claudius. The fact that Hamlet does not listen to the ghost says a great deal about his procrastination. If one is willing to accept good advice on how to handle a task, it is more likely that the task will be completed much more quickly. The fact that Hamlet would let no character in the play help him at any point means that if he wanted to accomplish something, it would have to be done on his own. For someone as unsure of himself as Hamlet, a task as large as killing the king of Denmark could not be done swiftly without heeding advice. Hamlet’s refusal to take advice leads to an extremely long delay in his killing of Claudius.
The final characteristic that leads to Hamlet’s delay is his self-centred attitude. The only reason Hamlet desires to kill the king is because of how Claudius affected his own personal life by killing Hamlet’s father. The fact that Hamlet is acting in his own self-interest means that the act does not occur out of desperation. If Hamlet had cared about the nation as a whole, he would have wanted to act at a much faster pace in order to make things better for Denmark. Obviously, as Claudius took power, a wave of disorder swept over the kingdom of Denmark and the nation as a whole. If Hamlet had looked around and realized that his killing of Claudius was necessary to save Denmark, he would have acted more quickly. Hamlet never understood as Kenneth Burke puts it “the heroic is normally destroyed in the conflict, and the human situation goes on surviving” (Burke, 110). However, Hamlet was too caught up in Claudius’ murder of his father to care about Denmark.
Throughout the play, Hamlet shows delay and an inability to complete tasks. Hamlet’s antic disposition and erratic behaviour proves he is a naturally distracted person who would not be able to carry out a task very easily. Hamlet shows throughout the play that he is an individual who acts on impulse, as opposed to meticulous detail and planning. For the magnitude of the task at hand, these are not good qualities to have. Hamlet’s lack of respect for authority and leadership also causes events to be prolonged as he could not work with other people to achieve his goals. Hamlet’s self-centred attitude is the final trait that leads to the delay as he could only complete the job because it affected him personally and he shows no concern for the well-being of his nation. When these traits are combined, nothing is accomplished. If only Hamlet had cared for the restoration of order in Denmark, Claudius would have been dead by the end of the first act. However, it is Hamlet’s flawed personality and consistent procrastination that has made the play so fascinating for centuries.
- Readings on the Tragedies of William Shakespeare. San Diego, CA: The Greenhaven
Press, n.d. Print.
- Burke, Kenneth. William Shakespeare: The Tragedies. New York: Chelsea House
Publishers, 1985. Print.
- “The Literary Analysis: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.”
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2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <http://www.helium.com/items/
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Cambridge School, 1994. Print
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