In the story Hamlet we have a young man who is seeking revenge for the death of his father. The person who was responsible for the death of Hamlet’s father was Claudius. Hamlet had opportunities to kill Claudius, and even in the end, when he was most assuredly going to put an end to Claudius’ life, he hesitated. There is much speculation as to why Hamlet hesitated, and why he didn’t just kill Claudius as quickly as possible. Hamlet did so in order to ensure he did it right and that it was a righteous killing, and not one based on rage and emotion.
Hamlet had every reason to be viciously angry with Claudius for he was responsible for the death of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet, throughout almost the entire work, was completely dedicated to the reality of killing Claudius. But, he studied himself, he studied the reasons behind the vengeful thinking, and he investigated all the information that clearly supported the fact that Claudius murdered his father. Now, Hamlet knew this, but he was a good man and needed to have irrefutable proof if he was to kill Claudius in any state of righteousness.
Hamlet was a good man. This does not mean that he was perfect, nor does it mean that he was incredibly righteous in every aspect nor did he perhaps always do things in the manner they should be done. But, he was a good man because he always examined what it was he was doing, or what he was planning. He examined these things so as to ensure that he went about vengeance in the most righteous manner possible for him. It was not merely a murder for revenge, but a murder for the land and for the people. It was not for Hamlet alone, but for the society that had been harmed by the existence and the actions of Claudius. Hamlet understood this aspect, and needed all his time of investigation in order to clearly establish his reasoning.
One particular concern involved with performing his vengeance in a righteous manner, according to Moore, is that which adheres to stipulations in the Bible. He claims that, for one, “If found guilty of murder” this man will “be executed by the avenger,” and secondly claims that there needs to be two witnesses to perform such revenge (Moore). Now, if Hamlet had killed Claudius as Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father it would not have been a righteous killing. Hamlet was adhering to some ancient laws concerning the vengeance upon one who kills, especially one who kills a family member. In light of this, we see that Hamlet needed to obtain all the proof he could in order to have the right to kill Claudius. This was the righteous approach and in his efforts to increase the righteous nature of his people, he was bound by honor to do things the right way. This is seen, in a different light, in the following:
“The truth is that Hamlet has no opportunity to kill the king and then justify his action, until the end, when ‘providence’ provides the opportunity. Heroes of earlier revenge plays soliloquize about having to delay, and criticize themselves for it. But revenge plays require that the revenge take time and planning — or there would be no play” (Friedlander).
This fits in with the theory being presented as well, for Hamlet had no opportunity, considering the information he possessed at any given time, to do the job properly until the end. And, it is true that without the suspense and the investigation along the way, there would be no play, or at least a play that does not have the power to live for centuries as this one has done. Overall, it is clear that, up until the end, Hamlet had many reasons, all righteous, why he did not kill Claudius until the time he had chosen.
Hamlet hesitate in killing Claudius, it would have taken only a second. This causes many to wonder why he stopped. He was obviously energized for the act, for his mother had just been slain by mistake, and he was enraged. So why, now when he had a chance, did he hesitate? Because killing in anger and in rage would not have been righteous. Hamlet, as mentioned, is a good man. He hates the evil around him, but would really prefer to have nothing to do with it. Brodwin states that, “however much part of Hamlet may desire to cause a drastic change in the world, the other part of him desires only to withdraw from this evil world and may provide a constitutional hindrance to the easy accomplishment of his assigned task” (498). This indicates that Hamlet, in many ways, was incredibly righteous. And a righteous individual, if they are truly serious about doing things properly, as Hamlet was, would do what they could to avoid killing in anger and sheer rage, which is the state Hamlet was in when really given the opportunity to kill Claudius.
In the end, we see Hamlet involved in a battle and he was calm. He is merely involving himself in a fight that maintains no raging anger. But suddenly, his mother dies, but not before she tells him she has been poisoned. Hamlet instantly becomes enraged. He turns and stabs Claudius. But, he does not continue in this vein, returning with another stab that would ensure his death. He somehow manages to understand that Claudius’ death is best achieved through the poison that killed his mother, and insists Claudius drink it. In this, Hamlet has achieved more of a sense of honor for himself, for he has made the death be that more righteous and done essentially at the hands of the murderer himself. Even then, in a fit of rage, he was not able to truly kill Claudius in a warrior’s style, but in a nobleman’s style that resulted in adequately honest accounting for the murder of Hamlet’s father.
This entire struggle has been to find the right time and the right manner in which to execute the plans of revenge. That time is coming, and when it does Hamlet is presented with a situation he had not anticipated. So, while he did not seek revenge in true rage, as he could have easily done, and was able to turn aside long enough to ensure the death had some amount of righteousness to it, he felt somehow he had failed, through the entire story. At the death of Hamlet, Horatio cries, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (V, II).
Hamlet was, by all stretch of the imagination, a sensitive and honorable man. He was on a mission and that mission was not selfish, thus he could not finish the deed in a selfish manner. He was obligated by his own sense of righteousness to do the right thing, but do it in the right manner. And even when he did the deed, he was not quite satisfied with it, for he felt he had somehow failed in his seeking vengeance the righteous way. He hesitated because he wanted to do it honorably and with no serious ill intent, but for justice and for his people. He took his time in finding the opportunity so that he could do just that.
Brodwin, Leonora. “Tragedies of William Shakespeare and Sonnets: Act I.,” (1998): http://futures.wharton.upenn.edu/tariq58/Hamlet/Cheat/Act%20I.htm
Friedlander, Ed. “Enjoying ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare.” (1999):http://www.pathguy.com/hamlet.htm
Moore, Peter R. “Hamlet and the two witness rule.” Notes and Queries, (1997): v44 n4, pp. 498.