Hamlet Action Vs In Action Essay

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reason Over Passion

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 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.

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.

To Be or Not to Be

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

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.

Is Hamlet Too Much of a Thinker?

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.

Hesitation from Moral Integrity

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.

From the lecture series Shakespeare: The Word and the Action
Taught by Professor Peter Saccio, Dartmouth College

Free Hamlet Essays: Talk and Action in Hamlet

  • Length: 717 words (2 double-spaced pages)
  • Rating: Excellent
Open Document

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - More ↓

Talk and Action in Hamlet

The character of Hamlet is very prestigious, but he has many shortcomings. In many cases, he shows that he is all words and no action. He waits until the very last minute to take a course of action. Hamlet realizes this, and he wishes that he had the characteristics of Fortinbras, Laertes, and Horatio.

            During the course of the play, Hamlet just talks and talks about what he plans on doing, but when an opportunity arrises to make good on his word, he backs down. for instance, when he finds Claudius praying, he could have easily killed him and been done with it. but instead, he makes up an excuse for himself, saying that it is dishonorable to kill someone in the church. Even Laertes agreed with Claudius when he said in Act IV, Scene 7 that "no place indeed should murder sanctuarize." The only times that Hamlet takes action is when he has no choice. He takes action when he is sent to England. He only does anything, because if he doesn't, he will be killed. The other time that he uses action instead of words is, of course, at the end. but by that time, it is already too late.

            Laertes, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. He was all action and no talk. A very headstrong character, he was rash and let his emotions make his decisions for him. an example of this is when he finds out about his father's death, he immediately assumes it was Claudius and enters the castle by force, fully intending on killing him. This is what Hamlet needs to be like, but only in moderation. Sometimes, when the time calls for it, you must act on instinct, without having to think it through for a couple of days. Hamlet didn't want to be brash and end up getting killed like Laertes did, but then again, Laertes did avenge his father's death a lot faster than Hamlet did. And in spite of all the thinking and planning, Hamlet still ended up the same way that Laertes did.

            Fortinbras was a mix of the previous two. He carefully planned out his strategy, and then acted on it when they were finished. He showed that he was not too reckless by sending his captain ahead of him to announce that he was coming, so that the king might have repay him instead of fighting him and losing men.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"Free Hamlet Essays: Talk and Action in Hamlet." 123HelpMe.com. 14 Mar 2018

LengthColor Rating 
The Foils in Hamlet Essay examples - Foils in Hamlet A foil is a minor character that helps the audience better understand a major character. A foil may exist as a comparison character, with similarities between the two, as well as differences that bring to light an important contrast between the foil and the main character. A foil may also just be someone for the main character to talk to, so we can know and understand their thoughts and feelings. Foils help us understand the obvious as well as the arcane. In the classic tragedy Hamlet, we see William Shakespeare employ foils to illustrate both examples....   [tags: Free Hamlet Essays]869 words
(2.5 pages)
Better Essays[preview]
Comparison: Oedipus and Hamlet Essay - According to Aristotle there are five characteristics of a tragic hero: Flaw or error of judgment, (Peripeteia) a reversal of fortune, the enlightenment (anagnorisis) the discovery or recognition, (hubris) excessive pride, and the character’s fate. Oedipus finds the elders of Thebes praying to the gods for liberation of the plague. Oedipus “alone can help. The cause of the trouble is himself; the chances he has had in his life are precisely the source of the plague” (Diski 1). Oedipus is the cause and the solution to end the plague, but he is blind to the true....   [tags: Tragic Heroes, Characteristics]
:: 9 Works Cited
1313 words
(3.8 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
The Tragedy Of Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark Essay - The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark I. a) Time: Sixteenth Century b) Place: Denmark c) Preliminary situation: King Hamlet, King of Denmark is killed. Hamlet the Prince's uncle, Claudius, receives the throne and marries Queen Gertrude. II. a) Initial Incident: A ghost appears to Marcellus and another guard who decide to inform Hamlet of it's presence. b) Rising Action: 1.2 Claudius, the new King, is holding court and thanks his subjects for their support. He then sends an ambassador to Norway to protect from an invasion from Fortinbras, Hamlets second cousin....   [tags: essays research papers]1220 words
(3.5 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Will in Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay - The Free Will of Hamlet Choices made by Hamlet, which ultimately lead to his death, are all guided by his own free will. In mourning his father's death, Hamlet chooses to do so for what others consider to be an excessive amount of time. “But to persever/ In obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness”(I.ii.99-100), according to Claudius. During this period of mourning, Hamlet meets his father’s spirit and promises to avenge his father’s death.  However, upon reflection, he questions the validity of the ghost’s message.  At this point he carefully goes about choosing a plan of action that will inevitably show that “the king is to blame” (V.ii.340) In following his plan, Haml...   [tags: Free Hamlet Essays]566 words
(1.6 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Hamlet Essays: Hamlet's Inability to Take Action - Hamlet's Inability to Take Action "To be, or not to be, that is the question."(Hamlet) This is the question that plagues Hamlet through the entire play. Should I live or should I die, should I take revenge for my father's death. These are all issues that Hamlet battles within himself. Hamlet's indecision is followed by inaction. The reason for this struggle with indecision can be based on many factors or on a combination of a few. As illustrated through his speeches and soliloquies Hamlet has the mind of a true thinker....   [tags: The Tragedy of Hamlet Essays]593 words
(1.7 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Essays - Asides in Hamlet - Free Essays - Asides in Hamlet Asides... what is an asides. Unlike a soliloquy that is spoken when the speaker is the only actor onstage, an aside is spoken by an actor when there are other actors present on the stage. The aside is also meant for the audience, but sometimes an aside is spoken to an actor(s) on the stage, but not to all of the actors on the stage. How do the asides in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare effect the dynamics of the play....   [tags: Shakespeare Hamlet Essays]1575 words
(4.5 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Essays - Hamlet as a Tragic Hero - An Examination of Hamlet as a Tragic Hero Webster’s dictionary defines tragedy as, “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror.” A tragic hero, therefore, is the character who experiences such a conflict and suffers catastrophically as a result of his choices and related actions. The character of Hamlet, therefore, is a clear representation of Shakespeare’s tragic hero....   [tags: Shakespeare Hamlet]1445 words
(4.1 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Essays - Sanity of Hamlet - Sanity of Hamlet Is he insane or isn't he. That is the question. What is the answer. Literary scholars have debated that question for over 400 years. Still people wonder. I, for one, don't think Hamlet is crazy at all. I feel that he is very depressed because of his father's death. But especially because of his mother's hasty marriage to his Uncle Claudius one month after his father's death. Hamlet is still in mourning, his mother should be also. He doesn't understand why she isn't in mourning....   [tags: Shakespeare Hamlet]621 words
(1.8 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Hamlet Essays: Foils of Hamlet - Foils of Hamlet In the classic play Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a work that has and will test time. [SS - 1] In this piece of work there are many characters that contribute as foils. A foil is a minor character in a literary work who by the similarities and differences in what the character does (compared to a more important character) or by simple [sic] being there for another character to talk to which helps the audience understand a more important character. [SS - 1] There are many foils of the main character, Hamlet....   [tags: GCSE Coursework Shakespeare Hamlet]674 words
(1.9 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]
Free Hamlet Essays: The Naivete of Hamlet - The Naivete of Hamlet Keeping secrets keep you isolated from your friends and make you very lonely. Hamlet’s loneliness, false friends, and betrayals cause his downfall to a great extent. The court of Denmark is filled with spies: Claudius hires Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet; Polonius spies on Hamlet in Gertrude’s bedchamber; Polonius uses Ophelia as bait to spy on Hamlet. Hamlet is not a part of this deceit; he is honest. For example, Claudius suggests Hamlet is honest when he and Laertes are discussing their dual scheme; Ophelia believes Hamlet is honest and says, "What a noble mind here is o’erthrown!" (III; i; 157), referring to Hamlet’s antic disposition, even...   [tags: Shakespeare Hamlet Essays]828 words
(2.4 pages)
Strong Essays[preview]

Related Searches

Talk         Hamlet         Character Of Hamlet         Too Late         Last Minute         Talks         Laertes         Moderation         Excuse        

He also was not slow in acting; he didn't make up excuses not to like Hamlet did. If Hamlet had not hesitated, things probably would have worked out for him, maybe even better than he expected, like they did for Fortinbras: he was named king with barely a fight. Hamlet needed to follow Fortinbras' example and be more decisive, to get things done when they were needed, things won't go as planned.

            Horatio was very similar to Fortinbras. He didn't make reckless decisions, and didn't over commit himself to a course of action. For example, at the beginning of the play, when the guards had confronted the ghost Hamlet's father, he was the one they turned to for help. When, he saw it, Horatio did not to talk to it, and he didn't just rush out and attack, for that might have been dangerous. Only when the ghost started to disappear that he attacked it to try to stop it. Horatio also set a good example, but Hamlet still didn't follow his lead. Hamlet made his decisions at the spur of the moment. When he was in his mother's bedroom, and he killed Polonius behind the curtains without even checking who it was, that was not exactly a well though out plan.

            All in all, Hamlet was simply a bad decision maker. He was indecisive, he didn't think things all the way through, and he almost never followed through on his word. All around him, his peers had better problem solving techniques than he, and they completed what they were trying to do. Instead of making an elaborate plan to defeat his enemies, he should have taken the opportunities to do the job when they presented themselves. This is ironic, because that trait is what many villains are based upon today.

0 Thoughts to “Hamlet Action Vs In Action Essay

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *