The question of why Hamlet delays in taking revenge on Claudius for so long has puzzled readers and audience members alike. I would like to prove that Shakespeare didnt have a delay in killing Claudius just for the sake of having a longer play. I believe that he had a deeper meaning inside of it. I am going to show different reasons for Hamlets delay, and my most probably one. Immediately following Hamlet’s conversation with the Ghost, he seems determined to fulfill the Ghost’s wishes and swears his companions to secrecy about what has occurred.
The next appearance of Hamlet in the play reveals that he has not yet avenged his father’s murder. In scene two, Act 2, Hamlet gives a possible reason for his hesitation. “The spirit that I have seen, May be a devil, and the devil hath power, T’ assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.594-596). With this doubt clouding his mind, Hamlet seems completely unable to act. This indecision is somewhat resolved in the form of the play. Hamlet comes up with the idea of the play that is similar to the events retold by the ghost about his murder to prove Claudius as guilty or innocent.
Due to the king’s reaction to the play, Hamlet begins to believe that the Ghost was telling the truth the night of the apparition. In Hamlets mind, it is now his duty to avenge his father’s murder. This is where the real problem of inaction enters the play. Later that night, Hamlet has a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, when he comes across the king kneeling in prayer.
He wonders if this is the time to kill him and get it over with, but decides not to. He claims that he does not want Claudius to go to heaven, so he would rather kill him when he is committing a sin. If this is the case, then the question is why doesn’t he simply wait till Claudius has completed his prayer, accuse him of the murder and kill him in his sin of denial. That answer is beyond me. Instead, Hamlet goes to the chamber of his mother and passes up his best opportunity at revenge. The argument can be made, however, that it is not a fear of killing that causes this inaction.
He does not display an inability to end someone’s life when killing Polonius. He neither hesitates nor capitulates in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their executions. Why then would the prince of Denmark hesitate to kill the one man he most justly could? Many literary believe that his inaction is the result of a vicarious oedipus complex. Those who concur with this theory say that Hamlet, in his subconscious mind, has a desire to do exactly what his uncle has done; that is, get rid of the king so that he can have Gertrude for himself. If this is true, Hamlet cannot act because he is fighting against his subconscious self.
According to this interpretation, Claudius becomes an embodiment of himself, and thus he is unable to kill, in a sense, his other self. Although the oedipus theory is valid, I would like to present another alternative. In my opinion, Hamlet is paralyzed by an interpersonal battle resulting from over evaluation of his situation. Every time he has an opportunity to act, he counteracts with a doubt or reason for inaction. For example, he wants his revenge on Claudius to take place only when he can be sure he will go to hell and not heaven. Furthermore, he spends too much time planning and not enough time doing.
He plans the play within a play, but seeks no immediate resolution upon its completion. Instead he becomes more careful around Claudius after the play because it revealed his guilt to the king. After the play within the play, Hamlet does not act until everybody is dying, including himself. Only in this final tragic moment does he realize that he should not have waited so long. But by the time he comes to this realization, it is too late. His father is murdered, his mother lays dying, he is mortally wounded and all he can do is finish the tragic killings.
With all of his pent-up rage he takes his revenge on Claudius.