The Bard of Avon has in the character of Hamlet (in the tragedy of that name) a hero who has been accused of hesitation and indecisiveness. Are such accusations appropriate?
L.C. Knights in “An Approach to Hamlet” explains the modern appeal of the tragedy in terms of the indecisiveness of its hero:
Hamlet is a man who in the face of life and of death can make no affirmation, and it may well be that this irresolution – which goes far deeper than irresolution about the performance of a specific act – this fundamental doubt, explains the great appeal of the play in modern times. The point has been made by D.G. James in The Dream of Learning. Shakespeare’s play, he says, “is an image of modernity, of the soul without clear belief losing its way, and bringing itself and others to great distress and finally to disaster”; it is “a tragedy not of excessive thought but of defeated thought,” and Hamlet himself is “a man caught in ethical and metaphysical uncertainties.” Now I am sure that Mr. James is right in emphasizing the element of scepticism in Hamlet’s makeup – the weighing of alternative possibilities in such a way as to make choice between them virtually impossible [. . .] . (64)
Is there a connection between verbal hesitation and hesitation in action and decisions? Lawrence Danson in the essay “Tragic Alphabet” discusses the hesitation in action by the hero as related to his hesitation in speech:
To speak or act in a world where all speech and action are equivocal seeming is, for Hamlet, both perilous and demeaning, a kind of whoring.
The whole vexed question of Hamlet’s delay ought, I believe, to be considered in light of this dilemma. To a man alienated from his society’s most basic symbolic modes, who finds all speech and action mere seeming and hypocritical playing, comes an imperious demand to speak and act – to express himself in deed his father’s son. The ghost’s stress upon ritual modes indicates that the expression demanded must not be just “a kind of wild justice,” but an expression ordered and meaningful. Hamlet’s difficulties at the linguistic level – his puns and “antic disposition,” the lack of commensurate values between him and the rest of the court – are reflected in his difficulties at the level of action. (72)
The play begins on a guard platform of a castle in Denmark:
The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. A young man named Horatio, who is a school friend of Hamlet, has been told of the apparition and cannot believe it, and one of the officers has brought him there in the night so that he can see it for himself.
The hour comes, and the...