Hamlet is an intensely cerebral character marked by a desire to think things through and pick situations apart. As such, for the first three and a half scenes of Hamlet, Hamlet broods over his father’s death instead of taking action against Claudius, his father’s murderer. Hamlet finally acts because he experiences three intense emotional jolts that allow him to view his situation from a new perspective and spur him to action. Together, these emotional experiences alter his personal philosophy about the nature of death and God’s relationship with creation, and compel him to finally take decisive action.
Hamlet arguably takes his first bold action when he stabs Polonius through the arras. However, this is not the beginning of Hamlet’s decisive action because he has no conception of the effect his action will have. He stabs wildly through the arras without knowing who, if anyone, is behind it. As such, there is a separation between cause and effect. Hamlet’s first fully considered action, with complete understanding of cause and effect, is his theft of the Royal commission while en route to England. His theft is a bold act that is uncharacteristic of his demeanor throughout the first four acts of the play.
Something about Hamlet changes between his stabbing of Polonius and his theft of the commission that compels him to act. On his way to the ship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet meets Fortinbras’ army. He has a conversation with a captain in which he learns that thousands of men will probably die in a fight over a piece of land that is nearly worthless. After the conversation ends, Hamlet contemplates the situation and interprets it as a model for how he must act from then on:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!
...Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.
...How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds...
In Fortinbras’ March, Hamlet sees the opposite of his conduct up to this point in the play. The march represents an excess of action that is in stark contrast to Hamlet’s failure to act.
Hamlet sees a certain nobility (i.e., “sweet prince”) in Fortinbras’ overreach of action. He decides that since he is fighting for a noble cause, unlike Fortinbras, he has all the more reason to act. At this point, he rejects as cowardly and animal-like his previous doctrine of deliberating instead of acting:
...Now, whether it be