The Hesitation/ Indecision within Hamlet
Hamlet, the hero in Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedy of the same name, goes to great lengths to establish the absolute guilt of King Claudius – and then appears to blow it all. He hesitates at the prayer scene when the king could easily be dispatched. Let’s discuss this problem of hesitation or indecision on the part of the protagonist.
In “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging” Ruth Nevo explains how the protagonist is “confounded” in both the prayer scene and the closet scene:
In the prayer scene and the closet scene his [Hamlet’s] devices are overthrown. His mastery is confounded by the inherent liability of human reason to jump to conclusions, to fail to distinguish seeming from being. He, of all people, is trapped in the fatal deceptive maze of appearances that is the phenomenal world. Never perhaps has the mind’s finitude been better dramatized than in the prayer scene and in the closet scene. Another motto of the Player King is marvelously fulfilled in the nexus of ironies which constitutes the plays peripateia: “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” In the sequence of events following Hamlet’s elation at the success of the Mousetrap, and culminating in the death of Polonius, all things are the opposite of what they seem, and action achieves the reverse of what was intended. Here in the play’s peripeteia is enacted Hamlet’s fatal error, his fatal misjudgment, which constitutes the crisis of the action, and is the directly precipitating cause of his own death, seven other deaths, and Ophelia’s madness. (52)
David Bevington, in the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, eliminates some possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation in killing Claudius during the prayer scene:
Several limits can be placed upon the search for an explanation of Hamlet’s apparent hesitation to avenge. He is not ineffectual under ordinary circumstances. Elizabethan theories of melancholy did not suppose the sufferer to be made necessarily inactive. Hamlet has a deserved reputation in Denmark for manliness and princely demeanor. He keeps up his fencing practice and will “win at the odds” against Laertes. He threatens with death those who would restrain him from speaking with the ghost – even his friend Horatio – and stabs the concealed Polonius unflinchingly. On the sea voyage to England he boards a pirate ship single-handed in the grapple, after having arranged without remorse for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In light of these deeds, Hamlet’s self-accusations are signs of burning impatience in one who would surely act if he could. (5-6)
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...