The Central Question of Hamlet
Hamlet's tragedy is a tragedy of failure-the failure of a man placed in critical circumstances to deal successfully with those circumstances. In some ways, Hamlet reminds us of Brutus in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Hamlet and Brutus are both good men who live in trying times; both are intellectual, even philosophical; both men want to do the right thing; both men intellectualize over what the right thing is; neither man yields to passion. But here the comparison ends, for though both Brutus and Hamlet reflect at length over the need to act, Brutus is able immediately to act while Hamlet is not. Hamlet is stuck "thinking too precisely on th' event-".
Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, has died suddenly. The dead king's brother,Claudius, marries Hamlet's mother and swiftly assumes the throne, a throne that Hamlet fully expected would be his upon the death of his father. Hamlet's father's ghost confronts Hamlet and tells him that his death was not natural, as reported, but instead was murder. Hamlet swears revenge. But rather than swoop instantly to that revenge, Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to mask an investigation of the accusation brought by his father's ghost. Why Hamlet puts on this "antic disposition" and delays in killing Claudius is the central question of the play.
But Hamlet did not swear to his dead father that he, detective-like, would investigate. Hamlet swore revenge. And he has more than enough motivation to exact revenge.
Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon-
He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother;
Popped in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage-is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
(Act 5, scene 2 . . . to Horatio)
Yet he delays. It is this delay in performing the act he has sworn to accomplish which leads to Hamlet's death. The poison on the tip of Laertes' sword is but a metaphor for the poison of procrastination which has been coursing through Hamlet's system throughout the play.
Hamlet's thoughts focus upon death rather than upon action. His words show an intense longing for death:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.
(Act I, scene 2)
In Act 3, Scene 1 Hamlet restates this theme:
To be, or not to be, that is the question-
The answer eludes Hamlet throughout the play, perhaps because it is the wrong question. Hamlet is alive and to be alive means 'to do,' not merely to be. It is his inability to 'do,' his tendency to reflect rather than to act which poisons Hamlet's resolve and causes his tragic death.
If the central question of the play is Why doesn't Hamlet kill Claudius immediately upon hearing the ghost's accusation?...