The Delay in Hamlet’s Revenge
Hamlet's first thoughts after learning of his father's murder are of an immediate, violent revenge upon Claudius. However, his subsequent actions do not live up to these resolutions. Over four acts he takes little deliberate action against his uncle, although the ghost explicitly demands a swift revenge. In S. T. Coleridge's words, Hamlet's central weakness is that he is "continually resolving to do, yet doing nothing but resolve".
Hamlet's first soliloquy, following a hostile conversation with Claudius and Gertrude, shows him grief-stricken, bitter and despairing. The source of Hamlet's melancholy is "his father's death" and the "o'er-hasty marriage" of his mother and uncle. He feels he has to do something, but he does not know precisely what. He expresses his disgust at his mother's inconstancy and incestuous remarriage, but is bound to suffer in silence: he must "hold [his] tongue" for reasons of diplomacy. The world seems empty, and he uses imagery of corruption, darkness, disease and imprisonment to reveal his state of mind. At the beginning of the play, all Hamlet sees is a terrible situation which he has no power to change.
The ghost's command therefore gives Hamlet purpose; a reason to live. Its instruction is unmistakable: "if thou didst ever thy dear father love...revenge his foul and most unnatural murder." The apparition, armed "from head to foot", then relates the story of Claudius' treachery in graphic and horrible detail. It is now apparent to Hamlet what is "rotten in the state of Denmark". Shakespeare makes it very clear what Hamlet's duty is and who his enemy is. Hamlet is charged to avenge his father's murder and free Denmark from the shadow of the king's fratricide, regicide and incest.
Shakespeare establishes Claudius as Hamlet's opposite and enemy in the first Act. Claudius is introduced before Hamlet, but the audience is already aware that the ghost of the old king has appeared with a message for his son. Claudius is a skilful diplomat: ingratiating, self-confident, and a good orator, he has persuaded the Danish court to accept him as king. The incestuous nature of the marriage is hinted at by Claudius himself, who calls Gertrude his "sometime sister, now [his] queen." He presents himself as someone of wisdom and good judgment: a fitting replacement for his "dear brother." The speech shows him to be Hamlet's cunning and worthy adversary.
Following the meeting with the ghost, Hamlet is both physically and mentally exhausted. In a second soliloquy, his thoughts are disorganized, and he is shocked and angry. However, the mood of this soliloquy differs dramatically from the first. No longer listless and melancholy, the ghost's wish for a great act of revenge gives Hamlet fresh hope and energy. He vows to disregard "all pressures past", and do away with the "smiling damned villain." Although deeply agitated, he has resolved to act. Indeed, his violent...