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An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay

From Shakespeare and other lectures by George Dawson, M.A. London: K. Paul.

Hamlet's father's ghost sent him on a difficult errand, and he always tried to go, resolving, re-resolving, and ending the same. It was not that he was unfaithful, and did not want to go, but that he had never finished thinking the matter out. The moment he was about to do the work, up came a new speculation, a new refinement. He split the straw, but then there were two straws. He indulged in any pretext for the glorious power of doing nothing, thinking the matter over again, and gaining a conscientious-looking excuse for delay. He would rather the deed were put on him by accident than that he should essay to do it; and so he stands waiting until the fates float the King towards him to be killed instead of going to seek him; and all the while wondering and wishing, and now blaming himself that the work is still to do, and even wondering at the craven scruples of conscience or forecast which prevented its being done.

So strongly has Shakespeare carried out this idea, that two of the most terrible passages in the play are the result. One of these is the passage in which Hamlet, finding the King at prayers in his closet, refuses to kill him, because his soul would then go to heaven, but says that he will wait until lust and sin come back, and when his soul would be at the door of hell. He is perpetually putting it off, because he is not ready, because he has not done thinking about it. Would it be executing judgment, to kill a man who did not know he was about to be killed? Should the executioner strike his victim from behind? And with what looks like the perfection of malice, like the outcome of demoniacal passion, Hamlet says he will not kill him now, lest he should send him to heaven, but will kill him at some time favourable for his going to hell.

It has been said that this is too devilish and malignant; but even supposing Hamlet meant that, supposing this were his real reason for not killing the King, it must be recollected that Hamlet was not working out a private revenge; that after the visitation of the Ghost he was merely the sword of some great invisible power, that in that capacity he had to exercise due vengeance on a murderer, and that his duty was not therefore to send the King's soul to heaven, but to wait till he was at the door of hell, when by a short stroke, he should cause him so to fall that he should push the door open, and find ready entrance. That is, supposing Hamlet to be impersonal in the matter, the agent of fate, of destiny, of holy law.

But this, in all probability, was not Hamlet's reason. There was no earnestness in his speech, except as an excuse for doing nothing. When Hamlet had not got time to think, he was prompt enough. When he ran Polonius through, he did it quickly; there was then no room for his indecision, his scrupulous conscience, his over-refinement. When Hamlet did a thing well, it was simply because there was no time to think about it. His promptitude arose from his inability to exercise his Teutonic introspection.

Those fine sophistries as to the consequences of killing the King at the moment, are the excuses which conscience has always ready when it would either draw us into sin, or excuse us in the non-doing of a duty. When at last the catastrophe comes, it is floated to him. Hamlet does not kill the King, but the King gets killed; he does not fulfil the catastrophe, but the catastrophe is fulfilled through him; it comes rather by destiny and fate, than the strong will of man.

The catastrophe clashes severely with the notions of those who are admirers of poetic justice, and who cannot bear that the rights and unrights should go down into one grave: but it was the poet's duty, not to set forth poetic justice, but the laws of this world as they are; and we know that the great universal laws of God work in universals; that God never moves out of his way, because there are righteous men in danger of being crushed, or holy men in danger of being punished; and nothing is so solemn as to mark how evil courses drag into their vortexes the just and innocent, the pious and holy.

How to cite this article:
Dawson, George. Shakespeare and other lectures. George St. Clair, ed. London: K. Paul, 1888. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.


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