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.
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. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/hamletdelay.html >.
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