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Madeleine Chercover
Mr. Robertson Block F
April 20th, 2012
English 11/12 Term Paper: Hamlet’s Delay
The necessity to make decisions in life is a given; the majority of such choices,
evident and simple, are made in passing. Decisions, however, where each option entails a
sacrifice and no choice appears clear are the ones deeply agonized over. The weighing of
each sacrifice is such a struggle that the decision-maker incessantly delays the moment at
which they will finally choose. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet, too, grapples
with his options. He may either satisfy his sense of loyalty and seek revenge on behalf of his
father, or he may stay true to his sense of ethics and abstain. Hamlet delays due to his
attempts to simultaneously fulfill, rather than sacrifice, these two conflicting concepts of
honour: that of duty and that of morality and conscience. To remain honourable in both
respects essentially entails inaction. In order to be a man of honour, Hamlet has no choice
but to delay.
Hamlet and his struggle with honour were written in the context of Elizabethan
England; the 17th century was at a crossroads where a more modern, moral and “medieval
chivalric” (1070 Terry) concept of honour were simultaneously emphasized. This twofold
code of honour “created tensions of its own [...] because of its demand that men act both in
accordance to the dictates of their conscience and their duty to the state” (1072 Terry). Such
tensions encapsulate the inner conflict Hamlet faces. Indeed Hamlet’s tragedy is not, in fact,
his own indecisiveness, but the values of the era he lives in: “he is forced to attempt to
balance these ‘rival ethical legacies’ as he struggles to remain honorable” (1075 Terry). In
order to achieve this balance, Hamlet acknowledges that there is a decision to be made but
delays taking any action. By recognizing that revenge on behalf of his father is necessary,
Hamlet fulfills his sense of duty, while taking no such action preserves his conscience. Only
those, such as Laertes, who deliberately cast aside one of the two concepts of honour are
actually able to act: “Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! [...] Only I’ll be
revenged / Most thoroughly for my father” (4.5.128,133-134). For Hamlet, however, to take
action while staying true to both morality and duty proves impossible. Consequently, he is
incapacitated into taking no decisive action whatsoever.
A climate of irresolution pervaded 17th century Europe. While Hamlet’s inability to
make a decision may come across as unique, in actuality, “Shakespeare modelled him on a
man who [...] epitomised the very best of Elizabethan England” (147 Asquith). Indeed,
Englishmen of the time were “caught in an agony of indecision.” Many hoped that, despite
refraining from resolution and the action it would require, an outcome would come to pass
nonetheless. Jasper Heywood’s poem, “The Lookers-on,” tells of men who would make no
judgement in order to “have the fruit, yet [be] free from blame” (147 Asquith). Hamlet is of
the same mindset. By no means is he against the exacting of vengeance on Claudius; his
problem lies in the fact that he is the one to carry out justice. Hamlet laments, “O cursed
spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.188-189). He acknowledges that the exacting
of revenge on behalf of his father is the “right” and honourable thing to do. However, such
action would defy Hamlet’s conscience, so he delays with the hope that the desired outcome
will be brought about by others. To delay vengeance against his uncle, all the while
acknowledging that action is imperative, allows Hamlet to conserve the two notions of
honour; any action taken by Hamlet upsets this preservation of his morality. Thus whenever
Hamlet postpones his revenge, he acts towards the conservation of his honour.
Vengeance is a theme found in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet can be
contrasted with the play, Titus Andronicus, where a son faces a similar situation to that of
Hamlet; he seeks vengeance on behalf of his father. However, for this son, the decision to
avenge is simple: “Can the son’s eye behold his father bleed? / There’s meed for meed, death
for deadly deed!” (5.3.64-65). His diction and reasoning is similar to that of “an eye for an
eye, a tooth for a tooth”: every wrongdoing has a clear and equal repercussion. Hamlet
complicates this straightforward rationale by looking beyond the act of revenge and his
familial duty, to morality and to what will be after the act of vengeance has been committed.
He understands that vengeance would be honourable in the sense of duty, but in the form of
morality, his honour would be irreclaimable. Indeed while exacting revenge may provide
Hamlet a “source of emotional gratification” afterwards, there would remain little “ethical
distinction” (167 McEachern) between Claudius and him. The duty of vengeance and the
immorality of murder come into direct conflict, showing clearly that the two codes of
honour cannot coexist and a choice must be made. Such is the decision Hamlet faces and his
avoidance of the sacrifice of his morality is the reason for delay; in order to carry out a
deliberate revenge on Claudius, and fully appreciate the outcome, he must no longer place
any value on his moral notion of honour. He does just that as he stands before Fortinbras’
soldiers and exclaims, “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing
worth!” (4.4.65-66). Hamlet thus lets go of the notion of conscientious honour and
relinquishes himself to being a honourable man, one who fulfills his duty to his blood
relations. With this declaration and relinquishment, there is no longer reason for delay and
Hamlet accepts the conclusion he has been bound for all the while: revenge.
Hamlet’s relinquishment of moral honour opens up the way for the events of
vengeance to transpire and as consequence, Hamlet’s “common destruction” (36 Bloom).
Before the duel with Laertes, Horatio entreaties Hamlet, “if your mind”, or conscience,
“dislike anything, obey it” (5.2.218). However, having resigned from his attempts to preserve
his conscientious honour, Hamlet may now accept whatever is to come as a duty to his
father and thereby says, “let be” (5.2.225). With one notion of honour now sacrificed, there is
no longer reason for vengeance to be delayed. For most, revenge is a triumphant act of
justice. Yet Hamlet refers to the impending vengeance with regret, saying, “thou wouldst not
think how ill all’s here about my heart. But it is no matter” (5.2.213-214). Indeed Hamlet
appears to be more of “an instrument than an agent” (31 Bloom), as though he is but
solemnly carrying out his charge. He finds himself with his sense of moral honour
relinquished and only his dutiful honour left to adhere to. Thus no course of action remains
but for him to follow through with his obligation and in doing so, be murdered amongst the
“general ruin” (36 Bloom). These series of events, though tragic, come naturally as Hamlet
halts his efforts to balance two notions of honour by way of delay. He need not contemplate
the moral implications of every action and instead, his life progresses down a single path.
In renouncing his moral honour, Hamlet sacrifices himself to his duty. Delay was a
means of gripping to his conscience and judgement but all the while Hamlet understood
that his two notions of honour, duty and morality, could not coexist in perpetuity. Despite
his initial reluctance, once Hamlet resolved to commit himself to his duty, he followed that
path to its end.
Work Cited
Asquith, Clare. Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William
Shakespeare. New York: PublicAffairs, 2005. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Wi"iam Shakespeare's Hamlet. New York: Chelsea House, 1996. Print.
McEachern, Claire. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in
Early Modern England." Renaissance Quarterly 52.4 (1999): 1070-086. Print.