Hamlet and Revenge

Revenge is on Hamlet's mind, but why does he fail to act for so long?

Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hulton Archive - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, "Hamlet,"​  is often understood to be a revenge tragedy, but it is quite an odd one at that. It is a play driven by a protagonist who spends most of the play contemplating revenge rather than exacting it.

Hamlet’s inability to avenge the murder of his father drives the plot and leads to the deaths of most of the major characters, including Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And Hamlet himself is tortured by his indecision and his inability to kill his father's murderer, Claudius, throughout the play.

When he finally does exact his revenge and kills Claudius, it is too late for him to derive any satisfaction from it; Laertes has struck him with a poisoned foil and Hamlet dies shortly after.

Action and Inaction in Hamlet

To highlight Hamlet’s inability to take action, Shakespeare includes other characters capable of taking resolute and headstrong revenge as required. Fortinbras travels many miles to take his revenge and ultimately succeeds in conquering Denmark; Laertefs plots to kill Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, Polonius.

Compared to these characters, Hamlet’s revenge is ineffectual. Once he decides to take action, he delays any action until the end of the play. It should be noted that this delay is not uncommon in Elizabethan revenge tragedies. What makes "Hamlet" different from other contemporary works is the way in which Shakespeare uses the delay to build Hamlet’s emotional and psychological complexity. The revenge itself ends up being almost an afterthought, and in many ways, is anticlimactic. 

Indeed, the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy is Hamlet's debate with himself about what to do and whether it will matter. Though the piece begins with his pondering suicide, Hamlet's desire to avenge his father becomes clearer as this speech continues. It's worth considering this soliloquy in its entirety. 

To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death-
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.- Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb'red.

Over the course of this eloquent musing on the nature of self and death and what actions he should take, Hamlet remains paralyzed by indecision.

How Hamlet's Revenge is Delayed

Hamlet’s revenge is delayed in three significant ways. First, he must establish Claudius’ guilt, which he does in Act 3, Scene 2 by presenting the murder of his father in a play. When Claudius storms out during the performance, Hamlet becomes convinced of his guilt.

Hamlet then considers his revenge at length, in contrast to the rash actions of Fortinbras and Laertes. For example, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius in Act 3, Scene 3. He draws his sword but is concerned that Claudius will go to heaven if killed while praying.

After killing Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England making it impossible for him to gain access to Claudius and carry out his revenge. During his trip, becomes more headstrong in his desire for revenge.

Although he does ultimately kill Claudius in the final scene of the play, it's not due to any scheme or plan by Hamlet, rather, it is Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet that backfires.