Thought vs. Action in Hamlet

Instructor: Michelle Acker

Michelle has a degree in English and a Master's in Education from Temple University. She has taught special education, 4th grade, and high school Communication Arts.

In William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' Hamlet is set on getting revenge. But when it comes down to it, he spends more time in thought than he does in action. Find out how overthinking cost Hamlet everything.

The Over-thinker

Hamlet, often deep in thought

William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, might have been more accurately named, Hamlet, the Over-thinker and Procrastinator of Denmark, since Hamlet spends the entire play thinking and not doing. In the very beginning of the play we learn that Hamlet wants to kill his uncle, King Claudius, to avenge, or get revenge for, his father's murder. But then we wait for it--and wait for it. We wait for the entire play for Hamlet to first make up his mind, and then to actually put a plan into action. All the while we listen to him obsess over the idea of it in his many monologues (speeches to himself).

In fact, Hamlet's most infamous monologue in Act III, Scene i, is specifically about his decision to act or not act.

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?

He drives himself insane with this internal debate. Which is more honorable? To 'suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'--in other words, to just deal with the suffering of the lousy life he has--or to fight ('take arms against') the troubles and end them. So the question really is: deal with it or do something about it?

Alas, he finally decides to do it--to kill Claudius--and we think that the action is about to begin. But, no, he must think some more, plan the perfect murder. And so begins his procrastination, or delaying.

Waiting for the Perfect Revenge

The Play

Hamlet stages a play to expose Claudius

Hamlet devises an elaborate plan to stage a play reenacting Claudius murdering King Hamlet-- Hamlet's father. His plan is that Claudius will be so disturbed by the play that the audience will be convinced of his guilt: 'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' While this is a relatively decent plan to expose Claudius, it's really just procrastination.

The Hesitation

Claudius in prayer, the perfect moment to strike

In Act III, Scene iii, Hamlet sneaks into Claudius's room and finds him kneeling in prayer. It seems like the perfect opportunity for Hamlet to do the deed: Claudius is distracted, his back is turned, at that very moment he's verbally confessing his sins of murder, and there's no one there to intervene. The stars are all aligned, nothing is in Hamlet's way; this is his moment--but he hesitates. Leave it to Hamlet, instead of doing it, he thinks about it some more--even with sword in hand--and in this moment of reflection, Hamlet realizes killing Claudius during prayer will send his soul directly to heaven.

A villain kills my father, and, for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

Sending his father's murderer to heaven would be terrible revenge, so he decides he'll wait some more--for a better moment:

To take him in the purging of his soul

When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?


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