For centuries, Hamlet has haunted both readers and critics by his infinite variety of moods and his inscrutable behavior. Hamlet is a man who defies strict definition or any linear character study.
In fact, there is not one Hamlet- there is a number of Hamlets that face us in the play. There is a Hamlet, the romantic lover, who writes love letters to Ophelia. There is a Hamlet who philosophizes about “To be or not to be”. Again there is the Hamlet who in his fit of passion, kills Polonius or jumps into Ophelia’s grave. There is Hamlet the bereaved son, the dejected lover, a loving genius planning, and staging the play within the play. All the Hamlets are equally true, but still, Hamlet remains an enigma to us; we do not understand him completely. Neither do the other characters understand what is going on in his soul? To understand Hamlet’s problem is the main problem in the play.
The most puzzling problem is Hamlet’s inordinate delay in executing the task of revenge that his father’s ghost imposed upon him. Hamlet procrastinates in such a way that his entire plan of revenge becomes futile because Claudius gets the upper hand of the situation. Hamlet gets caught in the criminal conspiracies by the evil king and runs into his tragic doom. So, the question arises, why does Hamlet delay so much? Critics have been trying to find the answer for centuries.
A number of explanations have been put forward to account for Hamlet’s delay. Some people have tried to say that Hamlet’s delay was due to the external difficulties he could not get at the king because the king was surrounded by Swiss guards. Moreover, if he had accused the king publicly of the murder, he would have nothing to prove the charge except a ghost story. In that case, the court would have considered him mad and put him into the prison. But this view is not well-grounded because Hamlet never refers to their difficulties as serious impediments to his task of revenge.
The romantic critics, on the other hand, have characterized Hamlet has a sensitive individual. According to them, Hamlet is a man of philosophical mind and refined sensibility, so the task of the shedding blood is repulsive to him. Therefore, although he revolves to kill his father’s killer, he finds the actual task of putting the blade into Claudius, a gross and distasteful act. But such a romantic picture of Hamlet is far from true because Hamlet never says that he hates killing. In reality, Hamlet does kill Polonius without much remorse and sends his school friend Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sure death.
Bradley describes Hamlet’s problem of irresolution as the product of his profound melancholy caused by some special circumstances. His mother’s hasty remarriage has shocked him so much that he temporarily over helmed by deep grief and melancholy. Before this event, Hamlet was a sprightly young man. As Ophelia testifies, Hamlet was the courtier’s soldiers, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword, “the expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and mold of form.”
Hamlet whom we see in the first soliloquy is a melancholic and morose person who is tired of life and who thinks that life is not worth perpetuating. It is clear that his thought process is already tainted. He has a very colored vision of the world but the world is full of violence and festering diseases. Even his grief for a dead father is disproportionate and excessive. Hamlet’s grief is bigger than what is expressed in words. It seems that a world’s grief has seized Hamlet. The most puzzling thing about his character is that we do not know the reason. This is what led T.S Eliot to say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure because Shakespeare could supply“The objective co-relative of Hamlet’s emotions.”
The irony is that Hamlet is in pursuit of himself. He also does not understand his feelings and actions properly. Hamlet seems to be a victim of illusions. These illusions are created by his mental faculties, like his idealism, his tendency to generalize, and his perfectionism. Hamlet is an idealist; he has an ideal conception of the world, of love official bondage, etc. His world of idealism is destroyed by the action of his mother. Hamlet generalizes the frailty of his mother into a notion of feminine frailty:
“Frailty thy name is woman.”
By seeing one Claudius, he generalizes that the world is peopled with Claudius. This habit of thought ultimately makes Hamlet’s task of revenge unusually big and unmanageable. When he introspects on the question of revenge, he thinks that killing one Claudius could not solve the problem because the whole world is peopled with villains. But we know that the order of the ghost was very simple to kill one Claudius. But Hamlet has by means of his vicious imagination magnified the task out of all proportions.
Hamlet’s delay is caused by his illusion and imperfection. Hamlet gets an opportunity to kill Claudius while the king was at prayer. But as a sudden flash Hamlet thinks that killing Claudius now could not be perfect revenge because if he kills him now, he will go to heaven. Hamlet puts up his sword telling himself that he would wait for a better opportunity for carrying out his revenge. Hamlet’s failure to take his revenge at this crucial point seals his fate. Hamlet remains a puzzle both to readers and to himself. He is destroyed in the end because of his irresolution only with his death; the tragic tension in his mind between “To be or not to be” is finally resolved.