William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The external causes of Hamlet's delay are the physical difficulties in the situation. Claudius is not a weak king. He is a shrewd man who does everything to protect his life from unforeseen attacks. He is not only surrounded by courtiers, but also strongly protected by his Swiss bodyguards. Hence, Hamlet would find it difficult to meet his enemy alone. Also, he does not in the beginning have any strong proof of Claudius's guilt except for the Ghost's story. With this he cannot hope to win the people's help in deposing the king. Hence, he gets enacted the play and the King's guilt is confirmed. However, the enactment of the play also puts Claudius on guard. The enemy takes the initiative and plots to do away with Hamlet. However, these external difficulties are not major hindrances: Hamlet himself does not speak as if there were external difficulties in the way of his killing Claudius. In Act III, Sc. III, when he sees Claudius at prayer, he postpones the idea of killing him for he wishes eternal damnation for the victim.
Again Shakespeare shows Laertes easily raising the people against the King. If Laertes could do that, Hamlet as a popular prince could more easily have raised the people against Claudius and seen to his destruction. Above all Hamlet gets the play enacted not to prove to the people Claudius's guilt, but to convince himself of the Ghost's words. Hence, the external difficulties do not account for his delay.
Internal causes which make Hamlet delay his action are within his own character. Some attribute the cause of delay to his cowardly nature which dares not act for fear of consequences. There is ample proof to show that Hamlet is not a coward and is capable of fearless acts of heroism in the face of danger and difficulty. When the Ghost summons him to follow it, Horatio and Marcellus try to restrain him. But he threatens them saying, "Unhand me, gentlemen. By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.” These brave terrifying words do not sound as if they come from a frail and weak person. Again he is no timid weakling when he speaks sarcastically and insultingly to Claudius and Polonius. He kills Polonius in an instant, sends his schoolfellows to their death, boards the pirate ship, returns to Denmark only to meet his tragic death, rushes on the king and kills him with the poisoned sword, forces him deliberately to drink the remains of the poisoned wine and seizes the cup from his friend's hand to prevent him from committing suicide.
It seems that to a certain extent Hamlet's delay is due to the conscience theory. A critic argues: "In Hamlet we behold the Christian struggling with the natural man, and its demand for revenge in a tone still louder and deeper by the hereditary prejudices of the Teutonic nations." Most of the time he is torn between Christian scruples and the obedience to fulfil his father's desires. In his soliloquies he wishes to commit suicide. But he puts aside this thought on the ground of Christian ethic that committing suicide is a sin. Hence, he blames himself. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." Some critics even point out that he delays partly due to the command of Christ, “Resist not evil" and the fear of the consequences of evil in the next world after death. But all this only strengthens the view that Hamlet is against murder. However, Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius not on the grounds of a Christian spirit, but because of a most revengeful thought that his soul should go to hell straight and not to heaven. In addition, he feels no remorse at the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So, this theory of conscience does not account for his delay.
Since the above given reasons do not account for Hamlet's delay, some feel that the cause of his delay is irresolution, which is due to an excess of thinking and reflection. The energy that should have gone out as action is spent in the process of thought. Coleridge analyses Hamlet's character and points out; "we see a great, an almost enormous intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances under which he is obliged to act. Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve". What Coleridge has said is perhaps true to some extent, for Hamlet's soliloquies are full of thought and feeling, but after that instead of becoming a man of action, he becomes a man of no action, exhausted by the energy of his own thoughts and feeling.
Thinking too precisely on the event is one aspect of Hamlet's delay He broods unnecessarily over each and every action and is lost among his thoughts. Hamlet receives a violent shock from his mother's over-hasty marriage. As a result of that he suffers from melancholia. At this time the Ghost reveals the secret of his father's murder and imposes upon him the duty of revenge of which he is incapable. The additional burden with the realization of his incapability to carry out the entrusted task successfully further weakens him and makes him a melancholic character. The consequence is a disgust with life, a longing to end his life and a wish not to have been born at all
Nothing in the world could entertain him and he loses interest in everything. He hates women and generalizes their nature as 'frailty'. Thus, his whole mind is poisoned because of his melancholy. Unnatural melancholy destroys the brain with all his faculties and disposition of action and thus results in his delay.