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Many questions surround the idea of Hamlet’s inability to act through the course of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. E. E. Stoll makes one of the most audacious arguments simply stating “It is both the traditional form and the natural procedure; obviously, the deed done, the tragedy is over.” ‘Because that’s the way he wrote it,’ is the poorest excuse for an argument ever written by anyone even if it was 1933 when he wrote it. I rather prefer T. S. Elliot’s 1932 statement one how not being able to name the thing made him unable to act: “Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.”
Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy best defends T. S. Elliot’s argument. In it, he ponders the meanings or the ‘bafflement’ of meaning. Hamlet is at the point where he sees more than just himself in the world, but the whole of creation. He considers the grand scheme of life and the impact it has on men. The last statement best supports Elliot’s argument when Hamlet says the “currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action” (III. i. 87-8). He does not have the ‘name’ of the thing yet, but he has an idea of what it is.
This speech also supports A. C. Bradley’s 1903 argument that Hamlet cannot act because he cannot choose whether it is the noble thing or the right thing to do. “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” (III. i. 57-60). Hamlet is directly asking whether he should act out of honor, or not act out of honor. Bradley gives the paradoxes in his essay as difficulties, challenges, and mysteries: “It is violent, dangerous, difficult to accomplish perfectly, on one side repulsive to a man of hour and sensitive feeling, on another side involved in a certain mystery. Hamlet must first decide the reasons for doing ‘the thing’ before he can go about accomplishing it.
Goethe explains Hamlet’s inaction as being a result of the situation. “Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him.” Hamlet cannot just go and avenge his father’s death by murdering Claudius because it is not in his nature to do so until he has made it a part of his nature by losing his “peace of mind.” Goethe’s most famous statement compares Hamlet to a “costly jar” having an oak tree planted in it when it should have “borne only pleasant flowers.” Hamlet, being the jar, is broken by the idea that has been planted in him by the ghost of his father. He was not capable of murder until the “roots” or idea of murder had shattered his principles.
Coleridge takes a similar approach in describing Hamlet’s indecisiveness to thinking too much, “Hence, we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action.” He concludes that Hamlet is so preoccupied with the idea of ‘the thing’ in his head that he closes himself off from all action on the outside in the real world. Jacqueline Rose serves the same argument with a feminine spin on it. She points out that Gertrude should not “bear the chief burden of guilt.” Rose makes the statement that is it often pointed out that Hamlet seems more disturbed by his mother’s remarriage than the murder of his father. She states that the confusion and blame centered on Gertrude causes Hamlet to constantly re-evaluate his feelings toward his guilty mother. The contradiction of love and hate keep Hamlet from acting one way or the other. The contradiction is seen most prevalentLY in the bedroom scene. Hamlet longs to kiss his mother but is suspicious and judgmental.
Janet Adelman’s argument is best defended with the same scene. She argues that Hamlet has to make up his mind whether to follow his mother’s happiness or his father’s. It is in this scene that Hamlet kisses his mother and then has the apparition of his father appear to re-assert his duties of revenge. Adelman describes this conflict as a “two sentences.” The idealized father’s absence released the threat of “maternal sexuality” and subjected Hamlet to the “annihilating” power of Gertrude. But, the father re-appears amidst THE power of the mother and clashes. Hamlet is left in the middle fending for solid ground.
In conclusion, reading Hamlet with Elliot and Bradley’s arguments in mind provides the best context for understanding the play. In a traditional Christian context, a thing should have a name in order for someone to conquer it. Hamlet was not able to name his foe, and was thus not able to act. He was torn between what was right and what was expected of him. It would be interesting to further conclude that if you could switch Hamlet and Othello, then everything would have ended with fewer deaths, but then I would be stepping on E. E. Stoll’s toes.
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