Why does Hamlet delay in his revenge upon his uncle Claudius. As is revealed by the ghost of Hamlets father, Claudius has not only killed the king, he has wed his wife and Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, thus usurping the throne from Hamlet and all within two months. Hamlet validates these facts by gauging Claudius’ reaction to the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzago, which depicts the way Claudius murdered his brother with poison. After witnessing Claudius’ reaction and verified his guilt, Hamlet seeks out his revenge and plans to murder Claudius. But given the opportunity to murder Claudius as he prays, Hamlet delays. He has all the facts, can hear Claudius’ omission of guilt, and he still chooses not to kill Claudius in that moment. The reasons to Hamlet’s choice to delay has been argued by many. Most prominently, Sigmund Freud applies the theory of the Oedipus Complex to Hamlet, stating his internal repression of desires is to blame. This theory is applicable, but it is not completely palpable. I would venture that, in fact, other internal and external factors play a bigger part in Hamlet’s delay. Hamlet’s internal conflict of morality coupled with external religious values of the time bears the most weight in his delay. Also, we cannot forget the expectations of an audience in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare utilized conventions of the revenge play genre to captivate the audience and please the religious expectations of the powers that governed.
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The Oedipus Complex by Sigmund Freud is a theory of repressed thought and emotion. The theory, loosely put, theorizes that a boy child is in love with his mother and feels erotically towards her. The boy, claiming an innate sense of possession over her, resents the presence of his father because he is competition. The boy will also subconsciously choose a spouse in life that is similar to his mother. As a whole, the theory is applicable to Hamlet on a general level.
Ernest Jones argues that after Hamlet’s father’s death and his mother’s marriage to his uncle, “the association of the idea of sexuality with his mother, buried since infancy, can no longer be concealed from his consciousness…The long “repressed” desire to take his father’s place in his mother’s affection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of someone usurping this place exactly as he himself had once longed to do (p267).” Hamlet begins to sense and show his incestuous love for his mother. Also, Hamlet, in a romance with Ophelia, may not actually love her. Jones elaborates on Freud’s theory stating “a case might even be made out for the view that part of his courtship originated not so much in direct attraction for Ophelia as in an unconscious desire to play her off against his mother…(**)” This could be seen just before The Murder of Gonzago in Act 3 Scene 2 when Gertrude invites her son to sit with her and he, instead, sits with Ophelia. Hamlet says he will sit with Ophelia because “here is metal more attractive,” insinuating Ophelia is more desirable than Gertrude. It is as if Hamlet wants his mother to notice and become jealous of his relationship with Ophelia.
Hamlet’s repressed desire for his mother, not specified in the script, could be interpreted for production. A famous portrayal of the Freudian theory is in Hamlet from 1948, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. In Act 3 Scene 4, wherein Hamlet is begging his mother, Gertrude, not to be intimate with her husband anymore, he intimately lays his head in her lap and at another point they kiss more passionately than is thought to be appropriate between mother and son. This portrayal fulfills the Freudian theory that he is in love with his mother. Again, this direction is not written in the script and is an interpretation by the director, Laurence Olivier.
Hamlet’s delay could loosely be explained through Freudian theory as well. Jones argues two points. The first being that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius without killing himself. “In reality his uncle incorporates the deepest and most buried part of his own personality, so that he cannot kill him without also killing himself. This solution, one closely akin to what Freud has shown to be the motive of suicide in melancholia, is one that Hamlet finally adopts (p270).” The second argument is that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because “it links itself with the unconscious call of his nature to kill his mother’s husband (p270).” Hamlet is unable to kill the man he subconsciously idolizes for killing his father. Claudius killing Hamlet’s father was, in essence, a favour because Hamlet had resented his father for taking his mother’s attention away.
This theory can explain the internal thought process behind Hamlet and his decisions, however, we can never actually know what Hamlet, or Shakespeare, believed. Shakespeare, unlike other playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, writes very little in terms of stage blocking, (actor’s movement), and very little in description of stage design and emotional intention. Much is left up to interpretation of the director. The representation of the repressed subconscious or external expression is judgment of the director and actors. The Freudian theory can work with the script, but it seems unlikely in a historical context. There were more predominant forces, such as moral obligations and religion of the state, which impacted society daily. These factors are more likely to be motivating factors behind the script – especially in Hamlet’s decision to delay – compared to the repressed emotion towards his mother.
The “Elizabethan premise” on moral obligation would have accepted that Hamlet was morally obligated to avenge his father’s death (Prosser p3). “Elizabethan orthodoxy,” however, would have “unanimously condemned private revenge (Prosser p3, Campbell).” Punishment for revenge was eternal damnation, worldly consequences, (such as loss of wealth etc.), and a diminished reputation (Prosser p7-9). The only exception to acting out one’s revenge was if it was an instant retaliation without premeditation. Only in that case alone was the homicide justifiable and could be royally pardoned (Prosser p18). Hamlet would have been wrestling with his moral responsibility. Hamlet knew that, no matter what, he was obligated to avenge his father’s murder. It was what was expected to maintain honour. He also would be enacting a private revenge because he would also be murdering Claudius to retrieve his throne. Hamlet knew that his premeditated planning put his soul at risk. As Eleanor Prosser states, “Hamlet is facing the moral question that has too long been thought irrelevant to the play: whether or not he should effect private revenge (162).”
Hamlet cannot ignore Christian teachings. If he kills Claudius, Hamlet will be condemning himself. Hamlet states verbally in Act 3 Scene 3 that if he kills Claudius while he prays, he would be saving Claudius’ soul from damnation.
“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.” (**cite)
Thus, Hamlet decides to delay until a time where there will be no possible salvation for Claudius.
“Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.” (**cite)
If Hamlet’s own soul is likely to be condemned for enacting revenge, he will not give Claudius’ a chance to reach heaven by murdering him in a church during prayer. Hamlet is ensuring they are both damned for their murders.
Hamlet states his motives for his delay and the script has not given us a reason to doubt his motivation (Prosser). “Moreover, he will do exactly what he said he would do: strike out the minute he believes Claudius to be trapped…(Prosser 192).” This happens in the scene immediately following the prayer, in Act 3 Scene 4, wherein Hamlet stabs the arras believing it is Claudius hiding in the bedroom, and not Polonius. Despite Hamlet’s mistake, we see him attempting to act on his murderous plot. This proves that the delay was not intended to take as long as it did. The immediacy of Hamlet’s actions discredits Freud’s theory, as Freud’s theory is based on life-long internal repression and struggle. Hamlet is shown acting and not hesitating in his revenge, as is suggested in Jones’ interpretation of Freud. Hamlet is a victim of Shakespeare’s artistic decision to have him kill Polonius and not Claudius.
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The interpretation of Hamlet’s talk with Gertrude, also in Act 3 Scene 4, is varied. The script offers no indication of deliberate motivations, neither does it offer information such as blocking, (physical placement of characters on stage.) This allows this scene to be interpreted in different ways. As mentioned, in Laurence Olivier’s version of the play, we see a devoted Hamlet in love with his mother. They embrace, he rests intimately on her lap, and Freud’s theory is applied to this version of Hamlet successfully. However, in the 1996 version of Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, we see an infuriated Hamlet pleading with Gertrude to leave her incestuous sheets. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation is centered around guilt, anger, and repulsion of incest as opposed to physical intimacy and repulsion because of repression. Of course, either theory could be applied to the script but it is through creative risk and a directorial vision that a decision would be made in a character or scenes portrayal. Many of these decisions would be based on mass appeal. The audience plays a factor in what it wants to see. A modern audience may be more keen for the Freudian incest influence, (Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet won Oscars), but an Elizabethan audience would have seen things differently.
Despite the moral obligations of religion emphasized by the Elizabethan Establishment, “popular code approving revenge had far more influence than the code of Elizabethan Establishment (Prosser p4).” An Elizabethan audience member would be stuck in their own ethical dilemma- “a dilemma, to put it most simply, between what he believed and what he felt (Prosser p4).” The audience would be cheering for the revenge to take place, but, they would be wary of revenge without absolution. Shakespeare, playing into the desires of revenge yet trying to please the Elizabethan Establishment that condemned malevolence, wrote popular revenge plays which often saw the revenger condemned (Prosser p70). This is very important in regards to Hamlet’s delay because Shakespeare had to show Claudius repenting, which occurs in a church in Act 3 Scene 3.The audience had to witness a turn in the play which saw sympathies lying with a villain who was attempting to do right. The audience also had to witness the anti-heroic qualities of Hamlet that occur after the delay, (such as Hamlet antagonizing Ophelia, plotting to damn his uncle’s soul, killing Polonius, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths etc.) Shakespeare was expected to live up to the popular convention of condemning the revenger, and it could only happen successfully if Hamlet was also villafied. As a playwright in a political era motivated by the church, it only made sense that Shakespeare would write the script so that Hamlet would delay Claudius’ murder. The delay was to allow the plot to continue; to lead up to the conventions of a revenge play which pleased the audience’s desire for bloodshed as well as please the political forces that required seeing revenge damned by misfortune. Shakespeare was able to show two characters who plotted revenge and murders against each other, die because of their desire for private revenge and the disregard for the Christian faith. The delay was Shakespeare’s plot necessity.
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