Action and Inaction

Every society is defined by its codes of conduct-its rules about how to act and behave. There are many scenes in Hamlet when one person tells another how to act: Claudius lectures Hamlet on the proper show of grief; Polonius advises Laertes on practical rules for getting by at university in France; Hamlet constantly lectures himself on what he should be doing. In Hamlet, the codes of conduct are largely defined by religion and an aristocratic code that demands honor and revenge if honor has been soiled. But as Hamlet actually begins to pursue revenge against Claudius, he discovers that the codes of conduct themselves don’t fit together. Religion actually opposes revenge, which would mean that taking revenge could endanger Hamlet’s own soul. In other words, Hamlet discovers that the codes of conduct on which society is founded are contradictory. In such a world, Hamlet suggests, the reasons for revenge become muddy, and the idea of justice confused.

Hamlet fits in a literary tradition called the revenge play, in which a man must take revenge against those who have in some way wronged him. Yet Hamlet turns the revenge play on its head in an ingenious way: Hamlet, the man seeking revenge, can’t actually bring himself to take revenge. For reason after reason, some clear to the audience, some not, he delays. Hamlet’s delay has been a subject of debate from the day the play was first performed, and he is often held up as an example of the classic “indecisive” person, who thinks to much and acts too little. But Hamlet is more complicated and interesting than such simplistic analysis would indicate. Because while it’s true that Hamlet fails to act while many other people do act, it’s not as if the actions of the other characters in the play work out. Claudius’s plots back re, Gertrude marries her husband’s murderer and dies for it, Laertes is manipulated and killed by his own treachery, and on, and on, and on. In the end, Hamlet does not provide a conclusion about the merits of action versus inaction. Instead, the play makes the deeply cynical suggestion that there is only one result of both action and inaction – death.

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