As Shakespeare’s works have been passed along across generations and continents, many literature enthusiasts and Shakespeare scholars around the world have had the opportunity to dive deep into each of his pieces and use their own unique perspectives to interpret and uncover the meaning and applications of the text. Among all of his works, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has proven to be particularly puzzling; it seems to be the only one of Shakespeare’s “revenge tragedies” where the protagonist, Prince Hamlet, delays to take action on his desire for revenge, and instead plays as a more intelligent, introspective character who spends much more time thinking than he does acting. In the play, Hamlet’s heart and mind are at odds over the task of revenge, and he uses dramatic language and logic in his soliloquies to attempt to trick the two into agreement, while, in contrast, the character of Laertes does not need to speak nearly as much and yet quickly determines to satisfy both.
Throughout the play, Hamlet seems to be at odds with himself, and often his mind is drawing him toward revenge, while his heart is holding him back from it. One of the greatest examples of Hamlet’s inaction displayed through his soliloquies is where he questions the nature of the ghost he sees, whether he is from Heaven or Hell. In Act I scene 5, the ghost has provided Hamlet with the information and motivation to secure his revenge for his father’s death, even telling him directly to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.iv.25). However, instead of taking direct action on the opportunity he has clearly been given, Hamlet employs his drama in one of his many soliloquies, when he concludes, “one may smile and smile and be a villain, at least I may be sure it is in Denmark” (I.iv.109). Here, although Hamlet recognizes his current situation and what needs to take place, it seems as if only his mind has made a promise to get revenge for the ghost of his dead father, but his heart has not yet matched that fury. He is not spurred to act, but rather to reflect and ponder the true identity behind people’s “smiles.”
Even as Hamlet is continually presented with opportunities to follow his thoughts and kill King Claudius, he continually suppresses these desires through appealing to the logic of his mind. For example, when the King on his knees praying, in what appears to Hamlet as an act of pleading for forgiveness and mercy, his mind immediately urges him to stab Claudius in the back, as Hamlet proclaims “Now might I do it pat, now he a is praying / And now I’ll do’t” (III.iii.73). Hamlet’s heart, however, does not want him to take this action, because his heart cannot bear the idea of acting out in revenge that does not truly revenge his father’s soul (if Claudius were to be killed when praying, Hamlet worried he might be sent to Heaven). In that moment, Hamlet’s heart rationalizes to his mind, and he refrains from committing the murder, justifying himself by claiming “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage…or about some act that has no relish of salvation in’t / Then trip him where his heels may kick at Heaven” (III.iii.89-94). Again, Hamlet has surrendered the ideal opportunity to take his revenge because he is too focused on justifying the crime in his mind for his heart’s sake.
In contrast to this back-and-forth drama seen in the character of Hamlet, Laertes takes a very different approach, even though he encounters a similar situation. After he learns of his father Polonious’ death at the hand of Hamlet, Laertes is immediately enraged, and spends no time rationalizing his next actions; both his heart and his mind are in concordance that this senseless act of bloodshed has no other resolve except the murder of Hamlet, taking a life for a life. In Act IV scene 6 and 7, he directly conspires with the King to devise the best plan of action against Hamlet, and is, if anything, overly prepared to take his revenge, only stopping from taking direct action sooner at the King’s request to wait for the duel. At first, Laertes proclaims, “To this point I stand / That both the worlds I give to negligence. / Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father,” almost lashing out in anger and revenge at Claudius, originally attributing him to his father’s murder. He was prepared to kill Claudius right then and there, had the King not stepped in and said, “Good Laertes, If you desire to know the certainty / Of your dear father’s death, is ’t writ in your revenge, / That, swoopstake, you will draw both friend and foe, / Winner and loser?… That I am guiltless of your father’s death / And am most sensible in grief for it, [I will prove to you]” (IV.vi.139-145). Laertes’ actions directly contrast those of Hamlet; in 4 scenes, Laertes learns of his father’s murder, plots to take revenge, and actively seeks it, while it takes Hamlet the whole play to act on his desire for revenge, even though he had plenty of chances to do so all along.
The theme of action and inaction in this play is important not only when looking in depth at each character themselves, but also when looking at the overall meaning and impact of the play. By having Hamlet refrain from taking such quick revenge, Shakespeare is able to develop a much more complex plot and explore other motifs and symbols, such as the inherent value of women and sexuality, or the meaning of death and what comes after. Throughout the play, these questions are woven together into the fabric of Hamlet, and perhaps that is why this play is still so highly admired and studied today.