The Disobedient Son: A Historical Approach to the Problem of Delayed Revenge in Shakespeare`s `Hamlet`

Term Paper, 2002

5 Pages, Grade: Excellent

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Although in Shakespeare`s Hamlet there is no textual evidence that the act of revenge is overly delayed, it is generally acknowledged that there actually is an inappropriate delay of Hamlet`s vengeance. Only very few critics challenged this assumption. G.B. Harrison, for example, is convinced that "In the play which Shakespeare wrote there was no delay" (Weitz, 4), an opinion that is shared by Eleanor Prosser, who adds: "Only when acts became separated by extended intermissions did delay theories evolve" (141). However, on the basis of the text we can, at least, safely assume that the Dane prince himself is deeply disturbed because he is unable to "sweep to [his] revenge" (1.5.30) as fast as he had sworn to do (1.5.28-89). Hamlet castigates himself with voilent self-reproaches:

Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.502),

Am I a coward? (2.2.523),

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave That I, the son of the dear murderèd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore unpack my heart with words (2.2.534-8).

But Hamlet`s reproachful words can be doubted; maybe they are a mere product of an overly "ambitious" (3.1.122) mind. So supposing there is a delay, is it an inappropriate one? Or did Hamlet have good reasons to procrastinate? What could these reasons be?

The causes of Hamlet`s involuntary procrastination are as obscure for the audience as for the main character himself. So far, no critic that tried to elucidate the problem of delay has been able to provide textual proof that is utterly satisfying for his (or her) theory. All these theories were based on certain assumptions that were outside the play, and indeed this seems necessary because there simply is no explanation inside the drama.

But why did Shakespeare refuse to give further explanation? Moreover, can the lack of information lead to the evaluation that the play is a mere "artistic failure" (T.S.Elliot, in Weitz, 132)? I venture to disagree. Obviously, Shakespeare omitted supplementary information because he thought that the play was understood as it was. As Prosser puts it: "the need to make the [...] issue explicit [...] simply would not have occurred to him" (155). Shakespeare considered the play as self-evident because he shared the knowledge and the meanings of his contemporaries. Michel Foucault would call these shared assumptions "discourse", a term that Peter Barry explains thus:

Discourse is not just a way of speaking or writing, but the whole 'mental set' and ideology which encloses the thinking of all members of a society (176).

Shakespeare thus assumed that his audience could "fill the gaps" (Iser, 9) of missing information with the help of this discursive knowledge. So the explanation of Hamlet`s behavior must have been easy for an ordinary Elizabethan. It is not for us, however; what makes interpretation so difficult is that we simply have no full access to Elizabethan discourse. Nevertheless it is vital to involve our assumptions about what Elizabethans knew in order to come close to an interpretation of 'Hamlet' as Shakespeare and his audience understood it. In this essay I intend to show that from the historical angle the reasons why Hamlet delayed his revenge become evident and as logical as they must have seemed to the Elizabethan spectator in the Globe theatre.

1. Melancholy

It was A.C Bradley who first established a simple but convincing theory: according to him, Hamlet`s inability to kill his uncle is due to a melancholic disposition caused by the death of his father and the betrayal of his mother, and aggravated by the ghost`s revelation that murder was involved. Indeed, Hamlet unmistakably expresses a distinct disgust for life:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon `gainst self-slaughter. [...] How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.128-34).

this godly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air [ ]- it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours (2.2.282-6).

Bradley rightly points out that "[s]uch a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to any kind of decided action" (Weitz, 7).

Numerous textual sources show that 'melancholy' was a common notion in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance (see, for instance, Anglicus or La Primaudaye) . It is astonishing to what extent these texts seem to refer directly to the Dane prince. A fine example is Timothy Bright`s 'Treatise of Melancholie', dating from 1586, where it is said that "[s]ometimes it falleth out that melancholie men are found verie wittie, and quickly discerne" (130), and that

[m]elancholy breedeth a ielousie of doubt in that they take in deliberation and causeth them to be the more exact and curious in pondering the very moments of things (130).

Thus, Bright helps us not only to identify Hamlet as a melancholic, but also confirms that melancholy is likely to be the cause of vacillation. As J. Dover Wilson proved (309-20), there could be no doubt that Shakespeare knew Bright`s Treatise. It follows that, very probably, Shakespeare employed the popular subject consciously, knowing that his audience could not have failed to perceive Hamlet as the prototype of a melancholic (hence a man that tends to obsessive thinking rather than decided action).

At this point, one could argue that even if we identify Hamlet as the classic Elizabethan 'melancholic type', that still does not mean that his melancholy is sufficiently pathological to prevent him from doing what he feels he has to do: to take murderous revenge. Admittedly, it cannot be said for sure if Hamlet`s depressive state of mind is the sole cause for his delay; but it can certainly be considered an obstacle further aggravating his task. As Bradley puts it: all obstacles would not suffice to prevent Hamlet from acting, if his state were normal [...]. But the retarding motives acquire an unnatural strength because they have an ally [...], the melancholic disgust and apathy (38).

2. Religious scruples

Historical research offers further solutions for the problem of delay. If we consider how the act of vengeance was viewed in Shakespeare`s time, it becomes evident that "Elizabethan moralists condemned revenge as illegal, blasphemous, immoral, irrational, [and] unnatural" (Prosser, 10). Now what are the reasons for that? We must not forget that in Renaissance times, religion played a central role, and divine law was fundamental for justice, politics, and social life. Daniell reminds us that the

"Bible [...] was not, as it can be in modern times, a file to be called up: it was the life-blood, the daily, even hourly, nourishment of the nation and of ordinary men and women. It was known with a thoroughness that is, simply, astonishing" (170).

And the Bible says about vengeance:

[d]o not take revenge [...], but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay', says the Lord (Romans, 12:19).

It follows that,

[t]hroughout the last half of the sixteenth century, Church, State, and conventional morality fulminated against private revenge in any form and under any circumstances (Prosser, 5).

Obviously, the consciousness that vengeance is wrong was an integral part of the Elizabethan discourse; hence Hamlet, being a product of this discourse, must be considered a character that shares this knowledge. So it is likely that he procrastinates because he knows that murder for revenge is inexcusable and only "duplicates the [original] crime" (Kastan, 199). Moreover, if he avenges his father, Hamlet risks eternal damnation, for

[n]o matter how righteous a man might think his motives, the act of revenge would inevitably make him as evil as his injurer in the eyes of God (Prosser, 7).

Shakespeare made it evident that Christian morality was indeed relevant for the play, for instance in Act one: having

indicated that he comes from Purgatory (1.5.9-13), the ghost, concerned about his former wife, advises Hamlet to "[l]eave her to heaven" (1.5.86).

But when Shakespeare introduced a Christian context for the classical revenge pattern, he also questioned the pagan

justifications for vengeance (for instance, honour), thus leaving Hamlet at a loss about what action to take: should he obey the ghost and risk eternal damnation, or should he obey divine law, give up avenging his father and try to bear the unbearable (that is, murder, incest and his own failure)? The latter would save his soul, but destroy his life once and for all. The first would satisfy his ego and his wish for justice, but leave him with the fear of what might come after death. It is brilliant how Shakespeare creates this "ethical dilemma" (Prosser, 3). First he introduces a Christian context, thus questioning the pagan principle that the revenge of a father is not only justified but a duty. And then he lets Hamlet challenge Christian morality by asking if, in some extreme cases, it might be acceptable to take the law into one`s own hands (3.1.56- 88).

The famous third soliloquy reflects Hamlet`s religious scruples. "To be or not to be" (3.1.56) should be read as 'to revenge, or not to revenge', for "to be" is for Hamlet to act his free will - thus to avenge his father. And "not to be" is to give up his purpose and leave justice to God - thus to lose the self-determination that is the distinguishing feature of mankind. But the latter seems inacceptable and rouses his defiance:

What is a man

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feet? A beast, no more.

Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused


On the other hand, it is eternal damnation that "does make cowards of us all" (3.1.83), and Hamlet fears it. [These are important issues to think about, and we should concede him a little time to make up his mind.]

3. The doubtful ghost

There is another relevant point concerning the revenge that Elizabethans must have been aware of. Even to Hamlet, the ghost seems rather doubtful sometimes - not with regard to his existence, but to his nature. The ghost appears more like an evil seducer to sin than a (once) loving father - why else should he urge his only son to revenge, a crime that is, according to general belief, the "eighth Deadly Sin" (Prosser, 6)? The ghost must have been well aware that vengeance leads to eternal damnation and, without scruple, seems to accept this fate for his son. And if the ghost really had to "fast in fires" (1.5.11) in Purgatory in order to have his soul "purged" (1.5.13) and his "foul crimes" (1.5.12) "burnt [...] away" (1.5.13), how can he dare to persuade Hamlet to sin against God? Would not this further endanger his own soul? It would indeed, if he were a 'good spirit', but if he were a 'damnèd ghost' (3.2.72), he would not much care about his soul or Hamlet`s. So Hamlet is suspicious:

The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil - and the devil hath power T`assume a pleasing shape


Certainly, Hamlet is not inclined to go to hell only because of the somewhat dubious demand of a ghost that might be a demon. Again, he has to think about the problem, and, in order to "have grounds / More relative than this" (3.1.556-7), he finally organises the Mousetrap Play, where the ghost`s story and his uncle`s guilt should be tested.

Elizabethans were well aware of the fact that spirits might be devils, especially when they appeared to a melancholic. In 1577, for instance, La Primaudaye wrote that evil spirits are likely to possess melancholics in order to terrorize others (145). Therefore, once again Hamlet`s delay of revenge must have seemed only natural to the Elizabethan audience.

Undeniably, Hamlet had good reasons to procrastinate, and the historical angle offers us a range of highly logica arguments to believe that. Whereas many interpretations of 'Hamlet' are based on far-fetched assumptions, the historical approach offers well-founded arguments for the problems the play sets.

Apart from the play, apart from its actions, from what he tells us about himself and what other characters tell us about him, there is no Hamlet (Weitz, 107),

J. Dover Wilson claimed. He disregarded that, if that was really so, there would, literally, be no Hamlet at all, because without interpretation we would not be able to make any sense out of the character. In order to make literature intelligible, interpretation is required, and interpretation involves discursive knowledge. Moreover, without the shared assumptions and conventions of meaning, communication as such would be impossible and no text would mean anything. The problem is that, today, our discourse has largely changed and, therefore, it is difficult to restore the original meaning. Nevertheless, if we want to interpret Hamlet as Shakespeare presumably intended him to be and as Elizabethans tended to perceive him, we must take into account Elizabethan discourse. Of course it is contestable if there is only this one interpretation. But to remove the play from its historical context is to create a wholly new play with totally different characters (as did, for instance, Jones, Freud, and Lacan). Jones` 'Hamlet' is not Shakespeare`s 'Hamlet' anymore - we should bear that in mind if we interpret the play in solely modern termes.

words: 2178


Anglicus, Bartholomaeus: On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa's Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum: A Critical Text. Ed. Maurice Charles Seymour. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Barry, Peter: Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Bradley, A.C.: "Shakespearean Tragedy". In: Hamlet - A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Jump. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1968. page 38- 39.

Bright, Timothy: A Treatise of Melancholy. London, 1586.

Daniell, David: "Reading the Bible." In: A companion to Shakespeare. Ed. David Scott Kastan. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999. page 169-175.

Foucault, Michel: Botschaften der Macht. Der Foucault - Reader. Diskurs und Medien. Stuttgard:

Freud, Sigmund: Volume IV: The Interpretation of Dreams. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1985.

Iser, Wolfgang: Prospecting - From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

James, D.G.: "Moral and Metaphysical Uncertainty in Hamlet." In: Hamlet - A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Jump. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1968. page 78- 85.

Jones, Ernest: "Hamlet and Oedipus." In: Hamlet - A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Jump. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1977.

Kastan, David Scott: "'His semblable is his mirror': Hamlet and the Imitation of Revenge." In: Critical Essays on Shakespeare`s Hamlet. Ed. David Scott Kastan. New York: Macmillan, 1995. page 198- 209.

Lacan, Jaques: "Desire and the interpretation of desire in Hamlet." In: Literature and Psychanalysis: The

Question of Reading: Otherwise. Ed. Shoshana Feldman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

La Primaudaye, Pierre de: "Von verschiedenen Temperaturen." In: William Shakespeare, Hamlet - Erl ä uterungen und Dokumente. Ed. Hans H. Rudnick. Stuttgard: reclam, 2001. page 144- 145.

Prosser, Eleanor: Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford: Stanford Universtity Press, 1967.

Shakespeare, William: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Philip Edwards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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The Disobedient Son: A Historical Approach to the Problem of Delayed Revenge in Shakespeare`s `Hamlet`
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    The Disobedient Son: a Historical Approach to the Problem of Delayed Revenge in Shakespeares Hamlet.

    Ich versteh nicht ganz, warum die ganze Arbeit bereits unter der Vorschau zu sehen ist!?

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