Notes on A.C. Bradley’s Essay on Hamlet from Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)


Why in the world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once and take vengeance on Claudius?


Discarding Theories of External Physical Obstacles:


Hamlet as Revenge Tragedy: blood and horror, eight violent deaths, ghosts, mad woman, even a fight in a grave!



Hamlet delays because of the political problems that would ensue from attempting to engineer a coup de’ tat.

Hamlet encounters problems gathering sufficient evidence to convict the King in a public trial.



Hamlet never makes reference to any external difficulty.

Hamlet always assumes that he is capable of obeying the Ghost.

Hamlet planned the Mouse-Trap to convince himself of the Ghost’s truth, not to expose the King in public.

Hamlet never talks of bringing the king to public justice; he always talks of using his sword.

Theories of Internal Psychological Obstacles:

Morals/ Conscience


Hamlet is restrained by conscience or moral scruple.

He cannot satisfy himself that it is right to avenge his father.



Hamlet assumes without question that he ought to avenge his father’s murder.
He blames himself for shirking his duty.


Hamlet never mentions moral scruple when he berates himself for delaying. When he confesses his delay to the ghost in the Bedroom Scene, he does not mention conscience.


Conscience may be one of the many excuses that Hamlet uses to rationalize his delay.


 Unconscious Moral Repulsion:



Hamlet’s moral character evolves as the action progresses. We are witnessing the gestation of a New Testament morality, a deeper conscience than the ‘eye for an eye’ morality of revenge.

This theory would explain why Hamlet does not mention until quite late in the action that conscience is a possible reason for his delay.


Why would Shakespeare conceal the meaning of his play until the last act?

How do you explain Hamlet’s warped anti-Christian desire to send Claudius to hell rather than dispatch him while he is praying?

The Ghost’s prophecy is accepted by all as an appropriate response to Claudius’ villainy.

Even so,

It is clear that Hamlet badly wants to do what is right.

He does brood on moral scruples among other things.

He may feel a moral repulsion to killing a defenseless man at the moment when he is praying in a chapel.

The Sentimental Hamlet



Hamlet is, as Goethe said, “ a lovely, pure, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, [who] sinks beneath a burden he cannot bear and must not cast away.”

Hamlet is a sentimental, sensitive, delicate youth, too pure to survive in the cruel world. What a foolish ghost to even suggest such a duty!



Hamlet displays moments of extraordinary physical courage and decisiveness throughout the play: on the platform he follows the ghost; in the royal court, he openly insults Claudius; in the bedroom scene he murders Polonius. Hamlet easily sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, he escapes a pirate vessel, he wrestles with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, and, finally, he kills Laertes and Claudius.

To Bradley, Hamlet is a heroic, terrible figure; he would have been a formidable threat to Macbeth or Othello.


The Thought-Sick Hamlet



Schlegel/Coleridge theory of Hamlet as a tragedy of reflection. His irresolution is due to an excess of reflective and speculative habits of mind.

“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

Hamlet is envisioned as a thirty year old, perpetual student.



There is powerful textual evidence in the play to support this theory: the soliloquies, the deliberate contrast between a thoughtful Hamlet and the decisive Laertes and Fortinbras.

The theory describes Hamlet well. His energy of resolve does indeed dissipate in endless brooding.



The theory tries to turn Hamlet into Coleridge. According to Bradley, Hamlet does not lead a paralyzed life. Rather, he is paralyzed at this particular moment in his life. The cause of the delay is not endless thinking itself. The underlying cause id the psychological problem from which he suffers: melancholy.


The Melancholy Dane




Portrait of Hamlet’s character before the crisis: a soldier, athlete, courtier and fearless man of action. 


The Seeds of Danger: a temperament inclined to nervous instability combined with excessive idealism: Hamlet has unbounded faith and delight in human nature: “What a piece of work is man!” He has a tendency towards trust, he is not suspicious, he looks for and sees only the good in others. The flip side of Hamlet’s idealism is his aversion to evil, his disgust with his mother, and his cruel rejection of Ophelia. Hamlet also possesses intellectual genius. He is no idle dreamer; he sees through others easily. He will accept nothing on face value, testing all behavior with a thorough skepticism.


Is Hamlet’s delay the normal response of an over-speculative nature to a practical problem?

Or is Hamlet facing a particularly difficult situation?

Has the call to action come after a shock which has incapacitated his ability to act?




No exertion of the will can dispel it. It is different from the feigned madness which Hamlet puts on at various times during the action.


Melancholy accounts for Hamlet’s inaction, his disgust for life, and his depressed belief that anything he would do would not matter. Melancholy explains his incessant thinking about the task at hand, his manic phases of sudden action, his mood swings from pleasure to savage irritability, his burst of hysterical passion, and the lethargy which afflicts him throughout the play.


Melancholy is also beyond the grasp of his understanding. Hamlet is genuinely bewildered by his inability to act.


Bradley’s Thesis:

The tragic irony of a great spirit paralyzed by his finest qualities.


Shakespeare is dramatizing our simultaneous awareness of the soul’s infinity and its doom. Both are offspring of the same duality.