William Hazlitt , “Hamlet's Power of Action” (1817)


The character of Hamlet stands quite by itself. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be: but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility—the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune and refining on his own feelings, and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation. He seems incapable of deliberate action, and is only hurried into extremities on the spur of the occasion, when he has no time to reflect, as in the scene where he kills Polonius, and again, where he alters the letters which Rosencraus and Guildenstern are taking with them to England, purporting his death. At other times, when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and sceptical, dallies with his purposes, till the occasion is lost, and finds out some pretence to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again. For this reason he refuses to kill the King when he is at his prayers, and by a refinement in malice, which is in truth only an excuse for his own want of resolution, defers his revenge to a more fatal opportunity, when he shall be engaged in some act "that has no relish of salvation in it."

"He kneels and prays,

And now I'll do't, and so he goes to heaven,

And so am I reveng'd: that would be scann'd.

He kill'd my father, and for that,

I, his sole son, send him to heaven.

Why this is reward, not revenge.

Up sword and know thou a more horrid time

When he is drunk, asleep, or in a rage."

He is the prince of philosophical speculators; and because he cannot have his revenge perfect, according to the most refined idea his wish can form, he declines it altogether. So he scruples to trust the suggestions of the host, contrives the scene of the play to have surer proof of his uncle's guilt, and then rests satisfied with this confirmation of his suspicions, and the success of his experiment, instead of acting upon it. Yet he is sensible of his own weakness, taxes himself with it, and tries to reason himself out of it.


"How all occasions do inform against me,

And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? 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 rust in us unus'd. Now whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th' event,—

A thought which quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom,

And ever three parts coward;—I do not know

Why yet I live to say, this thing's to do;

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

To do it. Examples gross as earth exhort me:

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an egg-shell. 'Tis not to be great

Never to stir without great argument;

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw,

When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,

That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, while to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,

That for a fantasy and trick of fame,

Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot

Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,

Which is not tomb enough and continent

To hide the slain?—O, from this time forth,

My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.

Still he does nothing; and this very speculation on his own infirmity only affords him another occasion for indulging it. It is not from any want of attachment to his father or of abhorrence of his murder that Hamlet is thus dilatory, but it is more to his taste to indulge his imagination in reflecting upon the enormity of the crime and refining on his schemes of vengeance, than to put them into immediate practice. His ruling passion is to think, not to act: and any vague pretext that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purposes.


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Hazlitt, William. Characters of Shakespear's Plays (London: Macmillan, 1817): pp. 65–68. Quoted as "Hamlet's Power of Action" in Harold Bloom, ed. Shakespeare's Tragedies, Bloom's Major Dramatists. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1999. (Updated 2007.) Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 7 Nov. 2014 <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&WID=103719&SID=5&iPin=BMDWST17&SingleRecord=True>


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