It would seem a contradictory pairing: intent and inaction, plans that grow strong in the mind but weak in the hands. Yet just this fate befalls Prince Hamlet, protagonist in William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The son of murdered King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet determines to kill Claudius, the man who took Hamlet’s father’s life, wife and throne. After misguidedly slaying a man he does not seek; declining an opportunity to kill Claudius, the man he does seek; and meeting Fortinbras, action-bent foil to indecisive Hamlet, Hamlet bemoans his inaction in a soliloquy (4.4.32-66). Through passionate, self-berating, and ultimately determined tones, Shakespeare presages the play’s bloody close, and on a higher level, asserts an ironic connection between goal and accomplishment.
Hamlet opens his poetic diatribe with hyperbole that indicates the height of his agony. “How all occasions do inform against me,” he cries (4.4.32). In end-stopping this line with a comma, Shakespeare scripts a momentary pause to emphasize the totality of Hamlet’s suffering. Hamlet continues, proclaiming in three iambs that all does “spur[his] dull revenge” (4.4.33, italics added). The phrase’s meter stresses Hamlet’s ire by accentuating potent syllables: “spur,” a verb that denotes a sharp prod for action; “dull,” an adjective describing his revenge as ineffective; and “venge,” the stressed syllable of a noun that declares Hamlet’s intent. Hamlet energizes his point still more with an exclamation mark! Furthermore, these last three feet beat forward Hamlet’s angry, dejected tone, reinforcing Hamlet’s expression of grief. Barely two lines into his soliloquy, Hamlet’s flame has flared forth, hot and uncontrolled. As revenge overtakes his mind, might he lose control of circumstance?
Hamlet speaks on, seizing a derisive tone to assail his hesitation as behavior worthy of a beast. In questioning the worthiness of a man whose “chief good and market” extends but to route functions of survival, Hamlet voices two metonymies—“good” and “market”—which figuratively reduce a man’s accomplishments to mere products to be bartered and bought (4.4.34). If, Hamlet concludes, one does but “sleep and feed,” he becomes but a “beast” (4.4.35, italics added). This pronouncement stresses a long “e” sound, intensifying Hamlet’s now sorrowful tone and slowing the line, which then decelerates dramatically, to a close with a period. Hamlet has hardly finished, though, for he proceeds to denounce his worthiness on a spiritual scale. In three accelerating lines, Hamlet exalts the being who created mankind with “such large discourse” (4.4.36) not only for granting “godlike reason” to discern and plan, but the “capability” to carry it out (4.4.38). Hamlet follows his soaring praise with a sharp half of a line stating that God’s kindness ought not “fust [mold]… unused” (4.4.39). Through this antithesis, Hamlet contrasts God’s unrequited largess—expressed in according elaboration—with his (Hamlet’s) own short failure to make use of it, a failure which, by the connotation of the verb “fust,” festers, unclean and uncontrolled. In continually demeaning himself, Hamlet’s tone stagnates in anger, demonstrating his struggle to progress substantially in thought. This struggle results, Shakespeare suggests, from the very obsession to act which Hamlet expresses here.
Hamlet proceeds to simultaneously clarify and muddle his situation, illuminating deep situational irony. He begins by rehashing his previous lamentations with the phrase “[b]estial oblivion,” and then states outright that his woes might result from “some craven scruple / of thinking too precisely on the event.” Hamlet justly condemns this possibility for holding “but one part wisdom / and three parts coward”—the second half of the phrase obviously being most applicable (4.4.43). To this end, Shakespeare breaks Hamlet’s division with enjambment, emphasizing the condemnation “three parts coward.” All this extends Hamlet’s critical tone, pressing the idea that inaction results from excessive focus on action—a focus so consuming it distracts Hamlet from killing Claudius. Distraction has, featured prominently by this point in the play, for shortly before delivering this soliloquy, Hamlet kills his lover’s father in pursuit of Claudius. Instead of heeding his own advice, however, young Hamlet continues to exemplify the very problem he expresses. When citing his tendency to announce emptily that “[t]his thing’s to do” (4.4.44), his tone turns mocking, he openly corroborates his own condemnation, admitting with extended polysyndeton his extensive “cause and will and strength and means” (4.4.45) to act. All of this circular discussion reveals Hamlet’s almost paradoxical predicament; for, by thinking at such length, Hamlet at once identifies the roots of his problem and struggles to grow out of those roots. Must he progress mentally to progress with his act?
Unfortunately, Hamlet does not progress. Instead, he turns his attention to Fortinbras, his more fortunate and head-strong foil, and continues. “Examples gross as earth exhort me” laments Hamlet, citing in more hyperbole the many voices within and around him beckoning for action (4.4.46). To provide a recent example, Hamlet launches into a protracted juxtaposition of himself and Fortinbras, the crown prince of Norway, extolling the Norwegian as the epitome of all that he, Hamlet, ought to be. In an almost rapturous tone, Hamlet idealizes Fortinbras’s army as having great “mass and charge” (4.4.47). He then describes Fortinbras as “delicate and tender”— attributes that might inhibit some, but which the valorous Norwegian prince overcomes (4.4.48). Next, Hamlet employs the adjective “divine” to praise Fortinbras’s ambition (4.4.49). Hamlet’s diction is significant here, for the word divine connotes spiritual worthiness and contrasts with the spiritual unworthiness Hamlet admitted earlier in this soliloquy. He has not overcome his intent.
Hamlet orates onward, reporting that the physically meager but mentally and religiously strong Fortinbras “makes mouths at [mocks]” (italics added) at the “invisible” future (4.4.50). In alliterating the phrase “makes mouths,” Hamlet introduces a tinge of envy to his tone and at the same time intensifies the degree to which Fortinbras’s holds contempt towards the future’s possibility of death. Hamlet himself discusses the unknown in a soliloquy in the first scene of the third act, but whereas then he approached uncertainty with trepidation, here Fortinbras’s army faces with confidence its “mortal and unsure” outlook (4.4.51): “death, danger, and dare” (4.4.43). That outlook, already of ominous tone because of its dark diction, proves only more daunting because of its alliteration. Fortinbras’s fearsome force, Hamlet declares, will be waged “even for an egg-shell”—an insignificant something understated in metaphor. Clearly, Fortinbras does not demand massive provocation to act. Hamlet, conversely, allows the death of his father and tainting of his mother—“excitements of my reason [rational provocation] and blood [emotional provocation]” (4.4.58)—to “sleep” (4.4.59). These provocations sleep restlessly, tormented by two simultaneous needs: the need acted upon and the need to be relaxed in Hamlet’s mind. For Hamlet, matters do not bode well.
So run the fates of the two crown princes. “Fortinbras the Firm” advances his army towards the “imminent death of twenty thousand [of their] men” (4.4.60) to win but a flirtingly attractive and thus flirtingly alliterative “fantasy and trick of fame” (4.4.61, italics added). “Hamlet the Hesitant” continues his stagnant soliloquy. “Fortinbras the Fearless” leads a force that “go[es] to their graves like beds” (4.4.62), their willingness depicted through a grisly simile. “Hamlet the Hapless” flails fruitlessly, paralyzed by intent. “Fortinbras the Fighter” leads men to persist, despite their inability to “try the cause” (4.4.63)—a cause which evokes a horrific visual image: bloody conflict, which fails to win “tomb enough and continent / to hide the slain” (4.4.65). “Hamlet the Helpless” stands in safety at but grows increasingly mad. While the source of these observations—a crazed and determined Hamlet—of course reflects a single skewed perspective, their result cannot be more certain. Driven out of stability by a flawed drive for revenge, Hamlet ends his soliloquy in a tone of frightening determination: “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” Bloody is Hamlet’s mind, and not long after this, his hands, and those of many of the other Danish royalty likewise bloody themselves. Of the few that remain, Fortinbras stands out: for he, above all, stays bold, active, and forward-moving. Fortinbras may not always be rational, but he never falls to a fixation, a goal so mentally consuming that it prevents action. Hamlet, his family, and his cohorts perish, to be frozen in vice forever. Only Fortinbras lives on.
[my name] at yahoo dot com