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Different critics have talked about Hamlet’s tragic flaw in different ways, but what most of them boil down to is dithering.
Coleridge talkesabout “the lingering and vacillating delays of procrastination”, A.C. Bradley bewails “the endeavour at a resolution, and the sickening return of melancholic paralysis”, Goethe’s take, summarized by Ernest Jones, is that “Hamlet, for temperamental reasons, was fundamentally incapable of decisive action of any kind”, and Dover Wilson opines that “the procrastination is due to the distemper, is in fact part of it”.
Hamlet doesn’t seem to be able to get on with it and just do the job. Instead, he pretends to be mad, worries about whether what the ghost has told him is true – did Claudius really kill Hamlet’s father? – and misses an opportunity to kill Claudius while he’s praying, because he thinks that a person who is praying at the moment of death will go to heaven, and he, of course, wants Claudius to go to hell.
But there is something else, something even more fundamental, that makes Hamlet hesitate, and that is that, by taking revenge, he will himself be punished by God and end up in hell.
This aspect of Hamlet’s hesitation is often missed, and the reason it gets missed is that his famous “To be or not to be” speech is widely misunderstood as being about suicide, when clearly it is not.
Hamlet has already talked about suicide. Suicide is the topic of his first soliloquy, in Act 1 Scene 2:
“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”
Why would he return to this topic in Act 3 Scene 1? This is a revenge tragedy, written in an age when society was making the transition from individuals seeking revenge by themselves to those who have been wronged having recourse to the law and taking their grievances through authorized channels. Why would Shakespeare not talk about that?
We all know what Elizabethan men looked like, right? They looked like this…
They are almost always depicted as wearing a sword, or some kind of weapon. That’s just the way things were in those days. Men carried swords, and if they were crossed, they took their swords out and they used them. The dramatist Christopher Marlowe, with whom Shakespeare collaborated in some of his early plays, was stabbed to death in what either was, or was made to look like, a drunken brawl. This kind of thing was a common occurrence.
But this was also a period in which wide-ranging religious reform was going on, supposedly based on a close reading of a Bible that tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), a Bible that very clearly and repeatedly states (in the words of the Geneva Bible, which Shakespeare quotes from so often in his works), “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Romans 12:19).
What we’re seeing in Shakespeare’s time is a shift from taking revenge into one’s own hands to submitting to a higher authority – theoretically God, but in practice essentially the state – and trusting to that authority to administer justice. The ethics of taking revenge were a central issue in Shakespeare’s day, and it is hardly likely that he would have Hamlet contemplate all the ifs and buts of taking revenge and leave that out.
So now let’s take a look at Hamlet’s speech in Act 3 Scene 1:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:”
Here Shakespeare sets up an opposition. He queries whether something is “to be” or “not to be”. But what is it that is to be or not be? He continues:
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
So the opposition is between suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – that is, just putting up with things – and taking arms “against a sea of troubles” and so putting an end to them. Just putting up with things means doing nothing, not making anything happen, so I would equate that with “not to be”, while taking arms against a sea of troubles suggests doing something about it, making something happen, making something “be”.
There’s nothing in those opening lines that makes me think they are about suicide. The choice is stated very clearly, and it’s a choice between putting up with injustice and fighting back and doing something about it.
Hamlet then goes off on what seems to be a tangent:
To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
If death is just like sleep, he says, if death simply means the end of all the heartache of this life – well, in that case, who cares about dying? But he continues:
To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Suppose death isn’t just a kind of sleep? Suppose the Bible is right, and the sleep of death is filled with dreams – dreams of heaven and dreams of hell. What then? Well, then we’re in trouble….
There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Who would take the passive route – who would put up with all the injustices of this world – when he might “his quietus make with a bare bodkin”? A bodkin is a type of dagger, typically worn in a sheath strapped to the wrist, so it could be hidden by the sleeve and used as a weapon if necessary.
But the real issue here is the word “quietus”. There’s a general assumption that Shakespeare is talking here about a man putting an end to all the injustices of this life by turning a dagger on himself, by killing himself. But that’s not what “he himself might his quietus make” means. Take a look at some of the examples in the Early English Books Online database. To make one’s quietus means to settle one’s debts, in other words to pay people back, to pay back the oppressor and the proud man and the insolent official. Why, Shakespeare asks, would we not just kill all those who do us wrong, “but that the dread of something after death…makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?
In other words, the only thing that stops us from taking our revenge on those that wrong us is the fear that we will be punished after death. I really don’t think this can be understood in any other way. Hamlet is not talking about running away from the dangers and difficulties of life by killing oneself; he is talking about the ethics and morality of taking revenge into one’s own hands.
And, finally, he concludes:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Whatever suicide is, it can hardly be described as an enterprise of “great pith and moment”. That is not what Hamlet is talking about here. He is talking about conscience making us think twice about lashing out in fury against those that wrong us. He is talking about how we restrain our impulse to take revenge because we fear that to do so is sinful and we will be punished after death.
Now, finally, we know what is “to be” and what is “not to be”; acts of revenge – enterprises, as he calls them, “of great pith and moment” – “lose the name of action”, cease to be, fail to materialize, remain merely what we would like to do, not what we will actually do – unless, of course, we ignore our conscience, we ignore everything the Bible says about turning the other cheek and trusting to God to administer justice, and take the law into our own hands.
This is Hamlet’s tragic flaw. He is right to hesitate, he is right to consider the implications of taking revenge, but he is wrong to dissemble and plot as he does. When his mother asks him, in Act 1 Scene 2, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” he says, “I know not seems”, but his whole strategy is based on a pretence, the pretence that he is mad. It is all about “seeming”!
In Shakespeare’s works a just and noble revenge is one that is pursued openly and backed up by the authority of a legitimate state, like the young Fortinbras’s revenge in “Hamlet”, or Macduff’s revenge in “Macbeth”. Shakespearean tragedy is essentially about good men getting tricked. Macbeth is tricked by the witches, Othello is tricked by Iago, Lear is tricked by Goneril and Regan and, in the end, Hamlet is tricked by the ghost. Regardless of the fact that what it says is true, and Hamlet’s father really was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet is tricked into taking revenge in a way that takes innocent lives and spells his own doom. That is his fatal flaw, not the fact that he hesitates about taking action, but that he takes action in defiance of the moral code, the law of God, if you want to see it in religious terms.
Finally, then, what does it matter? Why should we care about what Shakespeare says in a play written over 400 years ago?
Why? Because the swords of Shakespeare’s day are the open carry of America today. The vigilante justice that Hamlet metes out is the “stand your ground” of Alabama, Florida and other states. The revenge he exacts has its modern counterpart in the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the attempted attack on the Capitol.
Steven Pinker (The better angels of our nature) points to Shakespeare’s period as a turning point in the history of violence. This, he says, is the time when society began to turn away from individuals taking revenge and towards states seeking to administer justice. This, according to Pinker, is a vital component in the civilizing process.
In that context, Hamlet’s speech on the ethics and morality of revenge is as relevant today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it 400+ years ago, and it’s vital that we understand clearly what he was saying in order not to end up as Hamlet does, doomed and with the blood of innocents on our hands.
This interpretation of Hamlet’s soliloquy is not my own. Davis D. McElroy wrote about it in 1964 (College English, 25:7, pp. 453-5), and it was not new even then. McElroy, however, feels that Hamlet’s thoughts turn from revenge to suicide during the course of the soliloquy, whereas I see the whole speech as being about revenge.
Vincent F. Petronella (Studies in Philology, 71:1, pp. 72-88) credits A.C. Bradley with coming up with the suicide analysis in 1904, and I am still working on what the prevailing understanding was before that. One thing I can say with some degree of certainty is that that key word “quietus” was not used to mean suicide in any text from the time of Caxton right up to the end of the 17th century. If that is what Shakespeare meant by it, then it is a lone anomaly.