Hamlet

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Action and Inaction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hamlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Action and Inaction Theme Icon

Hamlet fits in a literary tradition called the revenge play, in which a man must take revenge against those who have in some way wronged him. Yet Hamlet turns the revenge play on its head in an ingenious way: Hamlet, the man seeking revenge, can't actually bring himself to take revenge. For reason after reason, some clear to the audience, some not, he delays. Hamlet's delay has been a subject of debate from the day the play was first performed, and he is often held up as an example of the classic "indecisive" person, who thinks to much and acts too little. But Hamlet is more complicated and interesting than such simplistic analysis would indicate. Because while it's true that Hamlet fails to act while many other people do act, it's not as if the actions of the other characters in the play work out. Claudius's plots backfire, Gertrude marries her husband's murderer and dies for it, Laertes is manipulated and killed by his own treachery, and on, and on, and on. In the end, Hamlet does not provide a conclusion about the merits of action versus inaction. Instead, the play makes the deeply cynical suggestion that there is only one result of both action and inaction—death.

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Action and Inaction Quotes in Hamlet

Below you will find the important quotes in Hamlet related to the theme of Action and Inaction.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.33-34
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet is left alone at this point and enters into his first soliloquy. He discourses on the spite he feels for the other characters and ponders the merits of suicide.

Though the question of suicide is most famously explored in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, it appears already at this early moment in the play. Shakespeare, then, does not present Hamlet’s depressive rumination as so much the result of specific plot elements, but rather as an inherent component of his personality. In this case, the language remains more metaphorical and less assertive than it will be later.

What Hamlet desires is not to actively destroy his flesh but rather to let it passively become liquid through some process: It does not matter to him how this is done—melting, thawing, or inexplicable transformation—are all acceptable routes. He simply bids the natural world to allow this to occur in some way. (Associating suicide with water imagery also foreshadows Ophelia’s drowning later in the play.) The use of the interjection “O,” the conditional construction with “would,” and the repetition of “too too” all give the line a mournful and apathetic tone. Thus the passage positions the limits of human life as an important thematic conceit, while giving us a starting point of relative passivity toward the idea—which will come to contrast with Hamlet’s more assertive musings.

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Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.97-99
Explanation and Analysis:

After completing his diplomatic relations with Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius begins to speak about Hamlet’s madness. He introduces the speech with this construction that cherishes and promises concise language.

The phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” is another example of how Shakespeare will invert sentence structures for emphatic and rhetorical effect. Most simply this means, “it is important to be brief in order to be witty”—but Polonius instead makes “brevity” a central, constitutive aspect of “wit,” as opposed to a common feature. Just as Hamlet called women the name of frailty, here Polonius has rendered brevity to be wit’s soul. “Tediousness,” on the other hand, is associated with the external parts of the body—the material that is superficial and extraneous. Polonius uses this phrase to justify and introduce his “brief” speech.

As with many of Polonius’ statements, however, these lines are deeply ironic. Polonius is always a verbose character, and this speech is particularly rambling: he discourses extensive about the nature of Hamlet’s madness without making any particularly useful or incisive contributions. These lines themselves serve to elongate the position—adding “an outward flourish” in the very act of denouncing such a gesture. We should note, furthermore, that Polonius is not interested in “truth” per say, but rather just “wit”—which itself a type of “outward flourish.” On the simplest level, this irony further undermines Polonius’s character, presenting him ever more as an unaware fool. But it also offers a broader comment on how people’s promises and intentions often differ from their actions: One may claim brevity to be the soul of wit while failing to be either brief or witty.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet speaks to his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They have tried to express that Denmark is not as bad as Hamlet presents it to be, and in response he notes that the merit in things lies less in their actual existence and more in how they are subjectively experienced.

In the broadest sense, Hamlet is offering a brilliant metaphysical claim about the nature of reality: he is denying that external events are ever “good or bad,” but rather become so based on how one is “thinking.” It is not clear, in this case, whether Hamlet believes one can actively will via “thinking” for something to become positive or negative—or if he fatalistically believes that whatever one’s mental state is will determine if something is “good or bad.” Most likely, the second option is the case here, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have tried to shift his “thinking,” but Hamlet presents his interpretation of reality as pre-determined. This sort of nihilistic explanation may seem commonplace now, but it was certainly not widespread in Shakespeare’s time—and it is part of the reason for Hamlet’s lasting legacy as an early account of modern human psychology. Furthermore, this comment stresses that while Hamlet may seem to be descending increasingly into madness, that process has also given him a certain type of insight into the reality of the world.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.273-275
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to reflect on whether his happiness is primarily based on his disposition or events occurring in the external environment. Here, he points out that joy would come easily to him except for the psychic baggage of negative dreams.

What exactly Hamlet means by “bad dreams” is, however, far from clear. Hamlet is often fixated on his and others’ dreams, for they exist on the borderline of reality. They thus seem to introduce foreign or irrational concepts into daily life—here ones that prevent one from living peacefully. Were Hamlet not to have these invasive thoughts, he implies, he would live ignorantly but at peace. “Bounded in a nutshell” functions as a metaphor for a closed and secluded world with no stream of information—and without being tempted by anything exterior, Hamlet would be able to redefine his reality as “a king of infinite space.” His mind could set its own limits and be content and empowered even with an objectively negative situation. Dreams, however, allow one access beyond one’s own reality—so they become a metaphor for escaping the nutshell and then becoming dissatisfied with its cramped surroundings.

Another, slightly narrower, interpretation could see his communication with the Ghost as a sort of dream, for the specter appears only at night and does not speak with any other characters. In that case, Hamlet implies that the Ghost is his “bad dream”: for he introduces the ethical imperative to avenge his father by killing Claudius. In both cases, Hamlet seems nostalgic for a state of lesser awareness in which he could still be that ignorant “king of infinite space.”

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), First Player
Page Number: 2.2.586-587
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet responds to having watched one of the actors perform a speech from the Trojan War, in which Hecuba grieves for her husband Priam. He struggles with his own emotional apathy at his father’s death, considering how intensely the player could exhibit emotion for a fictional grief.

Hamlet’s anxiety here occurs on several levels. First, he is confronting the fact that he has not yet avenged his father. He is distraught that someone who is merely performing grief would seem capable of serious action, whereas he himself deliberates and talks endlessly without having acted. There is thus a disjunction between the “him” of the actor and the historical figure of Hecuba that has caused him to weep—in a way that makes Hamlet feel he should be more capable of weeping.

But the passage also returns us to the questions of performance that have occupied Hamlet throughout the text. After all, he does not presumably believe that the player actually identifies fully with Hecuba—and thus his concern over the weeping has more to do with the fact that humans are able to craft their emotions so effectively. This ability calls into the question anyone’s emotional responses—even his own—for they seem less predicated on actual feelings, if Hamlet’s request that the player take on a role allows him to do so with ease. Hamlet will, of course, make use of this exact quality in the next act, when he puts on a mock play to test Claudius’s response, so he is far from dispensing with the performative aspect of emotions. Rather, Shakespeare shows us a character struggling to make sense of the disconnect between interior and exterior—here with the artifice of theater itself.

The play's the thing,
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.633-634
Explanation and Analysis:

As Act Two ends, Hamlet’s settles on a plan to determine whether Claudius is guilty: he proposes to stage an altered version of The Murder of Gonzago, which will have much in common with the story the Ghost recounted of his murder. Thus by watching Claudius’s response, Hamlet hopes to ascertain his guilt.

That Hamlet sees theater as the way to best access human truth is somewhat ironic. The art form would seem to epitomize performance and deceit, for it shows just how easily people can take on alternate identities and emotions. Yet this is the exact quality of theater that Hamlet seeks to exploit, for staging the play in a certain way will allow it to function as a trap for “the conscience.” Artificiality, he implies, can serve as a route to honesty if properly exploited.

The comment also has meta-textual implications for the play, for if Hamlet is using The Murder of Gonzago to his advantage, he is himself on trial within Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet things are not so clear cut in Shakespeare’s work: in a sense, the characters remain caught in his artifice, displaying their “conscience” for the viewer. But at the same time their mixed motives and allegiances resist our interpretive abilities—we remain uncertain whether Hamlet is mad or whether Claudius is fully guilty—thus questioning the limits of an artwork to reveal the truth of a conscience.

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
To be, or not to be, —that is the question:—
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?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.64-68
Explanation and Analysis:

While Polonius and Claudius hide and eavesdrop, Hamlet breaks into this most famous soliloquy, perhaps the best-known speech in the English language. Hamlet returns to the question of suicide, wondering if it would be preferable to end his life or not.

Though Hamlet’s language has grown more direct from its earlier references to "dew," it still speaks to his passivity in the face of desperation. He phrases the question of death in the abstract with the infinitive verb forms “to be, or not to be”—and makes it “the question” of humanity, as opposed to a personal matter. These choices imply that the decision whether or not to exist is a constant struggle for each person, a struggle that Hamlet tries to mediate through the metric of what is “nobler in the mind.” This phrase implies that death is evaluated based on perceived correctness or social value, as opposed to, say, a universal ethical system.

For the two options themselves, Hamlet chooses evocative images: “To be” is put in relatively more passive terms as a continuous process of “suffering” an onslaught of external attacks from “outrageous fortune”—that is to say, the constant influx of events that cannot be shifted in one’s destiny. Suicide, on the other hand, is presented as an active fight that wages war on “a sea of troubles” and, indeed, is successful in the endeavor. The phrase “by opposing end them” seems noble or glorious, but what it literally means is to vanquish one’s “outrageous fortune” by ending one’s life. Thus Hamlet presents his lack of suicide not as the result of insufficient desperation, but rather his apathy from wishing to take on such a fight. Life becomes, for him, a constant decision of whether he will finally arrive at sufficient motivation to shift course and end his and/or Claudius’s life.

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
We defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.233-237
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the play’s final duel commences, Horatio and Hamlet discuss his chances of wining the fight. Hamlet expresses confidence in his abilities, as well as a fatalistic belief that death will come to all at some point.

Here, Hamlet stakes out a direct claim against a deterministic viewpoint with the phrase “We defy augury.” (Augury was a means of predicting the future through observing the actions of birds.) Though Hamlet's resulting language takes its cues from prophecy—with the term “providence,” the image of a “sparrow.” which is often interpreted as a portent, and the “will be” future verb tense—Hamlet firmly denies the value of such pseudo-mystic beliefs. Instead, he points out that this “special providence” is actually just a sign of a fate that must transpire at some point, no matter what. Death, for him, will either come “now” in the moment of the duel, or it will arrive at some future point. When he says, “yet it will come,” Hamlet reiterates his point on the eventuality of death.

Yet whereas before this conclusion might have crippled Hamlet from acting, here he finds in it a source of empowerment. Human mortality shows him that one need not pay attention to “augury,” for the expectation of death will be manifested at one point or another—and thus Hamlet finally decides to take up arms against his demons. Shakespeare shows, then, a decisive change in Hamlet's character, in which existential despair can now actively motivate action instead of paralyzing it.

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Related Characters: Horatio (speaker), Hamlet
Page Number: 5.2.397-398
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet dies, Horatio speaks these emotional words of farewell. With them, he sanctifies Hamlet’s character and actions in the final moments of the play.

First Horatio stresses both Hamlet’s royal heritage and his moral goodness through the term “noble heart.” Next, he reasserts Hamlet’s social position by referring to him as “sweet prince.” And finally he gives him a religious and ethical pass by claiming that “flights of angels” will accompany his death. Each of these moves is significant for a friend that has, throughout the play, often expressed mixed beliefs with respect to Hamlet’s actions. Yet here, Horatio ignores such skepticisms and decides to fully vindicate Hamlet on his deathbed.

What are we to make of how these final judgments are positioned in Horatio’s character? After all, he is presumably quite biased toward his friend, and thus cannot be trusted as the main moral judge of the play. Yet at the same time, he is tasked by Hamlet with carrying on the legacy of the events that have thus transpired—which renders him the author of the tragedy, and thus the closest representative of Shakespeare himself. Perhaps Horatio returns here to Claudius’s earlier explanation of how his words would not rise to heaven because they were divorced from his actual sentiments. Here, Horatio contends that Hamlet is indeed responded to by the heavens—indicating that Hamlet's language has been a truthful representation of his intentions. Whether or not one believes this to be accurate, it reiterates the characters’ belief in a (religious) moral compass for the play that could sense the real significance of actions, and determine who deserved to rise to heaven.