Hamlet is part of a literary tradition called the revenge play, in which a person—most often a man—must take revenge against those who have wronged him. Hamlet, however, turns the genre on its head in an ingenious way: Hamlet, the person seeking vengeance, can't actually bring himself to take his revenge. As Hamlet struggles throughout the play with the logistical difficulties and moral burdens of vengeance, waffling between whether he should kill Claudius and avenge his father once and for all, or whether to do so would be pointless, cruel, or even self-destructive, William Shakespeare’s unique perspective on action versus inaction becomes clear. Ultimately, as the characters within the play puzzle, pontificate, and perish, Shakespeare suggests that there is no inherent morality in either action or inaction, insofar as each option is tied to vengeance: whether one acts or does not, death inevitably comes for everyone.
There are two major arenas in which Hamlet’s ability to take decisive action are played out: the first being the question of whether or not he will kill Claudius and avenge his father, and the second being the question of whether Hamlet will take his own life in order to avoid making the former decision. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears to him and charges him with taking vengeance upon Claudius for murdering him, Hamlet is determined to do the ghost’s bidding—but as Hamlet (often purposefully) misses opportunity after opportunity to kill Claudius, he begins to wonder what his own inability to act says about him, and whether he is as weak and mad as he has led everyone to believe. Hamlet has faked madness as a cover for his investigations into Claudius, taking one small action in order to stall having to take a larger, riskier one. However, as Hamlet languishes in indecision, even that small action becomes too frightening, and he begins contemplating suicide, asking, in a famous line, whether it is better “to be or not to be.” On the matter of suicide, even, Hamlet cannot make a decision—to take his own life would be to fail his father, but to stay alive means reckoning with his own inaction day after day. Ultimately, Hamlet resolves too late to kill Claudius—Claudius and Laertes have already put a plan to kill Hamlet as revenge for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia into action. Hamlet succeeds in killing Claudius—but not before realizing that his own death from being slain by Laertes’s poisoned rapier is imminent. Hamlet has acted at last, but has staved off his actions for so long that Shakespeare seems to be using Hamlet’s idleness to suggest that neither action nor inaction has any bearing on morality, or any influence on the ultimate outcome of one’s life.
It is also significant that in the background of the main drama of Hamlet, Elsinore swirls with rumors of the approach of Fortinbras, the young prince of Norway who has succeeded his father (also named Fortinbras), on the Norwegian throne. Fortinbras is determined to take back lands his father lost in battle—including Denmark—and marches relentlessly across Europe as he sets his eyes on lands in Poland and beyond. Hamlet overhears these murmurings of Fortinbras’s campaign, and though he never comes face-to-face with his foil and opposite, the audience (and Hamlet himself) recognize Fortinbras’s decisive action on his late father’s behalf as all that Hamlet is unable to bring himself to do. In the end, when Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore to find a massacre before him, he accepts Horatio’s (and the late Hamlet’s) nomination to the Danish throne. For his decisive action, Fortinbras is rewarded with the one thing Hamlet partly longed for but could never take the action necessary to secure: political and social control of his country—and yet other characters who have taken the same decisive actions as Fortinbras, such as Claudius and Laertes, have met their deaths as well.
By the end of the play, all of the major characters are dead, and a new leader has come to Denmark to seize the throne. While Hamlet’s great inner moral struggles—“to be or not to be,” to take revenge or to stay his hand, to ascend to the throne or to languish in obscurity—have been slowly unfolding, the wheels of the world have kept turning. Death has come for all the major players, and while some have been slain as a result of Hamlet’s actions, others have been killed by his inaction. Death is humanity’s great equalizer, and Shakespeare shows that it does not discriminate between the valiant and the cowardly, the motivated and the fearful, or the good and the wicked.
Action and Inaction ThemeTracker
Action and Inaction Quotes in Hamlet
O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
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.
Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…
We defy augury. There is 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.