Hamlet’s tragedy lies in the fact that his noble disposition and the circumstances that he finds himself in conspire to bring about his downfall. Hamlet’s noble disposition is his hamartia. Hamlet is too noble, too introspective and too morally scrupulous for his own good. When the Ghost’s informs him to get revenge, Hamlet initially promises to ‘sweep’ to his revenge, nobly adhering to the principle of lex talionis. However, on further reflection, Hamlet recoils from the idea of seeking vengeance because it is counter-intuitive to his noble nature. Hamlet finds himself in a Catch-22 situation, Scylla- Charybdis predicament. If he fails to kill Claudius then he is a coward and there is nothing noble about being a coward; if he does kill Claudius, then he is a murderer and there is nothing noble about taking human life; either way Hamlet’s nobility will be vitiated. As a result Hamlet does not know what he should do and as a result becomes totally bedeviled as a result.
After the Ghost’s ‘dread command’, Hamlet vacillates and becomes extremely indecisive. He knows that he should seek vengeance for his father’s murder but he struggles with this task because he is not temperamentally unsuited to play the role of sanguinary revenger. His introspective nature means that he over analyses the situation to such an extent that he is inhibited from acting decisively. He laments that ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied ov’r with the pale cast of thought’. He agonises over his procrastination, beating himself up as to whether it is ‘bestial oblivion or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’ event’.
He fears that the Ghost might be the devil that has ‘assume a pleasing shape’ come to abuse him so to damn him to hell. Hamlet becomes totally confused and bewildered as to what he should do. The Ghost’s ‘dread command’ is a heavy burden on the mentally fragile Hamlet. He becomes self-deprecatory, wishing that he had never been born in order to seek vengeance for his father’s death: ‘The time is out of joint; o cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’. Hamlet wants to do something but the problem that he does not know what he should do. This yearning to do something only exacerbates his sense of frustration with himself. He asks if he is a coward: ‘Am I a coward?’ He says that he is ‘pigeon liver’d and lack gall’, ‘What a peasant slave and rogue am I’. His failure to do something and his frustration of not knowing what to do is summed up in his sense of low self-worth: ‘I do not set my life at a pin’s fee’, ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt and thaw and resolve itself into a dew’.
Hamlet’s sense of self-loathing and inadequacy are compounded by decisive revengers such as Laertes, Priam and Fortinbras who seem to have no moral qualms about fulfilling their filial obligations. Laertes tells Claudius ‘To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil/Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit I dare damnation’ and Fortinbras has no moral qualms about putting the lives of twenty thousand men in jeopardy for a ‘little patch of ground’. However, Hamlet procrastinates because he is unsure what it is that is required of him. Hamlet feels that everyone has all these expectations of him; Gertrude expects him ‘to cast thy nighted colour off’; Claudius expects Hamlet to be all affable and behave like a son to him: ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son’; the Ghost expects him to seek revenge for his murder and not to ‘let the bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest’. All these different people and their expectations of Hamlet serve to underscore and exacerbate Hamlet’s sense of confusion and uncertainty. Is Hamlet supposed to be the noble idealistic young prince? Or the outspoken malcontent, impugning the corruption inaugurated by Claudius’ unlawful reign or is Hamlet supposed to be the sanguinary revenger?
The real problem with Hamlet is not that of a man who does not want to do his duty; it is a man who cannot find out what his duty is. As the play’s malcontent, Hamlet makes it clear to us of his intention to espouse ‘an antic disposition’ in order to speak out and impugn the corruption, the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Danish court. However, this role is contrary to his role as idealistic noble prince. The role of malcontent is incompatible with the role of noble prince and as a result Hamlet’s noble idealism is vitiated by the corruption that permeates Denmark.
Hamlet’s uses of sprezzatura makes Hamlet feel like a ‘whore’ that ‘must unpack my heart with words and a-fall a cursing like a drab, a scullion’. Hamlet’s sense of confusion and bewilderment is further exacerbated by the Ghost’s second visitation. Hamlet is totally bewildered and cries out that he hopes that the Ghost has not come ‘to chide his tardy son’. Hamlet is totally bedeviled as to what is it exactly he should be doing. As the play’s malcontent, Hamlet thought it was incumbent on him to ‘speak daggers’ to his mother and save her from perdition. However the Ghost makes it absolutely clear what his role is and what he expects from his son: ‘This visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose’.
Hamlet encourages his mother to confess herself to heaven ‘repent of what’s past. Avoid what’s to come’. This is in keeping with his role as malcontent. Hamlet tries to fulfill his filial obligation in the Prayer scene when Claudius looks to be praying but Hamlet recoils from the task of vengeance, claiming that vengeance should have ‘no relish of salvation i’ it’ and he urges his sword up and to know a ‘more horrid hent’. However, this sanguinary delight that Hamlet seems to exhibit in the Prayer scene seems to be counter-intuitive to his noble nature.
It would appear that all these facets of Hamlet’s character, the noble prince, the malcontent, the revenger are all competing with each other for supremacy. It is no wonder that Hamlet questions his main objective and his main role in the play. We see the noble prince emerge in the Graveyard scene where his heartfelt and sincere grief over Ophelia’s death is clearly palpable: ‘Forty thousand brothers with all their quantity of love could not make up my sum’.
We see the noble prince emerge in the fencing scene where Hamlet fails to examine the foils and fails to suspect any duplicity and chicanery. His role as noble prince is at odds with that of revenger and Hamlet pays a Pyrrhic price for such noble naivety. It is clear to me then that Hamlet’s problem is not that of a man who does not want to do his duty; it is of a man who cannot find out what his duty is.