Prince Hamlet & Thinking Too Precisely
Hamlet, the titular character of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is hardly a man of action. In particular, this is illustrated by two soliloquies in the play. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 4 indicates his frustration at his own lack of action over the murder of his father and the sexual impurity of his mother. This frustration leads Hamlet to jealousy of Fortinbras, another prince, who is able to inspire thousands of men to die over a worthless piece of land. A similar soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 2 is about Hamlet’s envy of an actor’s ability to draw inspiration seemingly out of nowhere. Both soliloquies examine the connection between motivation and action. Hamlet has plenty of the former, yet remains incapable of the latter as a result of either excessive thought or cowardice. The prince also uses flawed logic in his admiration of the actor and Fortinbras. Ultimately, the soliloquies suggest that it is his incessant need for reflection and thinking that stymies Hamlet’s ability to avenge the death of his father.
Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 4 examines honor as a motivating principle. The captain in Fortinbras’s army encounters Hamlet and informs him, “We go to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4.19-20). Names have only abstract value imbued onto them. The profit of the name in the quote refers to the honor or glory that taking such a patch of ground would bestow upon the conqueror. Fortinbras is not attempting to take some land in Poland for any tangible gain because it offers none. Yet the conquest could be very meaningful in adding to his own name and renown. His men are shown to believe in this cause because they are willing to follow Fortinbras into battle and possible death over this quest for honor and glory. Hamlet is initially skeptical over this action in the name of honor, referring to it as a sore that kills the body from the inside without any warning (4.4.26-30). He feels this system of fighting over trifles for intangible gains is akin to a poison that could ruin a man or even a nation. His father was killed for the glory of being king, thus Hamlet has good reason to be wary of intangible motivators such as Fortinbras’s idea of honor. Yet, Hamlet seems to admire the action in his soliloquy saying,
...Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake... (4.4.56-59)
Hamlet changes his tone because he realizes his own admiration for those who are able to act and even die for something so futile over a question of honor. Hamlet wishes that he could find the ability to act over a much larger matter of honor than the one in which Fortinbras is engaged. Even if he is skeptical over honor as a motivating principle, he is jealous of those who are able to do great things because of it.
This skepticism is somewhat ironic, since, in many ways, Hamlet’s chief motivation is honor. Like Fortinbras’s land in Poland, the abstract idea of family has little profit in it except for the name. But Claudius has upset the order of things and wronged the royal family. Hamlet’s revenge cannot bring back his father nor annul his mother’s marriage. What he seeks to do is restore, as best as he can, his ideal family structure and the honor that is contained in that concept. Therefore, Hamlet’s revenge is clearly a matter of honor, despite his misgivings over such an idea. Yet, even honor cannot inspire Hamlet to action even though it inspires Fortinbras and his army. This is because honor is reactionary for Fortinbras and his men. They do not need to reflect on whether their actions are truly honorable. They simply accept them as so. Hamlet, on the contrary, must think and reflect extensively about killing Claudius. His skepticism regarding Fortinbras’s action demonstrates that an overactive mind is what keeps Hamlet from being like Fortinbras. If only Hamlet could take honor for granted and act with full conviction and without thought, Claudius might not survive to the final scene.
In both soliloquies, Hamlet considers cowardice as the reason for his excess of thought and reflection. In the soliloquy in Act 4, for example, Hamlet compares mankind’s capacity for reason to God’s own thought:
Sure He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event...I do not know (4.4.38-46)
Here Hamlet considers the possibility of his own cowardice and its relationship to thinking and reflection. The passage does not indicate that thinking is inherently in opposition to action. To the contrary, the passage references the creation story to show that even the divine considered its actions prior to creation in “looking before and after” (4.4.39). Hamlet asserts that man’s capacity for reason is not meant to be wasted unused, but is a powerful gift from God. Yet God was able to create after thinking and reflecting; action followed thought. Hamlet cannot manage this and wonders whether his incessant need for reflection is a product of cravenness. Hamlet asks directly in Act 2, “Am I a coward?” (2.2.598). After delivering this line, he considers the connection between cowardice and thought further saying, “...This is most brave... / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must [I], like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2.613). Hamlet’s sarcastic mention of his bravery demonstrates that he believes that his overlong contemplation is a product of cowardice. He must repeatedly unpack his heart with words without ever being moved to tangible action. He attributes this quality to the word whore, indicating that for Hamlet, reflection and emotion are womanly attributes unbefitting a dishonored prince. It is as if the act of contemplation physically weakens him. That weakness will not suffice when tangible action is needed.
There is great irony in Hamlet’s thinking, however. Even though he does not want to think that his inaction is a product of cowardice, his resolution at the end of the Act 2 soliloquy is to entrap Claudius’s conscience in “The Mousetrap.” This is hardly the brave action that Hamlet calls for in Act 4 when he declares, “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4.4.68-69). The play does not advance his cause for revenge. He already knows that his father was murdered by Claudius from the testimony of the ghost. Fortinbras would not wait for further confirmation for action, but Hamlet’s need for consideration does not allow him to be as brash as Fortinbras. It is ambiguous whether or not this lack of brashness is in fact a manifestation of Hamlet’s cowardice. The prince himself seems unsure, but it bothers him enough to reflect on the issue multiple times in the play.
However, Hamlet is not incapable of brash action. He kills Polonius in Act 3 almost without any thought at all (3.4.29). Hamlet reacts violently to the noises of the voyeur behind the curtain and stabs without knowing the person’s identity. In the moment, Hamlet manages to successfully emulate Fortinbras. The scene illustrates in brutal fashion that thought is holding Hamlet back from exacting his revenge. In a moment without any significant consideration, he is able to do to Polonius what he talks endlessly about doing to Claudius. This one moment of brashness confirms the idea in the two soliloquies that Hamlet’s need for contemplation the most significant barrier to his revenge.
A major irony of the two soliloquies is that Hamlet chooses very flawed examples to admire and emulate. He envies the ability of the actor to derive inspiration seemingly from nothing before putting on a performance. He also envies Fortinbras’s ability to lead men to death over trivialities. The actor and Fortinbras both have little motivations for their actions, but are able to realize them. Yet both are imperfect examples for what Hamlet wants to accomplish. Hamlet considers the motivations of the actor and asks why he cannot find the same intensity over his issue:
What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?... (2.2.586-589)
Hamlet, as a character that has issues with translating motivation into action, is understandably jealous of the actor’s ability to make emotion seem real without truly possessing it. Yet this is not relevant to Hamlet’s situation. Hamlet is not in a fictional situation like the actor nor can his situation be resolved simply by acting in a role. The actor may be inspired to put on a show, but not to take on the kind of tangible action that Hamlet needs. All of the actor’s action exists within a fictional world without the consequences that Hamlet could face. In this way, the example of the actor falls short of the exemplified connection between motivation and action that Hamlet truly needs.
Fortinbras is able to take action, but his example is also a troubling one for Hamlet. This is primarily due to the contrast between Fortinbras and the prince that Hamlet desires to be. Hamlet envisions himself as an instrument of justice. Fortinbras is far from an instrument of justice when he
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (4.4.53-56)
Fortinbras is willing to lead thousands of men to death over something relatively meaningless. It is implied that he is rash and generally unthinking in taking on this campaign in Poland. Are these qualities for Hamlet to admire? The two characters come from opposite extremes: Hamlet is cautious and contemplative to a fault whereas Fortinbras is callous, impulsive, and selfish in his action. Hamlet’s admiration for this aspect of Fortinbras seems particularly ironic given that the quality he envies in Fortinbras is the same quality that he despises in Claudius. Both Fortinbras and Claudius are men that are moved to action out of their own ambition and desire. They both lack the moral, conscientious element that stymies Hamlet in moments like his failed attempt on the life of Claudius while he is praying (3.3.79-93). Thus the example of Fortinbras as an object of admiration rests on faulty logic. Hamlet needs to take action, but the cold, thoughtless bravado of Fortinbras is not the model he requires. The example of Fortinbras demonstrates that even though thought prevents Hamlet from carrying out his revenge, thought is also a critical part of the justice which Hamlet seeks.
Hamlet struggles with action despite his sufficient motivation. The two soliloquies in Acts 2 and 4, respectively, indicate that the prince’s need to constantly think and reflect prevents him from carrying out his revenge. Though the speeches are not conclusive as to why Hamlet is “thinking too precisely on th’ event,” (4.4.43) they do demonstrate that the thought itself is the prince’s biggest obstacle. Of course a great irony of the play is that reflections on the obstacles of internal thought would come in the form of soliloquy, a means of conveying internal thought. As the main character in a play, Hamlet cannot escape introspection. This introspection delays the prince long enough that he finds himself at the wrong end of a sword poisoned by a man who has no trouble with acting on a straw.