Achieving individual goals is an inherent desire, regardless of context, and is presupposed by taking action. However, Hamlet in Hamlet (1603) by William Shakespeare shows us that action is a multifaceted contest of agency, free will, and circumstance. This is achieved through the process of reflection and reason as demonstrated by Hamlet’s consciousness. Hamlet’s decisions enable us to engage with the significance of reason and moral choice so that we gain a deeper appreciation of the philosopher prince, Hamlet. This is precisely because Hamlet is a play filled with action and raging passion, yet despite this, we find that Hamlet is a humanist, philosophical play, adhering to the audience’s desires for ethical outcomes that reflect their own desires for peace and morality. This is posited through three keynotes of the play, from Hamlet’s rejection from Hamlet’s rejection of tragic convention; to his elevating the supremacy of thought; and finally proving the futility and immorality of revenge. It is in this way that the critic, William Hazlitt, has postulated, Hamlet is the most “amiable of misanthropes.”
A key contention which elevates Hamlet above Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes is his refusal to act despite his expected role as the avenger, given by ’heaven and hell’ to commit murder and revenge against Claudius. This coincides with the 16th century convention of the Chain of Being and the Divine Right of Kings in which Claudius’ actions constitute a disruption of natural order. Subsequently, Hamlet becomes the gardener who by divine decree must cleanse the “unweeded garden,” and the “rotten state of Denmark,” a metaphor for the corrupted reign of Claudius. The paradoxical key to Hamlet’s actions then, is that he is a Renaissance humanist forced into a medieval destiny. The promise to Old Hamlet (Ghost), “thy commandments alone shall live,” therefore becomes a dual representation of this conflicted destiny. It manifests that though Hamlet satisfies the external demands of the avenger role, he must “wipe away all trivial fond records.” The audience thus comes to realise that at the satisfaction of Hamlet’s promise of vengeance come at the cost of his youthfulness and innocence. Thus, Hamlet’s dilemma is a striking reflection of human life in which we are forced into actions that we have no control over. We ask why Hamlet must divest himself of his free will, for surely he does not gain the love of Ophelia, purifies the sins of his mother, nor resurrects his “Hyperion” of a father. The futility of his role thus leads us to applaud Hamlet’s absolute refusal and exclamation of, “No!” highlighting the sense of hostility towards the expectations of action for the audience. His decision to resist action with philosophical thought is a demonstration of the Humanist desire for free will. The supremacy of individual thought over that of orthodox expectation thus makes Hamlet the “misanthrope” and who’s “principles of action are unhinged and out of joint with the time.”
If Hamlet refuses to act at the behest of both tradition and tragic convention, he must convince the audience that action brings calamity and that his role as the avenger is unworthy. This is achieved through the study of Hamlet ‘as a moraliser’ whose “ruling passion is to think, not to act.” Conventionally, Hamlet does not possess the superhuman qualities of Shakespeare’s other heroes. He lacks the capacity for violence of warrior princes, lacks the oratory of tacticians and usurpers, he is an everyman, “us” caught in the middle of the contending powers of fate and free will. Shakespeare posits that, “action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!”, and engages our sense of ethos and pathos through the use of hyperbolic deification of the supremacy of thought over action. This is further reinforced through his logos that God “gave us not That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused,” which presents an intellectual challenge to the very convention of Hamlet’s revenge, that ‘heaven and hell’ had justified it. This concurs with Hazlitt’s position that Hamlet is “sensible of his weakness, taxes himself with it, and tries to reason himself out of it.” It becomes evident through the logos of Hamlet’s position that it was God that gave him the ability to think; therefore the role of the ‘avenger’ becomes a test of faith in which he must “dally with purpose until the occasion is lost.” This is further supported by the critic, Lauren Amtower, to see that “For Hamlet, absolutes “become fluid,” and “life is nothing but a language game.” Her argument is predicated upon the fact that Hamlet’s decision has now perverted the discourses of religious dogma in pursuit of what he personally believes to be humanist test of faith in goodness and ethics.
Shakespeare’s purpose, therefore, is to justify the validity of Hamlet’s choices and his decision not to act. That, “in the harassed state of mind, he could not have done much otherwise than he did.” This is best demonstrated by observing Hamlet’s foil, Fortinbras, whose prerogative is not delaying action but to act immediately. The actions taken by the warrior prince are contrasted with Hamlet’s thoughts, characterising Hamlet’s as the philosopher prince. This opposition is exemplified by Hamlet through his remarks about passion-filled vengeance, “to my shame, I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men. That for a fantasy and trick of fame.” Here, the resolution of death is juxtaposed with thought, highlighting the absurdity of the situation in which the mere action of one man leads to the death of “twenty thousand” others. It is clear to the audience that such decisions are irrational, immoral and unethical as well as demonstrating that the act of pursuing revenge is reciprocal. This is precisely the reason that Hamlet laments “oh, this too too solid flesh would melt,” in which the use of repetition of “too” aswell as the contrast between imagery emphasizes the futility of the “divine ambition” placed upon him. At this moment, Hamlet is “full of weakness and melancholy” yet, through his rationality and sentimentality, we as an audience see him as moral, ethical and honourable. This notion is reinforced by critic, A.C Bradley, who postulates that Hamlet’s inability to act is predicated upon the theory that if he is to kill, then “he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.” It is precisely because he’s thoughts and reasons are so endearing to the values of human life, that we are so attached to Hamlet.
Thus, we are endeared to Hamlet as his thoughts are supportive of our modern perspectives of humanist action, that being, thinking before acting and considering moral implications over conventions of expectation. Through Shakespeare’s presentation of hamlet as a philosopher, we come to appreciate Hamlet’s weakness as a strength, and this is why he becomes to us, the most “amiable of misanthropes.”