William Shakespeare made a bad plot choice. That’s what some people seem to think, asking “Why does Hamlet wait to kill the king?” A better-crafted play would have put the action earlier, so the argument goes. However, the seemingly insolvable and baffling plot device remains unexplained only if one misunderstands the nature of the play. If the story were plot-driven, then bafflement would be an appropriate response. In fact, the play is character-driven, and when viewed in this light, a solution to the bafflement is close at hand.
It has to do with genre, and it is this from which comes the complexity that would otherwise be very simple. Like the sphere model of the universe, which became so complex with added spheres one within another, trying to make sense of a fundamentally flawed theory, the theory that Hamlet’s inaction is a plot failure is based on a failure to realize what manner of system is being studied.
Shakespeare did not do anything similar in Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which are plot-driven stories; by which to say the driving force of the story is that of what happened. They are action-based.
On the other hand, Hamlet is a literary play. It is character driven. The plot is not “Let us see how Hamlet goes about killing his uncle, ” the plot is “Let us see how Hamlet psychologically copes with the fracturing of his family and the burden of a murder—however justified.” The play, aptly called Hamlet, is not about Hamlet’s actions, but Hamlet’s psychology and inner emotional landscape. The play shows clearly the effects of isolation on the protagonist as he wrestles with a moral decision, thinking through his tangled emotions, dealing with a terrible secret which he cannot reveal to anyone, experiencing the very fracturing of a family, the structure of which should be based on trust, and which is now nothing but secrets within secrets.
Hamlet didn’t go straight from the ghost’s visitation on to kill his uncle for a very simple reason: he was not an automaton. He was not unfeeling. He was not ruthlessly certain. The entire story is based around Hamlet’s slowly fashioning himself, readying himself to be able to perform the deed of vengeance, and when that ruthless certainty is reached, he does his task, and then he dies.
The play follows the slow hollowing-out of Hamlet’s character from an entire person, to a tool meant for only one task. Like Ophelia, he is haunted by his father’s wishes, which in the end, destroy him, just as it does her.
The story is that of a young person who, because his parents expected him to be nothing but an extension of themselves, taking hold of their own hopes, fears, dreams, and rules, entirely stripped away all choice and individuality. It is not a tale of vengeance. The plot is not about the practicalities of murder, but the inner landscape of a young man who has the role of assassin thrust upon him and is entirely unprepared to go through with it, as he should be.
What does he really hesitate on? At first he does nothing about the ghost because he is uncertain if he should trust it; also, he knows within himself that to kill his uncle would be the end of him; as a self-aware protagonist in a tragedy, he knows what will happen once he kills Claudius—he will lose everything. He desperately wants connection, but in his hour of need he feels abandoned and set apart. So yes: Hamlet puts off the murder.
But in a story based on the emotional landscape of the protagonist, a play that is intimately connected and fashioned around Hamlet’s perceptions and mindset, we are seeing into a character put into an intolerable situation and watching him slowly crumble. It is a psychological play. If Hamlet had cheerfully murdered his uncle at once, the “plot” would have been served, yes—but that was never the point of the play. Instead, Shakespeare explored a different kind of story power—that of the psychologically-driven work. And in this, he reveals another level of his own genius and power as a playwright and a weaver of tales.
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