Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Action and Inaction in Act IV

One of the things that I wondered upon most in my reading of acts I through III was the reasoning behind Hamlet's inaction against Claudius. The murder of his father plagues his mind, and he very obviously has a lot a hatred towards Claudius that could be used to fuel some type of revenge, but he fails to act. I was most surprised that even after Hamlet is struck by the player's ability to act on false feeling, he was still unable to act upon his own very real emotions. Although he did act by finally confiding in his mother, he makes no real move towards confronting the king himself.
I was sure that Hamlet's reaction to the players would have him moving towards some form of action against Claudius in Act IV, but instead I found another very interesting comparison of action and inaction in the scene. While on his way to the ship to England, Hamlet runs into Fortenbras, who is on his way to Poland. They engage in a discussion about Fortenbras's planned attack against Poland, and Hamlet asks what exactly the battle will be over. Fortenbra replies that they will be fighting over "a little patch of land/ That hath in it no profit but the name" (Act IV scene iv). This struck me because of it's similarity to the comparison presented by the players. Fortenbras represents action, but his actions are motivated by seemingly nothing of any significance. All it takes is a patch of unimportant land for Fortenbras to move into a dangerous and violent battle against Poland. This is probably a place that not many care about, and yet lives will be lost just to gain its possession.
On the other hand, Hamlet have every reason in the world to move into action, but instead represents inaction throughout the play. His cause and motivation is very significant, and yet he is, for some reason, not acting out to get revenge on Claudius.
I am curious to see if making this comparison himself, Hamlet will finally become proactive in his revenge against Claudius. Maybe this was just the spark he needed to finally do something, or maybe this is just another comparison to shine light on Hamlet's inability to act at all in the play.


Julian Mocha said...

This was a really interesting point that I personally hadn't thought of; I wonder if Hamlet has thus-far chosen not to act on his anger against Claudius because he is still reeling from shock. His mother is remarried, his father is dead (at the hands of Claudius!) and he has absolutely nothing left (title, land, power, etc.). Hamlet seems to me to hold his strength in his words (as evident by the way he speaks to his mother privately about how disgusted he is with her) and his mind rather than the sword. Perhaps Hamlet will seek his revenge on Claudius in a similar manner- using time and intellect rather than brash emotion and physical strength. I think we've seen over the course of many plays that Shakespeare places a high value on intellect and characters who have a strong command of speech whereas many of his "brute" and emotional characters find themselves helpless or, worse, dead!

Cyrus Mulready said...

Hamlet says that the reason he doesn't kill Claudius when he has the opportunity (while Claudius is at prayer) is because he doesn't want him to go to heaven. He wants to replicate the death of his own father, in other words, who we know was not able to have his sins forgiven and therefore must languish in purgatory. The eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson (a great Shakespearean himself) thought that the speech in which Hamlet explains this motivation was too immoral and horrific to even be acted!