The themes of action and inaction are a constant theme throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The reasons Hamlet chooses words over actions in many cases, or why he chooses to “act” a part rather than taking real action have been debated since the play was composed 400 years ago. The play gives clues as to the answers to these questions in many of Hamlet’s syliloquies. One such is in Act II, Scene II, just after the players have left the stage. In this syliloquy, Hamlet tells the audience that he is terrified to take action, and can only come at the problems facing him through the tools of an actor, which are words and a play.
Hamlet begins the syliloquy by wondering what the lead actor, who broke down in tears just talking about the fictional Hecuba, would do if he only knew all of what Hamlet was facing. He then details what he thinks the actions of the player might be in Hamlet’s place (2.2.1624-39). The comparison he makes between himself and the player is not favorable. While the actor can be brought to tears by just the thought of Hecuba, Hamlet cannot convince himself to do anything at all.
The comparison with the player makes Hamlet completely disgusted with himself. He calls himself a coward, (Shakespeare 2.2.1624), a villain, an and a wretched slave. He wonders who is threatening him so much that he cannot bring himself to act. He says: “Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face? / Tweaks me by the’ nose? gives me the lie I’ the’ throat as deep as to the lungs? Who does me this, ha?” (2.2.1645-49). He is wondering what is wrong with him that others, such as the lead player, can seem to act with much smaller provocation, and he cannot.
Part of Hamlet’s disgust with himself is that he does not seem to have the ability even to speak of what is happening unless he is alone, or with Horatio. He says that he can “say nothing”. (2.2.1642). While this is not literally true, Hamlet spends a lot of time in this play talking, it is true that he cannot seem to say anything important. He has not been able to address the King, or his mother, or Ophelia about anything that is going on. He makes oblique reference to this when he comments, near the end of the speech after he has spent 30 lines saying what he should be doing an lamenting that he can do nothing: “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, / That I, the son of a dear father mother’s, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words” (2.2.1657-1660). Hamlet is aware that there is a problem between what he should be doing and what he is actually able to do, but cannot do anything other than speak words which do not solve anything.
Hamlet’s final solution to the problem of his inaction is to have someone else confront the King with his suspicions. According to Danner, the tension in Hamlet during this part of the play is that between an actor, who is only pretending a role, as Hamlet has shown himself to be during the play, and a man who is being called upon for real action. (Danner 32). Given that Hamlet has used an actor in this syliloquy as an example of what he should be, and that the syliloquy which finally gives the audience the idea that he actually has a plan to get to the truth of what is happening with his Uncle, it is not a surprise that Hamlet decides to use the theater as his method of “action”. After all of his indecision and self-recrimination, he turns to a play. He says: “I’ll have these Players Play something like the murther of my father / Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks; / I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench, / I know my course” (2.2.1669-73). It is through a play that Hamlet means to “Catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.1680). With the theme of acting, in both senses of the word, running through the play, it makes sense that Hamlet will rely on the theater and players to do what he has been unable to do thus far, confront Claudius and find out the truth of Old Hamlet’s accusations. The fact that he is going to have the murder of his father presented onstage to force Claudius to speak is ironic, given his inability to speak aloud to Claudius. He says: “For murther, though it has no tongue, will speak” (2.2.1668). Though Hamlet cannot speak of the murder, he can have it “acted”. Hamlet, who is unable to speak, is going to use a play to speak for him and confront Claudius.
In this syliloquy, the threads that run through the entire play are linked. There is Hamlet’s use of words and “acting” to keep himself from having to commit a real action, and his fear that his inability to do anything concrete means he is a coward and a disloyal son. Hamlet’s use of a play to catch the King is understandable when seen in the light of his reaction to the first player’s emotions. Through the syliloquy we get a glimpse of a man tormented by indecision and desperate to be able to do something, anything, to make sense of his world, who thinks he finds in the theater a way to achieve his goals.
- Danner, Bruce. “Speaking Daggers”. Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1(Spring 2003): 29-62. JSTOR 6 May 2016.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Modern, Editors Edition). Internet Shakespeare Editions. Web. 6 May 2016.