Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet: A Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice

Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet: A Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice

Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet: A Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice

Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet: A Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice

Excerpt

The question "Why does Hamlet delay, fatally for himself, the killing of Claudius?" is inseparable dramatically from another query: "Why does Claudius delay, fatally for himself, the killing of Hamlet?" Of course there is a very obvious ground of Claudius's delay so far as the first half of the drama is concerned. The new king conciliates his queen together with "the world" (I. ii. 108) by recognizing the son of her and the former king as crown prince. But soon we learn from the Ghost that Claudius had performed a quite unique feat: he had managed to murder his mighty predecessor with absolute secrecy. Surely he may very well do likewise to Hamlet later on. That is what we feel if we credit the specter's story and if we are as much interested (very many of us are not) as Shakespeare intended us to be in his fascinating Claudius. And our premonition is justified in the second half of the drama. There the king devises two clever schemes for disposing of his nephew without incurring suspicion on the part of the queen and Denmark: first, Hamlet's healthful voyage to England, to be climaxed by the beheading of him there; then his charmingly friendly, but fatal, fencing-match with Laertes. Both schemes are wonderfully specious, but especially the second; which is apparently so designed by the king as to rule out the unforeseen accidents, very regrettable from his standpoint, that nullified the first. The upshot is, however, that Hamlet is left alive long enough to unveil and destroy his enemy before he himself succumbs. Surely, then, we are intended to perceive that Claudius's second and last murder, in contrast with his first, is brilliantly unsuccessful. It is true that Hamlet dies because he postpones too long the killing of the king. But it is equally significant that Claudius dies because he postpones too long the killing of Hamlet.

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