One of the ongoing debates regarding Hamlet is whether or not Hamlet is, as many critics contend, Hamlet is “unable to make up his mind.” In the mind of critics such as Coleridge and Goethe, Hamlet is a thinker, and not a doer. He is also too sensitive a soul to do something as ugly as a murder a man for revenge.
Other critics, especially actors and directors, point out that this is a later, Romantic construction of the test. (TS Elliott argues that Goethe makes Hamlet into Werther, and Coleridge sees Hamlet as Coleridge.) More compelling, these critics argue that this characterization of Hamlet (as a delicate flower, a philosopher not a man of action) ignores the information that we actually know about Hamlet.
I recently skimmed through the book Backwards and Forwards, which is a book all about text analysis for plays. I skimmed it because it was less about Hamlet then about analyzing the text of a play, something with which I was already familiar. (If anyone wants to learn more about point of attack, climax, etc, this is actually a great text. I heartily recommend it.) This book takes the latter position. As an argument, they encourage a reader of Hamlet to look at what Hamlet actually does during the play and make judgements about Hamlet the character based on these actions. (Keep in mind, theater is primarily about action. This does not necessarily mean violence or action the way we think of action movies, a la The Avengers.)
I have decided to take up this challenge. Here follows, as best as I can manage, a list of all of the things that Hamlet does. We do not necessarily see him do these things onstage, but we know that Hamlet does these things, either during the time of the play or just preceding it, ie, shortly after the death of his father. I will not include elements of business (physical acts in a play that are not essential to the plot, ie setting a table, lighting a cigarette) insofar as I can, since that is not the same thing as action. I am also going to point out when Hamlet plans to do something and then actually succeeds in fulfilling his plans.
1 Hamlet wins, and maintains the love of the people. (I am including this fact because it partially explains why Claudius does not kill Hamlet. For whatever reason, Hamlet is well loved by the Danish people.)
2 Hamlet returns to Elsinore from university in Wittenberg following the death of his father.
3 Hamlet woos Ophelia. (There is no timetable given to this romance, but Ophelia tells her father, “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me.” This suggests that this happens during the time when Hamlet returns to Elsinore. They may have been in correspondence during his schooling.)
4 Hamlet petitions Claudius for permission to return to university, but is denied.
5 Hamlet decides to stay silent about the incest in his court.
6 Hamlet resolves to join Horatio and the men at watch to see the ghost. He instructs the men to secrecy.
7 Hamlet takes up fencing practice. (Remember, he tells Horatio that “since (Laertes) returned to France I have been in continual practice.” He must have taken up fencing practice at about this time. I’m including it because of its import to the climax of the play. Plus, I think the continual fencing practice says something about him.)
8 Hamlet joins the men at the watch.
9 Hamlet threatens to kill his friend Horatio and the guards for trying to stop him from pursuing the ghost.
10 Hamlet follows the ghost.
11 Hamlet conceals the the ghost’s speech and instructions from his friend and from the guards. He vows them to secrecy, getting them to swear on his sword.
12 Hamlet visits Ophelia in a state of dishevelment, scaring her and causing her and Polonius to believe that he is mad.
13 Hamlet writes Ophelia a letter declaring his undying love for her.
14 Hamlet pretends to be insane to distract Polonius.
15 Hamlet discerns that his friends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are spies from his aunt and uncle. He pretends to be insane to conceal the truth from Claudius.
16 Hamlet requests that the players to play the Murder of Gonzago, and asks if they can memorize an extra speech, so that he can determine whether or not the king is guilty.
17 Hamlet considers suicide, and then decides against it.
18 Hamlet breaks up with Ophelia, and suspecting that she is a spy, speaks very cruelly to her and makes veiled threats against his uncle.
19 Hamlet writes an extra speech for the Murder of Gonzago. (Hamlet the playwright.)
20 Hamlet directs the players as to how they should perform the play. (Hamlet has an Orson Wells complex.)
21 Hamlet recruits Horatio to watch his uncle Claudius and look for signs of guilt.
22 Hamlet continues his ruse of madness in order to fool Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Rozencrantz and Gildenstern.
23 Hamlet determines, after watching the king, that Claudius is guilty of his father’s death. (This is a fascinating moment of the play because Hamlet has set a goal for himself, worked towards achieving this goal, recruited a large number of people to reach this goal, and in the end, has achieved his goal.)
24 Hamlet once again taunts Rozencrantz and Gildenstern and throws them off track from finding out his plans.
25 Hamlet resolves to confront his mother for her infidelity.
26 Hamlet considers killing Claudius while praying. (This is another wonderful moment in the play because this is the first time that the audience knows for a fact that Claudius has killed Old Hamlet.)
27 Hamlet decides that killing his uncle is not a sufficient act of revenge. He then resolves to not only kill his uncle, but to ensure his eternal damnation as well.
28 Hamlet meets his mother and accuses her of infidelity. He is so fierce in his treatment of his mother that Polonius calls for help.
29 Hamlet hears a noise behind a curtain, and believes it to be the king. He stabs the figure behind the curtain. It is Polonius. (This is one of the most fascinating moments of the play, and it is the moment in the play where everything changes. Before, the play proceeds at about 35 miles an hour. It’s not racing, but it’s fast enough to be entertaining. All of a sudden, at this moment, Shakespeare floors the gasoline pedal, and floors it through the fourth act. It’s also intriguing because thoughtful Hamlet does not even pause to pull back the curtain before stabbing!)
30 Hamlet berates his mother furiously until the ghost appears and puts a stop to it. (It is also fascinating that Hamlet previously resolved to attack his mother for his infidelity, and follows through with this plan.)
31 Hamlet reconciles with his mother, in a fashion, and instructs her not to sleep with his uncle.
32 Hamlet decides to hide Polonius’ corpse, and insults the dead man. He shows almost no remorse for his role in Polonius’ death.
33 Hamlet toys with Rozencrantz and Guildenstern , lying and deliberately confusing them, so they cannot find out where Polonius’ body is.
34 Hamlet hurls veiled insults to his uncle before finally revealing the location of Polonius’ body.
35 Hamlet leaves for England.
36 Hamlet interviews a captain in Young Fortinbras’ army to determine where they are going and who they are going to fight.
37 Hamlet berates himself for not doing more.
38 On the way to England, Hamlet discovers his uncle’s plot to kill him.
39 Hamlet subverts this plot by arranging the death of his two university friends. (This is indeed troubling. Hamlet is directly responsible for his friends’ deaths, and when Horatio asks him about this, Hamlet basically says he doesn’t give a shit, he’s not responsible.) At this point in the play, Hamlet has killed three people, and feels not a shred of remorse.
40 When Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet joins the other men in fighting the pirates.
41 Hamlet boards the pirate ship.
42 Hamlet convinces the pirates to drop him off in Denmark.
43 Hamlet, in a letter to Claudius, announces his return to Denmark and attempts to reconcile with Claudius and ingratiate himself into the court.
44 Hamlet mediates on death.
45 Hamlet challenges Leaertes to determine who loved Ophelia more.
46 Hamlet threatens both Laertes and Claudius, telling them that not even Hercules can stop him.
47 Laertes accepts a challenge to a fencing competition with Laertes.
48 Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for killing Polonius while at the same time excusing his murder on grounds of insanity.
49 Hamlet acquits himself very well in the fencing competition, showing himself to be a better fencer than Laertes. His continual practice has proven effective.
50 Hamlet stabs Laertes in retaliation for Laertes’ attack on him.
51 Hamlet kills Claudius.
52 Hamlet forgives Laertes for killing him.
53 Hamlet prevents Horatio from committing suicide.
54 Hamlet instructs Horatio to mourn for him and to tell the world his story.
That, as best as I can figure, is every action that Hamlet performs in the play. It was far more arduous than I thought it would be.
This is by no means an exact list. There are some actions that I split into two actions, which could be considered one action. I also did not necessarily include the actions of some of the soliloquy if it was repetitive.
It was quite illuminating to make this list. Everyone who reads Hamlet should do this exercise.