The relationship between words and deeds is excessively pervaded and explored within Shakespeare's Hamlet. This sixteenth century revenge tragedy is arguably one of Western literature's most noble and elevated plays. Hamlet's journey through his procrastination of avenging his father continually challenges interpretation. Hamlet embodies a character of emphatic vacillation rather than the conventional heroic revenger. In R.A. Foakes' essay 'Hamlet's neglect of revenge' he describes Hamlet as '…often been extrapolated from the play as someone who reflects, hesitates, is inhibited from acting, or as one who is oppressed by a corrupt world in which action is useless'
Hamlet's denial of revenge throughout the play is a prime example encapsulating the relationship between words and deeds in Shakespeare. 'Hamlet might be seen as pathologically disabled by his speculative intellect and sensitivity in a world of action, handicapped by weakness of character.' The initial catalyst that sparks the debilitation of Hamlet is the death of old King Hamlet and the supernatural appearance of the Ghost that demands him to 'revenge his foul and most unnatural murder' (Hamlet, 1.5.25) Hamlet begins with death. It reaches it terminal at the start of the play, Shakespeare perhaps presents this as an intentional act of bathos however the delay then becomes the crux of the play; highlighting his literary alertness. Traditionally it is perhaps embarrassment or humiliation that incites revenge, and only after a series of vindictive murders follows a process or grieving and mourning. Shakespeare once more takes this concept and defiles it to make Hamlet begin with the bereavement of King Hamlet, thus enflaming Hamlet's desire for revenge. Shakespeare works against his own mechanical efficiency by placing bereavement preceding revenge. Death determines a revenge tragedy, human sacrifice exposes the 'rank' and 'gross' nature of mankind thus epitomizing the dark and evil desires of human behavior that Hamlet seems to be insusceptible to.
'Hamlet's immediate reaction to the Ghost's words is often taken as signifying an acceptance of a duty to revenge' Conversely, critics such as John Kerrigan observe that Hamlet's onus burden of committing revenge is rendered obsolete as he never promises to revenge; only to 'remember'. 'Haste me to know't, that I with wings as swift as meditation or thoughts of love may sweep to my revenge' (Hamlet, 1.5.29-31) Even within Hamlet instantly swearing revenge, there is undeniable ambiguity- 'swift meditation'. This paradox insinuates Hamlet's unstable mind. 'Swift' intimates a rapid perhaps lethal movement- swift blood coursing through the body as Hamlet 'drinks hot blood' (Hamlet, 3.2.351), or the swift slicing of the blade of Hamlet's sword as he commits regicide. On the contrary, 'meditation' or 'thoughts of love' are not and cannot be 'swift'. 'Meditation' and 'thoughts of love' infer peace of mind, body and soul- a luxury Hamlet will also be deprived of as he embeds thoughts of murder into his 'distracted globe' (Hamlet, 1.5.97). Meditation is in fact a slow and gradual process whereby elongation of time is essential in order to reach a mental peak. Therefore it is questionable as to why Hamlet uses this analogy to hyperbolize his 'swift' action in avenging his father. Revenge and death are a form of vindication for the Ghost, again it is perplexing as to how 'thoughts of love' can be used a motivator for Hamlet in extracting revenge. This in turn indentifies Hamlet's ineptitude at making coherent decisions; his words defy the deed he has promised to carry out.
There are numerous integral hindrances that stagnate Hamlet's fulfillment of revenge. A prominent factor is Hamlet's skepticism towards the nature of the Ghost- 'Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, Bring with thee airs of heaven or blasts from hell' (Hamlet, 1.4.40-41). Contextually Shakespeare often latently inserted his Catholic beliefs in his plays that were otherwise stigmatized in Elizabethan England. One such example is the notion of purgatory within the concept of Sin and Salvation. It is dubious as to whether the ghost is benign or a satanic, ominous preternatural being preordained to damn Hamlet to perpetual hell. This in turn obscures Hamlets vision and restrains him from a vindictive murderous campaign against all those who wronged his father during the course of the play. Therefore it can be concluded that religious, moral and ethical values play a vital role in Hamlet's psyche in determining whether to interlink his promised words to the actual deed. Unfortunately is it Hamlet's fickle mind that everybody becomes his harmatia- his psychological desperation for revenge in which he vocalizes within his soliloquies paradoxically clash with his paralysis in physically enduring the act of murder.
Hamlet's pedantic obsession with life, death and existence also displays a further collision between words and deeds. His famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy is another unequivocal example of how Hamlet cannot channel words into actions. 'To be or not to be' (Hamlet, 3.1.56) the ontology of this famous quotation embeds a tone of morbid pathos. Hamlet begins by questioning life- 'to be' and death- 'not to be'. He questions whether he should choose life or commit suicide. Arguably this internalized debate is an echo of Hamlet's previous wish of committing suicide- in Act 1.2 he soliloquizes 'Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter'(Hamlet, 1.2.131-132). If God had not forbade suicide, it is clearly evident that Hamlet would have taken his own life. Alternatively he would once again become cowardly to do so and reprimand himself as he has done for neglect of revenge. It is particularly easy for Hamlet to claim he wants to commit suicide, yet it is highly questionable whether he actually would- words become empty, meaningless deeds. It is, however, the fear of the unknown, the fear of what happens after death that coerces him to recoil from it. For Hamlet, and the rest of mankind, the unknown 'puzzles the will' (Hamlet, 3.1.80). After death there is no return to an earthly life; in choosing 'to be', it is an affirmation of choosing a life full of death yet in choosing 'not to be' death and the 'threat of something after death' ( Hamlet, 3.1.78) encapsulates the soul, endangering a second life. Therefore two choices of 'not to be' equate to a double negative and in turn a hollow, depressing and forlorn life of 'being'. It can be argued that Hamlet is fact more dead than his father, and that perhaps Hamlet is only used as a prosthetic lever to obey the orders of the dead. The Ghost intervening into life, as if he was alive, juxtaposes Hamlet who on the other hand is only half-alive, contemplating death; pressing for death. Shakespeare however does not specify 'to be or not be' what.
However it becomes evident that once again Hamlet evokes the concept of psychological trauma in contrast with physical battle; mirroring the fragile relationship between words and deeds- 'Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer… or to take arms against a sea of troubles'(Hamlet, 3.1.57-59). Hamlet no longer ponders on life and death, but instead asks himself what is 'nobler'. For Hamlet nobility equates to life. He vacillates between the ideas of anguish within the mind, or to 'take arms against it'. The lexical choice of 'arms' connotes violence, war, bravery- all characteristics which are possessed by Fortinbras, the displaced action hero in Hamlet. Ultimately Hamlet represents words as Fortinbras deeds.
Hamlet then describes his longing for the sleep of death, 'To die, to sleep - To sleep perchance to dream' (Hamlet, 3.1.64-64). This emotive quotation provokes almost a nostalgic longing for death. As if Hamlet has previously experienced death, and yearns to return to his former self. The audience begins to probe into the possibility that perhaps Hamlet and the Ghost roles ought to be transposed. Hamlet ruminates whether it is better to die or to sleep? He acknowledges that within sleep, one dreams 'to sleep perchance to dream' however what succumbs to us when one dies? Or perhaps that sleep is the cousin of death, in sleeping you die because you are no longer physically conscious but you still dream; or in dying you sleep as death is an eternal form of sleep and dreaming metaphorically depicts the afterlife- as it something as immaterial as dreams. Hamlet's fraying mind weaves uncertainty and confusion amongst the audience, yet beauty within Shakespeare's language in this soliloquy resists the corruption surrounding it in the play.
Within this speech Hamlet addresses the audience; they shape a mirror or a parallel to his thoughts. Despite this deliberate attempt at proximity between life and death, words and deeds, Hamlet and his audience, it is painfully realised that Shakespeare has constructed this monologue to obliterate Hamlet and the entire play. The protagonist infatuated with dying channels a revenge tragedy that does not want to revenge, a play that does not want to be a play, a character absurdly not right for the part of a tragic hero. It is almost as if Shakespeare intended for the eponymous Hamlet and Hamlet to transcend into a beautiful failure.
In conclusion, this bewildering play highlights the relationship between acting and action. Hamlet is hostile towards action but idolizes acting; in feigning madness. 'In exploring Hamlet's dilemma, the play probes deeply into the basic problem of human violence and the moral limits of action, and it is misnomer to call it simply a revenge play'.