Hamlet, the Misperceived Prince
Gary Beck

Hamlet has been severely chastized for hundreds of years by scholars, theater directors and critics for his indecision and lack of resolution. The legions of absolutely certain authorities have thoroughly convinced the small number of the classical drama-attending public and the slightly larger readership of serious drama that the young prince is unable to take action. As is typical of much of literary criticism, the critics are frequently more intent on enhancing themselves, while belittling the accomplishments of someone else. Prince Hamlet, arguably the most complex character in all drama, in arguably the greatest play in all drama, is tragically misunderstood. There are elements of the play that have not been sufficiently explored by the academic authorities who are the primary interpreters of literature. For example: Denmark is a powerful kingdom in a time of ongoing struggle for dominance among rival countries. The king of Denmark is a strong monarch who exerts enormous influence on his neighbors and vassals, militarily and diplomatically, as far away as England. Yet when Hamlet the king dies, and his brother Claudius quickly marries his widow and ascends the throne, there is no apparent disruption of government, or opposition to the regime change.
There is no information in the play about the Danish laws of succession to the throne, but Claudius' accession is obviously reasonably acceptable as a fait accompli, since there is no resistance from popular or special interests. Prince Hamlet harbors many strong feelings about current events; the death of his father, the hasty marriage of his recently widowed mother, the pomp and ceremony of the new king, but he gives no indication that his inheritance has been stolen, or that he plans rebellion. Power resides in the hands of his uncle, and Hamlet has no following of powerful magnates, or influential courtiers to support any claim he may have to the throne.
Except for Horatio, whom he had almost forgotten, and some casual acquaintances among the soldiers in Elsinore, Hamlet is completely isolated. As a prince of a great house, well educated by contemporary standards, Hamlet is fully aware of the politics of his situation. He has no influence, no adherents, no friends in a royal court just recently established that is jealous of its prerogatives, not yet secure in rulership, yet resolved to exercise power. Hamlet has been shunted aside, while an uncle, whose earlier relationship with him has not been explicated, rules the kingdom. We have not been informed about Prince Hamlet's expectations when his father was alive. It is reasonable to assume that as a sophisticated prince he must have anticipated that he would become king upon his father's death, which he certainly didn't expect to occur so soon.
The confrontation with the ghost of his father changes everything for Hamlet, but alters nothing in his circumstances. He is still alone and he dare not confide in anyone. He has no proof of murder, except for the word of a ghost, which enflames him with horror and outrage. But the ghost provides no assistance, only a call for vengeance. When Hamlet pretends to be mad to conceal his purpose, he reveals the poverty of his means to do anything overtly to redress the current situation. He trusts no one, just as any prince of a royal house would trust no one when a throne is at stake. Once Hamlet accepts the word of the ghost, he realizes that he is in a Medici-like court, full of poisonous intrigue, but he is not a low, brutal assassin, so he will not rush berserkly on the usurper and hack him to death.
The only resources Hamlet has to redress a great wrong are his sovereign reason and possibly Horatio. He is woefully ill-equipped to dethrone a king, but resolutely determined to take action. He immediately decides that he can no longer afford the risks of vulnerability in his relationship with Ophelia. We are never certain how deep his feelings are for her, but his duty to his murdered father takes priority over any romantic or sexual considerations. He knows that he must confront a ruthless monarch who has committed terrible crimes to obtain a throne, and who must indeed be feared.
It is a most superficial conclusion to assume that Hamlet is indecisive and irresolute. He is a combination of many qualities, human and royal. He fully realizes that it is a daunting undertaking to topple a king. He agonizes over the terrible burden of seeking bloody vengeance. Scholarly commentators may scrutinize the horror of murder and mayhem with too much detachment to appreciate such an intimidating undertaking. It is easy to glibly debase Hamlet with accusations of doubt, inaction, or timidity, when his efforts to carry out a dreadful deed are what make him profoundly human. Despite overwhelming opposition, Hamlet's determination never wavers, which confirms that he is a man of deeds as well as words.
Hamlet is not a vainglorious Bonnie Prince Charlie, consuming his loyal Scots adherents in futile efforts to restore the House of Stuart. He is not, as many critics would seem to prefer, a Jacobean slaughterer, eager to wade through blood to reach the throne. His is an Elizabethan sensibility, set in a northern kingdom that in Shakespeare's depiction is far more Tudor than Nordic. From the moment he pledges the ghost that he will avenge him, he is committed to action. If he hesitates, if he questions his purpose, those doubts only add to the magnitude of his task, thus elevating his stature as a character. It has conveniently been overlooked that Hamlet is as handy with a sword as he is with his wit. A masterful dramatist has given us much more than a butcher merely programmed to kill. This much maligned Prince is a true tragic hero, without the burden of great flaws, or a curse on his house. His fate has not been pre-determined by any fault of his. He is an innocent victim, who has committed no crime, who is ultimately destroyed by the ambition of another. Let us the more appreciate that Hamlet, by not rushing precipitously to murder Claudius until his evil doing is publicly revealed, allows us to experience the full scope of tragedy.