I am now caught up to August on the Great Books of the Western World reading plan and this month had the opportunity to reread one of my favorites: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” There is so much in this great tragic drama that it is difficult to choose just one aspect of it to write a few short paragraphs about. As I considered what to write for this blog post, however, I discovered that the one word that continually comes to mind as I try to think of ways to describe Hamlet is “hesitation.”
The story of Hamlet is, ultimately, the story of a lengthy hesitation and vacillation. This is not to say that it is some sort of morality tale with the moral “don’t think too much,” however. It is, rather, that Hamlet’s hesitation serves as the entry point for deeper and more meaningful meditations upon government, life and death, duty, family, and a great deal more. The moral of the story is not that Hamlet is wrong to hesitate, I think, but, rather, that hesitation, if this hesitation is a matter of deliberate action rather than cowardice, can in fact be a positive characteristic in a man.
It is Hamlet’s hesitation that allows him to peer more deeply into the nature of human existence than anyone else around him. Hamlet’s hesitation is, in a sense, the source of his insights. While others busily speed about, acting without thinking, Hamlet’s prolonged thought leads finally to the decisive action that brings about the final resolution.
As I see it, Shakespearean tragedy is born of a dilemma in faith. On the one hand, since death is the end, tragedy must dispense with the total Christian vision. On the other hand, since tragedy assumes the inherent dignity of man and the objective reality of a moral order, it needs for those things the support of the Christian imagination. Or will humanists in religion assert that Christianity is unnecessary to those assumptions? Our contemporary drama is evidence against them. What we have today is not tragedy, nor beyond tragedy. It is below tragedy.
Robert E. Fitch, Shakespeare: The Perspective of Value, p. 80