Nearly four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote what are now considered to be the greatest plays in the English language. Although they are still studied widely by students today, including those at Grand Canyon University taking Shakespeare and the History of Drama, some find the language and messages to be complicated, confusing and at times outdated. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and seemingly antiquated plays like “Hamlet” incorporate timeless motifs about procrastination and perfectionism that are relevant to college-aged students today. As Polonius, counselor to the king and father of Hamlet’s lover Ophelia says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (II.ii.195-6).
Neglecting one’s duty leads to momentous consequences.
The motif of procrastination is likely to be very familiar to the lives of any college students studying Hamlet. Many wait until the last possible minute to complete an essay, but Hamlet takes this problem much further: in Act 1, the ghost of Hamlet’s father instructs him to avenge his death by killing his brother Claudius, and Hamlet proceeds to spend an entire play thinking about how to accomplish that goal. And thinking. And thinking some more. In the end, Hamlet does kill Claudius, but his indecision directly and indirectly results in nearly everyone he knows dying before the end of Act 5, including himself.
This procrastination works to endear to Hamlet to us, especially those who relate to his struggles, even if it’s about something as trivial as homework. An imperfect protagonist can be essential to a good story; had Hamlet been more competent in acting on his duty, the play would be lacking the intense emotional conflict that makes him feel human. Shakespeare’s decision to burden Hamlet with both internal and external conflict gives him a feeling of depth and relatability that readers crave in a flawed protagonist.
Why Did Hamlet Procrastinate?
The root causes of Hamlet’s hesitancy are still debated today. Hamlet himself was aware of the delays he was making in achieving his ultimate goal, but had no ideas as to why he couldn’t act. Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley states that when compared with Fortinbras and Laertes, also with newly deceased fathers, the contrast in character becomes even more obvious. What Hamlet lacks is held in abundance by the other two: ambition and the ability to act upon their intentions.
Bradley suggests that in some ways Hamlet’s character is meant to be unintelligible. As the text doesn’t give us complete evidence as to why he remains so indecisive, perhaps the reader is supposed to be confused. Those who saw “Hamlet” performed in Shakespeare’s times might not have even wondered why he procrastinated his duty. Did Shakespeare mistakenly characterize Hamlet so inconsistently that he appears to us now as a puzzle with no feasible solution?
Others may offer that there are intrinsic traits present in Hamlet that logically result in such severe delays of action, including speculation and reflection. Consumed by the number of possibilities, Hamlet could have simply gotten too lost in thought to choose a path of action. Evidence for this can be found in sections of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies on the topics of the futileness of resolution and the pitfalls of overthinking. This all adds up to form a rather uncomplicated answer, but one that will often ring true in regards to modern students. Choosing a degree path can be intimidating when you’re first starting college, and choosing how to avenge your father’s death can be exhausting when you’re the newly half-orphaned crown prince of Denmark.
Fears of failure and obsessions with perfection result in inaction.
Perhaps Hamlet’s inability to act can be explained by another affliction that is common in students– perfectionism. His need for control can be seen in the way that he stages an entire play about his father’s murder in order to confirm that his uncle Claudius truly was the killer. Following this, every opportunity that presents itself for revenge that was broken down by Hamlet into the categories of “perfect” or “not perfect.” Multiple opportunities to kill Claudius present themselves to Hamlet, but his desire for perfection hinder his action. If it can’t be done flawlessly, it shouldn’t be done at all.
Students today are similarly subjected to pressure to achieve perfection, whether from parents, peers or themselves. At the extremes, those who experience high levels of perfectionism are also recorded as being high in neuroticism, or emotional instability. This can be detrimental to a student’s mental health, not to mention the academic performance of those who, like Hamlet, fear failure too much to take action on their responsibilities. To help with debilitating perfectionism, try looking at problems from a new perspective. If Hamlet can act on his duty, so can struggling college students!
One of the benefits of studying literature is learning about and forming your own opinions on some of the most famous works in history. Analyzing classics like “Hamlet” and applying their themes to modern life can help students build critical thinking skills while refining and enhancing their ability to read and write.
If you are interesting in studying the classics while enriching your education and cultivating essential critical thinking skills, consider Grand Canyon University’s 16-credit minor in literature offered through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Visit our website or click the Request More Information button on this page to get started.
- Bradley, A. C. (1904). Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. University of Virginia.
- Rice, K. G., Ashby, J. S., Slaney, R. B. (2008). Perfectionism and the Five-Factor Model of personality. Assessment 14(4): 385-398.