Action vs. Inaction
Throughout both William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, characters are faced with a veritable gauntlet of choices. One of the more prominent decisions to make is whether or not to take action. Both have numerous negative effects at times, and nearly all of the characters in Hamlet act when they should not, while characters in both works take no action when they should.
In Hamlet, Hamlet consistently hesitates on whether or not to act upon his desire for vengeance. He has multiple chances to kill Claudius, but every time he has an opportunity to think about it, he is paralyzed with indecision and ultimately does not act. After Claudius storms out in the middle of the play that Hamlet put on to ascertain his guilt, Hamlet is sure that it is undeniable proof that Claudius indeed murdered the previous king. But when Hamlet goes to kill him, he discovers him on his knees, praying. Hamlet’s inaction here can be attributed to a desire to send Claudius’ soul to hell; something he believes will only happen if he kills the king while he is being sinful, which is indicated by Hamlet’s line “…and am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No. Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. When he is drunk, asleep, or in his rage … then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes.” (Hamlet, III.3, 84-95). Thus, he lets Claudius live and goes on to see Gertrude, where he shows that, dire circumstances excluded, he is only capable of action when it is blind and not premeditated.
When Hamlet confronts Gertrude, he frightens her enough that she calls out for help, which causes Polonius to give away that he is hiding behind an arras. Hamlet stabs blindly through the arras, crying out “How now, a rat?” (Hamlet III.4, 25). When a shocked Gertrude asks what he has just done, he responds “Nay,...