In his 1986 book, Essays on Shakespeare, the scholar William Empson proposed that Hamlet’s delay to take revenge in the play that bears his name is an intentional absurdity. Many scholars have attempted to analyze why Hamlet delays, approaching it as a psychological problem on Hamlet’s part, but Empson views it as an intentional dramatic absurdity.

Empson begins by referring to the Ur-Hamlet, an earlier play that dealt with the Hamlet story, the script of which doesn’t survive. A few contemporary references show that, by 1600, the Ur-Hamlet was a bit of a laughingstock of the theatrical world, largely because of that outrageous delay. Everyone in the audience knew there was a revenge coming, but something was preventing it from happening.

Empson believes that Shakespeare’s approach to the Hamlet story was to attempt to overcome this problem, and in order to do so, exaggerate it. You know how when, there is some implausibility in a work of fiction, it becomes plausible when a character acknowledges its implausibility? The author knows it’s not working, the characters know it, and so, since the oddity is canonized and is not being passed off to the audience as believable, it becomes believable.

This is how Empson imagines Hamlet. Hamlet, according to Empson, “walks out to the audience and says, ‘You think this is an absurd old play, and so it is, but I’m in it, and what can I do?” In other words, audiences came to the theater not to understand why Hamlet delayed, but to see what Shakespeare did with that delay. And, in this theory, when Hamlet wonders out loud why he’s delaying his revenge, he is not so much saying, “What’s wrong with me that I haven’t done this yet?” but, “What’s wrong with this play that its main character hasn’t done this yet?”

It’s a pretty non-traditional view, but a pretty fascinating one, isn’t it? I don’t know if I agree completely, but given that the Hamlet story had been on stage before Shakespeare’s play, it’s probably at least partially true.

What do you folks think?

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