Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tells the story of a young man caught in circumstances beyond his control. His uncle had murdered his father and married his mother, and his father's ghost appeared to him, demanding retribution. Hamlet, however, was indecisive and suicidal, and he could not bring himself to murder his uncle until his uncle's secret plans have resulted in the death of his mother and the imminent death of himself and his friend Laertes.
Soyinka concentrates on Hamlet's inability to make a decision: "Passion's flame / Was doused in fear of error" (Wole Soyinka, A Shuttle in the Crypt, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 22, ll. 2-3). Although Hamlet loved his father and grieved deeply for him, fear of doing wrong prevented him from doing anything at all. This inaction clearly solved nothing, instead it "Bred indulgence to the state's disease" (Soyinka, Shuttle, p. 22, l. 4). Soyinka is saying that Hamlet's failure to do anything only aggravated the situation. To be truly guiltless in the face of treachery requires positive action.
Hamlet wasted time "In a gallery of abstractions, dissecting tales / As 'told by an idiot'." (Soyinka, Shuttle, p. 22, ll. 6-7). Soyinka repeats the idea that Hamlet should have taken action. The one action he did take, staging the performance of a play that mirrors his uncle's treachery, Soyinka calls "passionless" (Soyinka, Shuttle, p. 22, l. 7). According to Soyinka, Hamlet's response should have been emotional. Soyinka criticizes Hamlet on the basis of his "passionless" actions, his time spent with "abstractions".
The situation called for something more than a rational response: "Justice despaired. The turn and turn abouts / Of reason danced default to duty's counterpoint" (Soyinka, Shuttle, p. 22, ll. 9-10). While Hamlet was thinking about his best course of action, his father's murder went unavenged, and Hamlet's promise to his father's ghost went unfulfilled. Soyinka sees these results as neither just nor proper, and he believes that Hamlet did not live up to the duty a son has to his father. Furthermore, Soyinka states that Hamlet finally gave up his thinking and acted only because he was about to die:
Then Metaphysics waived a thought's delay
It took the salt in the wound, the 'point
Envenom'd too' to steel the prince of doubts.
(Soyinka, Shuttle, p. 22, ll. 12-14)
In Shakespeare's play, only when Laertes explains that "No medicine in the world can do thee good; / In thee there is not half an hour of life" (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Sc. ii, ll. 325-326) did Hamlet exclaim "The point envenom'd too! / Then, venom, to thy work" (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Sc. ii, ll. 322-323) and stab his uncle. Soyinka presents the idea that Hamlet's ultimate action was merely a reaction against what was done to him. Clearly, Soyinka is critical of the fact that "the salt in the wound" was what spurred Hamlet on to carry out his duty and fulfill his promise to his father.
Soyinka believes that tragedy has a trap: "'Tragedy is merely a way of retrieving human unhappiness, of subsuming it and thus of justifying it in the form of necessity, wisdom or purification.'" (Wole Soyinka, The Man Died, London: Rex and Collings Ltd., 1972, p. 89). He refuses to fall into this trap by presenting Hamlet as a character who is the cause of much of his own suffering. Soyinka shows that Hamlet's suffering is not necessary. The poem can be seen as Soyinka's self-justification. Surely any comparison of Soyinka and Hamlet would realize that Soyinka can not be interpreted to have "Bred indulgence to the state's disease". Soyinka needs no "salt in the wound" before taking action that puts himself in danger. He feels compelled to act because of ideals, and Hamlet's ideals are so shaky that his "abstractions" prevent him from action.
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