Called upon to avenge his father’s murder, he is compelled to face problems of duty, morality, and ethics that have been human concerns through the ages.
The play has tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery, that of Hamlet’s complex behavior, most notably his indecision and his reluctance to act.
His ruminations stand in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius, just as the play stands in sharp contrast with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy.
Through Hamlet’s intelligence, Shakespeare transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict.
Freudian critics have located Hamlet’s motivation in the psychodynamic triad of the father-mother-son relationship.
According to this view, Hamlet is disturbed and eventually deranged by his Oedipal jealousy of the uncle who has done what, Freud claimed, all sons long to do themselves.
It is ironic that Hamlet is thwarted this time by the combination of theological insight with the extreme ferocity of his vengeful intention.
After he leaves Claudius in prayer, the irony of the scene is intensified, for Claudius reveals to the audience that he has not been praying successfully and was not in a state of grace after all.
Seeing a re-creation of his father’s death and Claudius’s response stiffens Hamlet’s resolve to act, but once again he hesitates when he sees Claudius in prayer.
Hamlet’s inaction in this scene is not the result of cowardice or even of a perception of moral ambiguity but rather of the very thoroughness of his commitment: Having once decided on revenge, he wants to destroy his uncle body and soul.