In Hamlet, there are many references to the afterlife, god, and what the consequences of his actions are.

My question is this: Did Hamlet's pre-conceptions about the afterlife ultimately affect his choice to kill his uncle or not?

More specifically, why did Hamlet not kill Claudius when he had the perfect chance? Why did he then change his mind and wildly shove the rest of the poison in his mouth later? Why does Hamlet not feel the proper motivation to kill him beforehand?

A thorough explanation would be appreciated.

  • 1
    There are a couple of preconceptions you could be thinking about here: whether the Ghost is honest or malicious, why Hamlet didn’t kill Claudius while he was praying, or what Hamlet thinks is the ultimate fate of Polinius’ soul. Could you be more specific?
    – Gaurav
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 20:20
  • Sure, I'll update it
    – user1549
    Commented Nov 18, 2017 at 20:22

1 Answer 1


Hamlet wants revenge for his father's murder. If he kills Claudius at the moment he's praying, Hamlet thinks, Claudius's soul will be pure and he'll be forgiven, and can therefore get into Heaven. King Hamlet died without a final confession/absolution/sacrament etc. and so his soul is wandering in Limbo. (I think that's the correct theological interpretation, but feel free to correct me if I have the doctrine wrong.)

Hamlet therefore wants to wait until Claudius is "dirty" again spiritually speaking so that his death will send him to Hell, or at least keep him out of Heaven.

Also, stabbing Claudius while he's praying is pretty cold-blooded. Making him drink the poison after Hamlet has watched Laertes die from the poison on the blade meant for Hamlet — and put there BY Claudius — is a rash act done much more in anger, and is vengeance for Laertes and the attempted murder of Hamlet as well (not to mention the death of Ophelia).

In short, Hamlet is way more pissed at the end of the play than he is in that moment when he comes across Claudius quietly praying. His opinion of the afterlife is not the only deciding factor staying his hand.

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    Is Hamlet correct that Claudius is "clean"? He's praying, not confessing. Certainly Claudius himself doesn't feel like he's been forgiven. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:44
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    @JoshuaEngel He's at least more clean than later when he indirectly kills gertrude
    – user1549
    Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 4:09
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    @JoshuaEngel Claudius is actually not clean; he hasn't done penance. But Hamlet doesn't know that. He just sees Claudius "praying." This is part of Hamlet's indecision, because he doesn't know what Claudius is doing or the state of his soul, and he doesn't want to take the chance of killing him without getting the revenge he desires. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 11:31
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    It's a pretty cold-blooded calculation to make, and puts Hamlet's own soul in pretty serious jeopardy. Of course the murder for vengeance itself is well into cardinal sin territory, but Hamlet doesn't seem to take any of that into account. I need to ponder what that implies. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 14:54
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    @JoshuaEngel I'm not that familiar with the Old Testament, but it's fairly bloody, so you could make an argument for "I was just doing what so-and-so did in I Hepsibah 47:3" or whatever. Also, King Hamlet's ghost berates his son in Gertrude's chamber — "why haven't you avenged me yet, you slacker?!" (This visitation/Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.) — so if anything, "nagging from the afterlife" is on the prince's mind as much as the peril to his own soul. Commented Nov 21, 2017 at 16:44

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