How Many Hamlets Are There in the World?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsHow many Hamlets are there in the world with intellectual power for large usefulness, who wait day by day and year by year in hope to do more perfectly what they live to do: die, therefore, and leave their lives unused, while men of lower power, prompt for action, are content and ready to do what they can, well knowing that at the best they can only rough-hew, but in humble trust that leaves to God the issues of the little service that they bring. It is a last touch to the significance of this whole play that at its close the man whose fault is the reverse of Hamlet’s — the man of ready action, though it be with little thought, the stir of whose energies was felt in the opening scene — re-enters from his victory over [Poland], and the curtain falls on Fortinbras, King.

From the introduction to Hamlet (Cassell’s National Library Edition, 1899) by Henry Morley (1822-1894), one of Great Britain’s earliest professors of English literature. Morley contrasts Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters whose tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, his inability to act (specifically, to avenge his father’s death) with Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is a warrior (he leads an army to attack Poland), a true man of action. As you may recall, at the conclusion of the play, Fortinbras is crowned King and, after hearing the tragic story of Prince Hamlet, orders that he be given a funeral befitting of a soldier. But the key point that Morley is asking is: what use is critical thinking by intelligent individuals without action, without contribution? A question that is so relevant to the many problems we face in modern times.

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