Hamlet's tragedy is a tragedy of failure-the failure of a man placed in critical circumstances to deal successfully with those circumstances. In some ways, Hamlet reminds us of Brutus in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Hamlet and Brutus are both good men who live in trying times; both are intellectual, even philosophical; both men want to do the right thing; both men intellectualize over what the right thing is; neither man yields to passion. But here the comparison ends, for though both Brutus and Hamlet reflect at length over the need to act, Brutus is able immediately to act while Hamlet is not. Hamlet is stuck "thinking too precisely on th' event-".
Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, has died suddenly. The dead king's brother, Claudius, marries Hamlet's mother and swiftly assumes the throne, a throne that Hamlet fully expected would be his upon the death of his father. Hamlet's father's ghost confronts Hamlet and tells him that his death was not natural, as reported, but instead was murder. Hamlet swears revenge. But rather than swoop instantly to that revenge, Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to mask an investigation of the accusation brought by his father's ghost. Why Hamlet puts on this "antic disposition" and delays in killing Claudius is the central question of the play.
But Hamlet did not swear to his dead father that he, detective-like, would investigate. Hamlet swore revenge. And he has more than enough motivation to exact revenge.

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon-
He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother;
Popped in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage-is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
(Act 5, scene 2 . . . to Horatio)

Yet he delays. It is this delay in performing the act he has sworn to accomplish which leads to Hamlet's death. The poison on the tip of Laertes' sword is but a metaphor for the poison of procrastination which has been coursing through Hamlet's system throughout the play.

Hamlet's thoughts focus upon death rather than upon action. His words show an intense longing for death:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.
(Act I, scene 2)

In Act 3, Scene 1 Hamlet restates this theme:

To be, or not to be, that is the question-

The answer eludes Hamlet throughout the play, perhaps because it is the wrong question. Hamlet is alive and to be alive means 'to do,' not merely to be. It is his inability to 'do,' his tendency to reflect rather than to act which poisons Hamlet's resolve and causes his tragic death.

If the central question of the play is Why doesn't Hamlet kill Claudius immediately upon hearing the ghost's accusation? the easiest answer is that if Hamlet had done so, the play would have ended in Act I. And then "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" would be a tragedy of plot management.

In his 1904 work "Shakespearean Tragedy,"* A. C. Bradley describes "Hamlet" as a play which includes eight violent deaths, adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave. Here are all the ingredients of a horror story. Bradley then asks the question, "But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?" The answer to this question lies not in the fact that had Hamlet done so the play would have ended in the first act. The answer lies in the character of Hamlet. Specifically, what is it that prevents Hamlet from acting on his father's ghost's command? Let's look at some typical views.

Is it the fact that at that moment Claudius is surrounded by courtiers and his Swiss guard? No, for throughout the play Hamlet never refers to any external difficulty in approaching and killing Claudius. Hamlet states in Act IV, scene 4 that he has "...cause and will and strength and means To do't," and even Laertes who is less popular than Hamlet quite easily raises the people against the king.

Does Hamlet want to bring Claudius to public justice? Again, no. Hamlet arranges the