Shakespeare/Hamlet’s use of the word ‘Idle’

One point which I have found to be interesting throughout the reading of this play was the concept of the word “idle” and how it relates to the plot and the development of the character of Hamlet as someone who is “mad” (though, I am very much of the opinion that he is faking it).

In Act 3 Scene 2, he is talking to Horatio when he says “They are com in got the play. I must be idle. Get you a place.” (ll 84-85). In the vocabulary footnotes, it presents the definition of ‘idle’ in two ways:  “mad/unoccupied.” It is in this very statement that it is made evident that his “madness” is all an act, and to find this, one must read these definitions closely. The concept of idleness as “being unoccupied” carries a lot of weight throughout the play too, and speaks to its qualifications as a tragedy. In his speech in Act 4 Scene 4, Hamlet says:

“How stand I, then, that have a father killed, a mother stained, excitements of my reason and my blood, and let all sleep while, to my shame, I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men that, for a fantasy and trick of fame, go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot, whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent, to hide the slain, O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (ll. 9.45-9.55).

Here, he is outlining all that he observes: the death of his father, the “staining” of his mother (which is an entire blog post in and of itself–his obsession with women’s sexuality and his control over his mother’s sex life becomes something that is a little excessive–for good reason (the threat of another inheritor)–but not good enough reason for him to behave in such a misogynistic manner toward his mother and his supposed beloved, Ophelia), the death of men in an upcoming war. All these things, he knows of, but he wastes too much time being “idle” and gets caught up in his act so much so that he ends up being idle and standing by while all these things happen. He dreams of killing Claudius to avenge his father, and claims that his thoughts from this point forward must be vengeful or otherwise rendered worthless–but yet, he stands idle and he does nothing until at the end of the play when (SPOILER ALERT) everybody dies. This, for me as a reader, trumps all of Hamlet’s flaws–he is selfish, full of ego, sexist, annoying and overbearing, but his inaction is the leading cause of this play’s status as a tragedy, and is perhaps the most frustrating character flaw to read through, as all of this could have been avoided had he just done something in the first place and showed even an ounce of follow-through.


3 thoughts on “Shakespeare/Hamlet’s use of the word ‘Idle’

  1. Margaret Hack

    I loved how “madness” was in some way analogous to the idea of being idle or unoccupied. It seems as if madness is being represented as the inability or refusal to act for oneself – and is instead being filled with ideas from others. I think this is quite the case in some of Shakespeare’s other plays. Macbeth, for instance, goes mad, under the influence of his wife (who also goes mad, probably being overtaken by the idea of becoming queen). Madness is (or at least I interpret it to be) the shift of character from who someone is. I think Claudius would agree (he described Hamlet’s change as a transformation/shift, not a “madness”).

  2. ciandalton94

    I also think that Hamlet’s madness is an act, and that his plan of being idle catches up with him in the bloodiest of ways. He feels that he should be idle and give an act that he does not suspect Claudius for the murder. You can argue both ways that the plan works well and does not work well, but it is true that he is not actually mad. He is just a very good actor.

  3. Diana

    I find it very interesting that “idle” can be interpreted in two ways. I hadn’t thought much about whether Hamlet was faking his madness or not . . . I just thought he was a bit dramatic and stubborn. I feel like Hamlet can be likened to a young child who does not get his way and then blows everything else out of proportion for days to come. I too think Hamlet has some weird obsession with his mother, perhaps it is because of him fearing a loss of inheritance, but I think he also dehumanizes his mother because he is angry and resentful toward her for her marrying Claudius so soon after his father was killed…


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