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Medical Writings |

A Physician's Hamlet

John F. Burnum, MD
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Tuscaloosa, AL 35401 Requests for Reprints: John F. Burnum, MD, 400-C Bryant Drive E, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401.

Copyright ©2004 by the American College of Physicians

Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(5):412-414. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-126-5-199703010-00025
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As a young man, I thought of Hamlet as a reflective, vibrant fellow student-and sometimes fearless swordsman-tragically victimized by circumstances. Returning to the play these years later, I feel that I must give some answer to a troubling question: Why does my erstwhile hero delay in killing the seemingly guilty Claudius for the murder of Hamlet's father, the former king, when prompt action might have preserved Hamlet's father's dynasty and saved seven of eight persons from death? Given my viewpoint as a physician, my answer comes from thinking about the play as a work that centers on problem solving and moral choice, on Hamlet's agonizing efforts to resolve his suspicion that Claudius is guilty and to decide whether he has the right to kill Claudius in revenge. In his “diagnostic quest,” Hamlet must struggle with self-doubt, high risks, political restraints, ambiguous clues, and his own selfish aims-obstacles not unknown to us practitioners.

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