Most of us, it seems, tend to think of the ‘hero’ as someone who never hesitates. As soon as he has made up his mind, he acts. But in Hesitant Heroes Theodore Ziolkowski identifies texts central to the Western canon – the Oresteia, the Aeneid, Parzival, Hamlet, Wallenstein – which show heroes who hesitate at the moment of decision. He argues that each of these works uses the personal hesitation of a single character to represent a broad cultural crisis, a shift in values from one ethical or social norm to another. The theme of hesitation in literature isn’t new – the ‘Hamlet problem’ was a popular topic in 19th-century Romanticism – but the originality of Ziolkowski’s book lies in his tracing Hamlet’s problem back before Hamlet. His selection of texts shows that hesitation is not a peculiar feature of modern or early modern literature: classical Greek and Roman heroes hesitate no less than modern ones.
His earliest example is Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the second play in the Oresteia. Orestes returns home to take revenge on those who killed his father: his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Orestes kills Aegisthus without scruple, but as he lifts his sword to kill his mother, she exposes her breast. Ziolkowski gets quite carried away at the thought of Clytemnestra’s naked chest, assuring us (without textual evidence) that she is ‘a woman whom we must imagine, like Dido, as radiant at the peak of womanly beauty and power’, who impresses her son by ‘her courage, her willpower, her intelligence – her beauty!’ I would say that Orestes is moved less by incestuous lust than by Clytemnestra’s having reminded him that she is his mother. The breast is a symbol not of sex, but of maternal nurture. (The scene recalls the moment in the Iliad when Hecuba tries to persuade her son Hector not to return to the battle by showing him her naked breast.) It is at this display of maternity that Orestes hesitates: ‘What shall I do?’ he asks his friend Pylades, ‘I’m ashamed to kill my own mother.’ It’s only when Pylades reminds him of Apollo’s oracle that Orestes rejects his mother’s pleas, denounces her killing of his father, and kills her in turn. Ziolkowski finds in this scene a ‘seismic shift’ from ‘old values’ to ‘a new morality’: the Oresteia reflects a move away from ‘pure blood vengeance’ to democracy, politics and law.
Ziolkowski’s grand comparative idea involves lots of details with which readers may disagree, and many questions remain unanswered. One central issue that deserves more discussion is whether the title is an oxymoron. Can heroes hesitate and still be heroic? Is there any justification for thinking of heroism and hesitation as incompatible? The initial premise of the book is that most heroes do not hesitate, at least not ‘in the thick of action’, and that hesitation is a mark of exceptional crisis. Ziolkowski insists that there are certain ‘archaic’ epic and biblical heroes whose heroism is constituted precisely by their lack of hesitation or doubt. His examples include Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Hildebrand, Samson and David. A hero of this type ‘so perfectly embodies the values of his culture that he experiences no doubts’: Achilles, for instance, is said to be motivated entirely by ‘archaic blood vengeance’.
Yet the Iliad could be said to fit Ziolkowski’s model perfectly: the hero’s hesitation representing a cultural crisis or tension between two competing sets of values. The poem depends on the idea of a heroic warrior code, and it doesn’t present that code unchallenged. It’s true that Achilles goes rushing back to the battlefield after learning that Patroclus has been killed; and he doesn’t pause before killing Hector. But before he rejoins the Achaeans in battle – which doesn’t happen until Book 19 – Achilles isn’t a hero who has ‘no doubts’, or whose motivations can be adequately described as ‘archaic blood vengeance’. Rather, he provides a damning critique of the heroic code. The Achaeans are fighting far from their homes and families, risking their lives for honour. But honour can be taken away from them: Agamemnon has robbed Achilles of the honour of his prize, the slave girl Briseis. Why, then, should he stay to fight and die in a foreign country? After all, as he movingly says, when a man’s life has gone out from between his teeth it can never come back again. And yet Achilles neither leaves in his ship nor returns to battle: he stays in his tent, unwilling to abandon either his life (which will certainly be lost if he returns to the fight) or his chance of recovering honour (which will certainly be lost if he goes back to his father’s house in peace). He is torn between two alternatives, and does neither. That sounds a lot like hesitation; Ziolkowski needs a sharper definition of the term if he is to explain why Achilles’ position in the central books of the Iliad doesn’t count.
The word ‘hesitate’ comes from the Latin verb haereo, to ‘stick’ or ‘cling’. Haesito is the frequentative form of the verb: ‘to stick repeatedly’ (and hence, ‘to stammer’), or ‘to stay stuck’, ‘to be at a loss’. The Player in Hamlet brings the metaphor to life, when he describes Pyrrhus hesitating before killing Priam:
for, lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem’d i’the air to stick:
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like the neutral to his will and matter,
Hesitation may, as here, be a short-lived pause or ‘sticking’ between intention and action. One could distinguish – though Ziolkowski doesn’t – between indecision and hesitation, and the distinction could be used to justify certain omissions in the book which otherwise seem inexplicable: such as the failure to discuss Medea’s hesitation before killing her children, or Agamemnon’s hesitation in the Oresteia as he tries to decide whether to kill his daughter Iphigenia. Pyrrhus’ hesitation is unlike that of Agamemnon: Pyrrhus has already decided to kill Priam; he pauses before doing what he means to do, not as he tries to make up his mind. Sometimes ‘hesitation’ means not vacillation or indecision between two equally open alternatives, but a pause before the fulfilment of a plan.
Ziolkowski implies that this is how he sees hesitation, inasmuch as he associates it with Freudian inhibition. ‘Inhibition’ suggests a primary urge or drive, and a secondary check placed on that impulse. The pattern fits Orestes, who comes to Argos intending to kill his mother and hesitates before doing so. But it is not obvious that Aeneas’ primary impulse, once Turnus is at his mercy, is to kill him. His hesitation is not doubt about whether to fulfil a destiny that has already been set, but the more radical kind of doubt about which of two possible paths he should follow. Should he, when Turnus lies at his feet, behave like the brutal Achilles who was willing to kill any Trojan, however innocent, in revenge for his dead friend; who heaped human prisoners on Patroclus’ funeral pyre as sacrifices and slaughtered the suppliant Lycaon as he begged for mercy? Or should he be like the more restrained Achilles of the final book of the Iliad, who spared Priam and gave back Hector’s body? Should he be like the military hero Odysseus, who killed the suitors invading his house and kingdom? (After all, Turnus was a rival suitor for the hand of Lavinia, and a rival for the throne of Latium.) Or should the Aeneid end, like the Odyssey, with a truce? Aeneas’ pause represents indecision and ambivalence about these questions. The poem itself seems to hesitate between alternative cultural and literary models.
A hero may be inhibited but not hesitant. Parzival is a questing knight who is too polite to ask an obviously ailing king: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ As Ziolkowski says, he unthinkingly obeys the protocol of courtly etiquette, and thereby forgets the Christian imperative of charity. Arguably, he has repressed the instinct of compassion; in that sense, he is inhibited. But Parzival is a gormless hero, not a hesitant one. He doesn’t ask himself: ‘What should I do?’ He just sits there like a lump. Hesitation requires a level of self-consciousness that Parzival lacks.
The equation of hesitation with inhibition leads to a rather limiting reading of Hamlet. Ziolkowski distinguishes between ‘hesitation’ – which happens at a ‘critical moment’ – and ‘delay’, which is a ‘more general tactic’. Hamlet doesn’t rush to kill Claudius after seeing the ghost, but waits for more conclusive evidence that his stepfather is guilty. When Claudius’s reaction to the play within the play gives him further proof, he says: ‘I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.’ He then catches Claudius in private, at his prayers, and exclaims: ‘Now might I do it!’ But still he doesn’t. That, Ziolkowski says, is no longer delay, but hesitation. He argues that Hamlet, like Orestes and Aeneas, is ‘inhibited’ from killing but, unlike them, he is restrained by his inhibition.
Hamlet’s express reason for not killing Claudius at prayer is that if he does so, his stepfather will go to heaven, which would be poor revenge. He needs to wait to kill him when he is most likely to be damned. Ziolkowski calls this motive ‘a bit lame’ – an oddly resistant response to Hamlet’s new-found savagery. It’s as if Ziolkowski doesn’t want to acknowledge that hesitation could be caused not by the ‘civilised’ motives of mercy or intellectual doubt, but by ‘primitive’ religious belief and the desire to impose maximum suffering. Despite what Hamlet says, Ziolkowski thinks that he is really inhibited by doubts about killing, and by the epistemological problem of how to prove Claudius’s guilt conclusively (which is what has made him delay up until now). Ziolkowski undermines his distinction between ‘delay’ and ‘hesitation’ by viewing both as symptoms of the same civilised mindset.
The distinction between delay and hesitation is anyway a bit of a red herring. A more pressing question is whether there really are Hamlets avant la lettre. Are there pre-modern heroes who hesitate not only momentarily, like Orestes pausing before killing his mother, but repeatedly or continuously? Are there ancient characters who are – like Wallenstein – defined by their addiction to a state of suspended judgment? Wallenstein out-Hamlets Hamlet: he takes delight in the existential freedom he can feel only when he has not made a permanent decision about whether or not to break with the Emperor. But before Hamlet, is hesitation ever attractive for its own sake? In ancient literature, is hesitation ever a characteristic, rather than a momentary event?
Ziolkowski skirts these questions by concentrating on momentary hesitation until he reaches the modern age. But Virgil’s Aeneas, for one, is a hero characterised largely by his hesitancy. He hesitates in the fallen ruins of Troy, not knowing what to do next. He hesitates in Carthage, postponing the decision to leave Dido. The state of almost permanent hesitation is not a new feature of modern consciousness; it can be traced as far back as fifth-century Greece. One example is the general Nicias, the tragic hero of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, whose refusal or inability to decide what to do in Sicily results in the disastrous loss of the whole navy and precipitates the downfall of Athens. Wallenstein, both in his dependence on astrology and in his dislike of irrevocable decisions, is a general in the Nicias mode. Wallenstein, too, can’t suspend judgment for ever; events force decisions on him. Time is the enemy of the hesitant hero.
This brings us back to the question of how much of an oxymoron Ziolkowski’s title is. It could be argued that the hesitating Nicias is radically different from the decisive heroes of myth – and from the more heroic and more decisive generals in Thucydides, such as Pericles. Perhaps Nicias’ hesitations prevent him from being a hero. Can someone hesitate momentarily, or even be characterised by hesitancy, and still be heroic? Hegel – Ziolkowski’s main authority – thought of the hero as one who acts ethically as if out of personal conviction and saw Antigone as a character whose whole being was devoted to her duty to the dead: she is heroic precisely because she never considers the other side of the question – her duty to the state. If the hero is a person who identifies with a particular ethical principle, then the hero who hesitates on a point of principle must be a contradiction in terms.
But few heroes, even in classical literature, are really without vulnerability or doubt. If they were, they would be relatively uninteresting to read about. Ziolkowski’s study shows, perhaps despite itself, that hesitation and heroism are far from incompatible. Ajax, the most thoughtless of classical mythic heroes, may act without hesitation, but Achilles, Odysseus, Orestes and Aeneas are not so unreflective. Hesitancy is not necessarily incompatible with heroism in post-classical literature either. For instance, Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? has a heroine, Alice Vavasour, whose name, like Waverly’s, is an indication of her chronic indecision between two suitors, one an ambitious wastrel, the other a worthy bore. Despite its title, the novel is less about whether hesitancy can be forgiven than about whether the hesitant Alice can be morally admirable, even heroic. Trollope suggests that she can. Ziolkowski’s study is valuable partly as a reminder that heroism need not be incompatible with thoughtfulness or intelligence. John Kerry’s alleged ‘flip-flopping’ has been used to imply that he was not really a war hero in Vietnam: there is both moral and political danger in the assumption that hesitancy must be unheroic.