15 December 2017
Revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The simplest approach to understand Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to perceive it as a revenge tragedy. The ghost of King Hamlet pushes Hamlet to eventually avenge his father’s death. The ridiculous killing of Laertes’ father, Polonius, causes him to take vengeance on young Hamlet. The assassination of Fortinbras’ father during the war forms the need for vengeance. Despite madness being a big part of this play, Shakespeare demonstrates that the overall theme is revenge by using the reaction of Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes proceeding the deaths of their fathers. The protagonist is not the only character in the play that has a want for revenge for his father. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the three sons are bound to reinstate their family honor through vengeance towards their fathers. All three men eventually take revenge for the death of their fathers, but each one is delayed and regrets his act afterward. Revenge is discovered through the reaction of three sons and the death of their fathers.
Hamlet’s depressing reaction to his father’s death represents clearly the main theme of revenge throughout this play. As the ghost is introduced to the audience in the Act 1 Scene V, William Shakespeare creates a situation where Hamlet obligated to seek revenge on Claudius and serve his duty to his father but Hamlet never totally accepts his father’s requests to murder Claudius because he is still hesitant to believe the ghost’s story. Thus, meaning Hamlet desperately wants to avenge his father’s death but is afraid of the consequences that come with vengeance. Hamlet expresses his desire to himself about not wanting to take revenge on Claudius, but must conform to the ghost’s duty, “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying, and now I’ll do ‘t. And so, he goes to heaven, and so am I revenged. That would be scanned: A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” (III. iii. 190). In Act 3 Scene 3, Shakespeare gives Hamlet the perfect opportunity to get revenge for his father while Claudius is praying for forgiveness but Hamlet changed his mind thinking that killing him during prayer will send him to heaven. Shakespeare embedded this quote in the play for one purpose, that is that Hamlet has a sense of doubt towards killing Claudius. In contrast, Hamlet emphasizes with anger that he must seek revenge for his father, “Now could I drink hot blood And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to loot on” (III. ii. 182). Following the conversation with the ghost, Hamlet’s anger fueled and immediately wanted to achieve vengeance towards his father and would do anything to kill his father’s murderer and mother’s husband. The play Hamlet covers the revenge of three characters and their character development throughout the play, “Shakespeare makes his purpose plain by juxtaposing Hamlet with Fortinbras and especially Laertes, two conventional sons who are also determined to avenge their fathers, but who don’t have the least scruple about doing so” (Ryan, par. 12). This signifies the commencement of the revenge tragedy in this play and serves a purpose to illuminate that the main theme of this play will concern revenge not only for Hamlet but eventually for Laertes and Fortinbras. Throughout the play, Shakespeare creates Hamlet to be hesitant numerous times to fulfill his duty to avenge his father but ultimately convinces himself later to kill Claudius. Although Hamlet expresses anger and hate towards Claudius throughout the play and wants to determine the right time to assassinate him, Hamlet fears of society’s reaction and the reaction of his mother, Gertrude, if he kills his father’s murderer. Nevertheless, Shakespeare elucidates the reasoning for Hamlet’s delay to kill Claudius and confirms that Hamlet will get his revenge later in the play but in an unexpected manner.
Laertes reaction to his father’s death, Polonius, symbolizes how revenge carries on to become a major theme throughout the period of this play but end up being the clashing of two sons who are devastated by their fathers’ deaths. Like Hamlet’s, Laertes plot for revenge is also because of his father’s death, but his reasons for vengeance are selfish. Shakespeare arranges the play in Act IV so that Laertes’ need for revenge on Hamlet is propelled by grief and more importantly, anger. Furthermore, Laertes was determined to seek quick and personal justice after his father’s which was caused by anger, “To this point I stand, That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged Most thoroughly for my father” (IV. v. 246). Laertes’ obsession with seeking vengeance against Hamlet makes the audience contemplate that he does not send anytime mourning after his father’s death but instead immediately travels to Denmark to seek vengeance for his father’s death. Unlike Hamlet who grieves over his father’s death over a period of two months and is unsure when the right time to murder Claudius is, Laertes spends no time to grieve over his father’s death but instead wants to know who killed his father so he could seek vengeance on him. Laertes’s obsession with revenge is represented by his selfishness behind his different reasons to kill Hamlet with the help of Claudius. This separates Hamlet’s character development throughout the play with Laertes’s character development. Laertes shows his craziness and anger when8 he threatens to slaughter Hamlet in a church, “To cut his throat i’ th’ church” (IV. vii. 268). In Act 4 Scene 7, William Shakespeare imbeds this quote for the simple purpose of exaggerating Laertes anger towards Hamlet by saying he would even kill him in a place of worship; church. Most of the audience has the background knowledge to know that a church is a place of forgiveness, truth, and non-violence. The fact Laertes mentioned this to Claudius was extreme since people seek forgiveness in a church and in this scene, he represents the devil who has no mercy. Although Shakespeare depicts Laertes as an angry man who is desperate to get quick revenge for his father, he demonstrates to the audience how Laertes can regret his act immediately after killing Hamlet because it backfires. Ultimately, Shakespeare uses Laertes’ reaction to his fathers’ death to bring a final resolution to Polonius’ death.
Lastly, Fortinbras’, the Norwegian prince, symbolizes a different approach towards taking revenge for his father compared with Hamlet. Through the duration of the play, Hamlet becomes positive beyond any doubt that Claudius is his fathers’ murderer, but he still delays to kill him. On the other hand, Fortinbras acted before the audience was introduced to this play. Fortinbras had been preparing to take revenge against Denmark for killing his father and gain back the land, unlike Hamlet who mourns for two months and delays the killing of Claudius. Fortinbras claims to recover his land in honor of his father and take revenge to the present King of Denmark, and Horatio declares, “Now, sir, young Fortinbras, Of unimproved mettle hot and full, But recover of us, by strong hand And terms compulsatory, those forsaid lands So by his father lost” (I. i. 10-12). Laertes resembles Fortinbras since both seemed to act immediately and prepare to take revenge for their fathers. Unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras doesn’t delay and believes that the loss of his father and territory brings great dishonor to his family and his nation, Norway.
Fortinbras’ honorable revenge in the name of his father illustrates another great aspect of revenge in this play and verifies further the overall theme of the play is indeed revenge.