Revenge in William Shakespear’s Hamlet

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To obtain revenge is to cause harm or injury in return for a wrong committed (“Revenge 474”). To pursue justice is to ensure the condition of being morally correct or fair (“Justice”). William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark portrays explicit circumstances of betrayal inevitably leading to vengeful desires and progressive developments of insanity in Hamlet, the protagonist of the play. Hamlet undoubtedly values revenge over justice as depicted through his desires to inflict pain and suffering upon his uncle, King Claudius, the main antagonist.           

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Hamlet’s seemingly obsessive attraction to vengeance is displayed early on in the play, when the ghost of his deceased father, King Hamlet, comes to notify him of his actual means of death. He is shocked to understand that his uncle Claudius, the current king of Denmark, was King Hamlet’s assassin. When closely comparing Hamlet’s mentality before and after the first encounter with the ghost, we are given a firsthand look into the shift of his attitude towards Claudius. According to Robert N. Watson, a distinguished professor of English at UCLA and published author, “the Ghost’s initial confrontation served as a catalyst for Hamlet’s motivation to preserve his father’s memory by ‘attacking the proximate cause of his father’s death’” (Watson 200). Revenge, in this case, “can symbolically restore us to life by defeating the agency of our death, conveniently localized in a villain.” Murdering Claudius will, in Hamlet’s mind, immortalize his father forever (Watson 200). However, not just any murder will suffice. In order to fully avenge his father, Hamlet believes he himself must inflict eternal agony on Claudius. Specifically, Hamlet seeks to permanently damn Claudius’ soul to Hell by murdering him shortly after he commits a serious sin. Then, and only then will Hamlet have achieved true revenge.           

From the very beginning of the play, Hamlet perceived his uncle in disgust as he was completely appalled by his incestuous relationship with Gertrude, his biological mother: “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew… / …why she, married with my uncle/ My father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (Shakespeare 1.2.133-134, 153, 155-158). This quote from Hamlet’s earliest soliloquy illustrates that, although he certainly does not prefer Claudius in the least, Hamlet can at least tolerate him to the point of somewhat accepting his place in his family as well as the kingdom of Denmark. However, after the ghost appeared in the end of the first Act, he disclosed that Claudius was truly his father’s murderer: “Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand / of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched, / cut off, even in the blossoms of my sin… / …no reck’ning made, but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.81-83, 85, 86). The ghost explains that Claudius killed King Hamlet at a time when he had not confessed his sins; he was not prepared for death. King Hamlet’s soul is thus damned to Hell for eternity. This realization was enough to instantaneously ignite Hamlet’s vengeful desires. He immediately shifts his priorities to investigating Claudius on a much more personal level. This way he would be able to confirm that the ghost was not actually lying, but also that revenge is justifiable and crucial. Hamlet knew his duty was to attain vengeance by giving Claudius the same treatment, a painful death followed by a treacherous afterlife: “So uncle, there you are. Now to my word. / It is ‘adieu, adieu, remember me.’ / I have sworn’t” (Shakespeare 1.5.117-119). The idea of justice is never explicitly stated nor requested by the ghost with regard to the vengeance of the late King Hamlet.           

The prayer scene perfectly illustrates how Hamlet values revenge in the play. Millicent Bell, an assistant professor of English at Brown University, makes the point that Hamlet may have likely avoided killing Claudius when he was kneeling in prayer because “then he might not send him straight to hell” (Bell 318). Alone, Claudius confesses to killing King Hamlet during his prayer. In regards to why he weighed this factor so heavily to the extent in which he completely refused to proceed with the killing: “He cannot be anything other than the Revenger the play sets out to make him” (Bell 318). Given that Hamlet is willing to falsely portray himself as insane to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we can collect that he is fully invested in his plan, to the extent in which he will isolate his close friends to avoid being caught and further questioned. This demonstrates Bell’s claim that Hamlet is the “Revenger the play sets him out to be” (318).           

Hamlet enters (unaware to Claudius) with the sole intention of finally stabbing him in that instant. Upon eavesdropping, he slowly changes his mind: “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” (Shakespeare 3.3.80-83). Hamlet comes to the realization that should he go through with his plan to end Claudius’ life then and there, he risks sending his soul to eternal salvation rather than damnation. In the eyes of God, confessing a sin alleviates the soul of the sin. Therefore, Hamlet purposely delays the murder of Claudius to a later time, when he will inevitably catch him sinning again. This will maximize the chance of sending his soul to hell, followed by endless pain and suffering, fulfilling his desire.           

Many scholars question if Hamlet’s delayed murder was the optimal choice. It is argued that if Hamlet simply wanted revenge, could he not have simply outright murdered Claudius during the prayer scene? This would have ultimately satisfied Hamlet’s desire of avenging his father, right? According to Kenji Yoshino, a law professor and English major, Hamlet delays the murder in two major instances in the play: “First, Hamlet delays because he is uncertain of Claudius’ guilt. Only after his reaction to The Mousetrap does Hamlet become fully convinced that he is, in fact the culprit. The second delay is that in which Hamlet forgoes the chance to kill Claudius while Claudius is praying in the chapel. Both delays can be explained by Hamlet’s desire for perfect justice” (Yoshino 189). This simply is not the case due to the fact that Hamlet had no reason to rush the murder, for he wanted it to be totally perfect. His strong infatuation for the infliction of suffering upon Claudius led him to hesitate because killing him in that instant would have only redeemed his soul to heaven. Likewise, not only does Hamlet never explicitly state a desire for justice in any of his soliloquies, he goes as far as referencing ‘bloody thoughts’. Hamlet speaks of vengeance and suffering as he mentally prepares for the treacherous path he will embark in the latter half of Act 4: “O, from this time forth / my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (Shakespeare 4.5.68-69). Hamlet’s progressive mental degradation through the plot becomes so problematic for him that he begins to believe that non-violent thoughts are not even worth contemplating; a complete waste of his time and energy. Hamlet’s actions throughout the play are definitely malicious, but under no circumstances justifiable. From isolating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by his deranged facade, to murdering Polonius in cold blood witnessed by Gertrude thereby resulting in Ophelia’s unnecessary death, Hamlet displays an undivided infatuation with his vengeance. This shows how Hamlet does not desire justice per se, but complete retribution on behalf of his father.             

William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark portrays explicit circumstances of betrayal. To obtain revenge is to cause harm or injury in return for a wrong committed, which in Hamlet’s case, was the primary objective in regards to Claudius. Hamlet undoubtedly values revenge over justice as depicted through his desires to inflict pain and suffering upon Claudius. His encounter with his father’s ghost initiates his unstoppable desire for vengeance, which reinforces his motivation for murder. Hamlet’s gradual plunge into madness as the direct result of his unhealthy obsession with his father’s vengeance was ultimately what led to his own downfall, causing those of the other characters of the play.

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Revenge in William Shakespear's Hamlet. (2021, Feb 20). Retrieved June 29, 2022 , from
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