To avenge ones fallen father was seen to be a moral obligation in most revenge tragedies during the Elizabethan era and it was certainly no different in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. The act of revenge was a major theme that revolved around Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras who all share a desire to kill their father’s murderer yet contrast in terms of character. Hamlet and Laertes the two that pursued vengeance the most ultimately met their end, while young Fortinbras who was convinced to not enact on his desires to get revenge lived and rose to power. Shakespeare is intent in developing the persistent developing the persistent ambiguities of emotion, rhetoric, and acting to their ultimate riddling potential, to the point where they have the power to not only delay the movement to revenge but to subvert and even abort it (Mercer, 121) In this Shakespeare implies that vengeance shouldn’t be so sought after and is better left to the heavens to decide the killers fate. Revenge can be seen as The returning of evil-for-evil (Benditt,8) and although the revenge tragedy was a popular genre, a majority of the Elizabethans condemned the idea of revenge as both the church and state believed that it would cause immense amounts of civil disorder Private revenge could lead to quarrels, thence to a public tumult thence to dissension between families, and thus to national quarrels. Since punishment was the prerogative of the state, every possible argument was induced to convince the private citizen that he must leave revenge to god. (Prosser 5)
Instead of seeking out vengeance Elizabethans believed that seeking revenge was sin and was better left to god. Those who decided to pursue revenge lost any chance of forgiveness and were eternally punished in the afterlife. The thought of being punished in the afterlife was the leading cause of delay in Hamlets revenge as he puts all his trust on Heaven as the providential means to the resolution to the crises he’s facing.(Zak,85) . Although Hamlet claims that his revenge will be swift at first, he puts it off because he thought the ghost was a devil imitating his father in order to convince him to sin in order to punish him eternally in the afterlife. The problem with this logic is that even if the ghost is telling the truth Hamlet still would be punished in the afterlife. The only thing that hamlet would gain from taking revenge would be honoring his father’s wish. The second instance being after Claudius is trying to pray: 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 (3.3.74-8) Because Hamlet believes that a man who is killed while praying will be sent to heaven he puts off his revenge until he can find a moment where Claudius is committing a sin. Because Hamlet puts off his vengeance it causes his downfall as it creates more problems later and allows Claudius to plan out his schemes to get rid of Hamlet. In seeking revenge no matter how just the cause may be, it essentially makes the person seeking revenge as bad as the person who committed the crime. though it would insist upon the singularity of the villainy it would punish, inevitably it duplicates the crime. (Kastan, 199).
No matter how see it Although Hamlet constantly hesitates about taking revenge, the one time he decides to act he kills Polonius an innocent bystander essentially making him as a bad as Claudius in the eyes of Laertes. In enacting revenge, the revenger potentially harms those around them in their quest for justice. In Hamlet’s case his desire to enact revenge led to the death of many characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but most importantly it led to Ophelia’s madness and untimely death. Although hamlet did love Ophelia, his plan to study the king involved him to feign madness. In his false madness he would constantly push Ophelia away from him which made her believe that he rejected her love. Hamlets killing of Polonius then proceeded to push her off the edge both mentally and physically. The pursuit of revenge also affects the revenger mentally to the point where it deteriorates their mind to the point where they are consumed by anger and revenge is the only thing they focus on. Laertes best exemplifies this as he contrasts with hamlet in the fact that he takes immediate action and will carry out his revenge if given the opportunity. Not long after Polonius died Laertes returns to Denmark from France. without even gathering information about his father’s killer or considering any sort of consequence, Laertes rallies a mob to kill Claudius.
After Claudius somewhat clams Laertes down, he manipulates Laertes enraged state to encourage him to take revenge on Hamlet. Shortly after the announcement of Ophelia’s death, Laertes once again becomes enraged now to the point where vengeance is the only thing that is on his mind and at this point there is nothing that could quell his anger more than revenge. Although he managed to secure his vengeance, in the end his pursuit of revenge cost him his life, and in his final moments he felt nothing but guilt and regret. Even if the law does not persecute the offender they recommend that doing nothing and being patient will resolve everything as god begins punishing sins immediately, with lamentable calamities many terrible frights remorse of conscience, desperate repentance and continual troubles and unquietnesse (Prosser,11) This can be seen in hamlet more specifically right after the performance of the mouse trap when Claudius is trying to pray: Whereto serves mercy serves mercy But to confront the visage of offense? And what’s in prayer but this twofold force, To be forestalled ere we come to fall, Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up. My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder That cannot be since I am still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder. (3.3.46-53)
In his soliloquy, Claudius expresses his guilt for killing his bother by asking for forgiveness, but his sins cannot be forgiven as long as he retains all he has gained by killing so now he has to live the rest of his life. Shakespeare implies that doing nothing resolves everything with the survival of young Fortinbras at the end of the play. Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras all share the desire to avenge their father. while they all succeed in Hamlet puts too much thought into his revenge and because of it he constantly puts it off which causes his downfall. Laertes acts rationally and acts the moment he is given the opportunity thus causing his downfall. While young Fortinbras is also quick to act yet he loses his desire to get revenge, so he puts more focus on restoring the land Norway lost. As a prince who happens to also be a solider Fortinbras is very calculating, although his father was killed when he was just a child he waited until an opportunity to strike. In this case he knew about the current state of Denmark and began rallying troops to reclaim the land that was lost to former King Hamlet. He was also very open about declaring his revenge, unlike hamlet who only tells a very small amount of people.
Fortinbras establishes that he wants to get revenge and everyone in Denmark knows about it: And this, I take it, Is the main motive of our preperations, the soure of our watch, and the chiefs head Of this posthaste and rummage in the land (1.1.108-11) Because nearly everyone was informed about Fortinbras’s desire of reclaiming the land lost to Denmark, Claudius was able to address the situation by sending Cornelius and Voltimand to seek out the bed ridden king of Norway. Although the king of Norway was aware that Fortinbras was going around and gathering troops he thought it was to attack Poland, so once he found out he was able to put an immediate halt to it. And out of respect to his uncle he made a vow to ‘nevermore more to give th’ assay of arms against Your Majesty (2.2.70-1) but because his Uncle respects Fortinbras’s ambition he allowes him to keep the army he’s gathered and What made Fortinbras more successful than Hamlet and Laertes is that he had an uncle that convinces him not to pursue revenge unlike the ghost of Hamlet and Claudius who encourages Hamlet and Laertes to get revenge. He also has an immense amount of respect for his family and complies with their wishes, unlike hamlet who is seen to throw witty remarks at Claudius and Gertrude.
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