The Theme of Revenge in Hamlet

The Chinese proverb, “if you seek revenge, digs two graves,” perfectly explains the mood as well as the events of William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The theme of revenge dominates the play because most of the characters are “out to get” those who wrong them by luring them to their death. In the initial stages of the play, the ghost of King Hamlet appears to Hamlet and makes a confession with regards to King Claudius elucidating, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” a revelation that current king murdered him and took his throne as well as his wife (1.5.25).

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The scene where the King Hamlet’s “confesses” sets the stage for the rest of the play because prince Hamlet takes the “oath” of revenge, “with wings as swift / as meditation or the thoughts of love…sweep to revenge” (1.5.25-31). Further, Hamlet is forced to take matters into his own hands in avenging his father because his uncle King Claudius is sovereign. This paper analyzes the theme of revenge as applicable to the protagonist Hamlet. Hamlet is first introduced to the plot of revenge between him and King Claudius through the “confessions” made by his father’s ghost. Even after the “confession”, Hamlet is still faced with difficulty when trying to execute the plan of avenging his father’s death because of trying to apply “excess” logic into the mission (4.4.41) and therefore, receives a second visitation in Act 3, “Don’t forget! This visitation / is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.110-111). Hamlet battles between his revenge mission and the innate feeling of wanting to do what is right. In his attempt to do things with reasoned logic, Hamlet doubts the “confession” of his father’s ghost and as such, formulates the play Murder at Gonzaga “to catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.602-663).

The play is a reenactment of the death of Hamlet’s father whereby, he keenly watches King Claudia’s uncomfortable reaction during the actual death and confirms that he is guilty, a confirmation he shares with his friend Horatio in Act 3 (3.2.276-282). Hamlet still questions his ability to show emotion and avenge his father after he watches an actor in the play Murder at Gonzaga deliver an emotional speech, “But in a fiction, a dream of passion” (2.2.550-555). The actor in the play portrays the “mourning” act so well without proper knowledge of the dead character, while Hamlet second guesses himself in his inability to avenge his own father, “Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause” (2.2.568). Further, the expression of Hamlet’s shame in “dragging” the revenge is evident in Act 4 when he watches Fortinbras and his army match to their demise with the “purpose” being, “to gain alittle patch of ground / that hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4.18-19) and subsequently in the final monologue that he delivers, “I don’t know / why yet I live to say…Still I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / to do t” (4.4.43-46). Hamlet’s delay of executing his revenge is for all the other reasons that are not premised on Christian grounds because he does not express any remorse or guilt when he slays innocent characters. In Act 3, King Claudius, while in his room alone, presents Hamlet with an opportunity to kill him, one that he does not capitalize on. Hamlet further postpones his revenge mission of killing King Claudius thinking that he is praying and as such, ending his life will be doing him a favor even though he wants a beautiful world that free from characters like his uncle (2.2.307-308).

In his monologue, Hamlet justifies his action of not killing King Claudius when presented with the best opportunity asserting that he will be sending him to heaven rather than to the purgatory with his father because he was praying. Hamlet’s concern of where King Claudius will “go” after his death illustrates the extent to which revenge is engrained in his mission. Additional anger in the thought of revenge is expressed by Hamlet in Act 3, “Now could I drink hot blood, / and do such bitterness as the day” (3.2.390-391). However, the more King Claudius stays alive in the play, the number of characters who lose their lives increases. Among the victims of Hamlet’s revenge is Polonius, his close friend Laertes’ father who was also partly his friend. Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius who is hiding behind the curtain in a scene where he is having a conversation with his mother. Subsequently, Hamlet does not show any remorse in his actions by dragging away Polonius’ body into “hiding.” The actions of Hamlet after the death of Polonius are evidence of his determined revenge as well as his attitude towards “collateral damage.”

Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, goes into a state of distress after the death of his father thus ending up in depression and eminent death, “Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (4.5.178-181). Upon finding out who is responsible for his father’s death, Laertes takes an oath to avenge his father and sister no matter who he would have to rise against, either enemy or friend (4.5.133-134). After killing Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England where he has more access to King Claudius for his revenge mission to continue. In conclusion, Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes seek revenge for the murder of their respective fathers with different approaches. Hamlet, being unique, applies logic but procrastinates his revenge mission of avenging his father’s unnatural death by killing his uncle King Claudius. Hamlet’s procrastination results in the death of many other characters including his mother Queen Gertrude as well as Polonius, Laertes’ father. Even though Hamlet finally kills King Claudius, it is not a result of his plan but one that backfires from the king. Laertes plan for the revenge of his father’s death have no concern for consequences, “…you will draw both friend and foe / none but his enemies” (4.5.165) and “To cut his throat I’ th’ church” (4.7. 144).

Shakespeare, through the deaths of both Hamlet and Laertes at the end of the play, shows us the importance of being “calculative” when conducting revenge because only Fortinbras remains alive.

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