Explore how Shakespeare Examines the Theme of Revenge in Hamlet.
The theme of revenge is consistent throughout Hamlet. The play is specifically a revenge tragedy and it became extremely popular during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. A dictionary definition of Revenge is defined as ‘Retaliation for an injury or wrong’ or ‘the desire to inflict such retaliation’. In the case of Hamlet, the protagonist attempts to inflict revenge upon the antagonist Claudius, his uncle who murders Hamlet’s father the king for the throne, through many attempts he takes it upon himself to avenge the death of his father but continually puts it off until he has reassurance to the obvious ‘planned’ death throughout the play. Not only is revenge seen in the title character but it is shown in the characters of Fortinbras and Laertes, who like Hamlet, were all looking to avenge the deaths of their fathers.
Aspects of the Revenge tragedy are also linked to the Roman Senecan model. Senecan tragedy originated from the roman stoic philosopher and politician L. Annaeus Senecan who wrote 8 of the 10 dramas. They are usually about a secret murder. Following the theme of revenge upon the murder of someone of high class such as a member of the royal family by a ‘bad guy’ the antagonist of the play. The model also involves a ghostly visitation of the victim to a younger member of the member, usually a son. A number of other factors such as periods of madness of a main character, general violence resulting in many deaths and ultimately the avengers through many long soliloquies and bad deeds are also part of the Senecan model. “Hamlet is certainly not much like any play of Seneca’s one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet. Hamlet without Seneca is inconceivable.”
Revenge tragedy during the times of Elizabethan theatre became increasing popular and the theme was one of the most common at the times. Revenge tragedy is always focused on that of a sinful act committed by a secondary character, laws and conflict aside, the main character must find a way to avenge the perpetrator for this bad deed through a series of attempts on their lonesome, either by death or a punishment that is equivalent in the suffering that was brought upon this act. This becomes the main focus of the play. Like in Hamlet, the title character must take revenge upon his uncle Claudius for murdering his father after the ghostly visitation of the victim persuades him, although Hamlet constantly stalls and begins to questions his own sanity and this accusation of murder. To place certainty he plans a theatre act to re-enact the story of how he ‘imagines’ Claudius to have killed him via poison, he does this to see how Claudius would react. This takes all doubt away from Hamlets mind as he sets the motion in action to murder him. Another aspect in revenge tragedy is the isolation of the protagonist from the other characters and his place in society as a prince, like hamlet himself, his abnormally strange actions and outburst of soliloquies often appears as if he is going through a period of insanity as viewed by the other characters and the audience. The question of madness is another main theme highlighted throughout Hamlet. At the end of the play, many of the corpses of the characters are a result of the acts taken to seal the revenge, another thing to thing about is how this could have been prevented if Hamlet had acted on a whim and killed Claudius, when he first had a chance. Thus ending in a tragedy.
Revenge takes its course throughout the play as a whole. It is clearly illustrated in several key scenes such as: Act I scenes iv and v in which the ghostly counter-part of Hamlet’s father, the king, makes a visit to the castle grounds is the real beginning of the quest for revenge as the ghost persuades Hamlet that his death was no accident but a murder. By his very own brother Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and the now king of Denmark who has romanced Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is disgusted at the behaviour of both Claudius and his mother, Gertrude and sets out to find the truth.
Act III, scene ii and scene iii really start to enact the theme of revenge. A band of players comes to the palace and Hamlet asks them to play The Murder of Gonzago and act out the murder of the king. The play infuriates Claudius, who storms out. This seems to prove his guilt to Hamlet. He could not carry out his revenge until he was sure of Claudius’ guilt and thus begins his actual ‘stab’ at revenge. The scene is vital to the main plot as Claudius storms out and in scene iii Hamlet sees him praying to God – a confession is heard and confirms the audience’s belief that Claudius is in fact guilty. Hamlets morals are challenged. Elizabethans generally firmly believed in the concepts of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, dying without forgiveness from God would mean eternity in perdition like the limbo in which Old Hamlet is in, in Hamlet ‘When I to my sulph’rous and tormented flames Must render up myself’. Hamlet oversteps the bounds of Christian morality in trying to damn his opponent’s soul as well as kill him and fears that should he murder him then he will go to heaven and not to hell. And that would be an inadequate revenge. The phrase ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’ comes to mind and means vengeance is often satisfying if it is delayed. Although in the case of Hamlet, the outcome of the play ends in many deaths and you have to question how many lives could have been saved if he had murdered Claudius when he had the chance. These scenes create a lot of tension for the audience as the excitement begins once as we watch Hamlet execute his plan of revenge after a long period of delay. The scene then brings frustration to the audience as Hamlet yet again puts off the revenge he has been seeking from the beginning.
Although Hamlet being the central character with the main plot focusing on his quest for revenge for his father’s deaths, he is not the only one looking to carry out vengeance in the name of his father. After act III, scene iv, is the ‘closet scene’ where Gertrude and her son Hamlet share a conversation, Polonius eavesdrops behind a tapestry as Gertrude is fully aware of and when she becomes scared of Hamlet’s intensity during the conversation she cries out and Polonius calls for help. Hamlet cries ‘How now! A rat?’ and stabs Polonius through the tapestry. This act of spontaneity is a ‘rash and bloody’ dead and illustrates his inability to co-operate his thoughts and actions. How could Hamlet act so quickly without actually seeing the eavesdropper when he couldn’t even kill the real murderer with such spontaneity? His actions are stupid and act as a catalyst for the next revenge: Laertes, the son of Polonius begins his own journey of revenge on behalf of his father.
In the final scene, Act V, scene II, Revenge is at its best and carried out in typical revenge tragedy fashion. A fencing match commences between Hamlet and Laertes to avenge his father’s death. The plan within this is for Claudius to use Laertes as an opportunity to kill Hamlet. He poisons Laertes sword so that when Hamlet is wounded he will die, but in turn Laertes is also infected. As a back-up Claudius poisons a goblet which was to be given to the successor of the match so that if Hamlet were to win then he would drink and still be poisoned but again in turn, Gertrude drinks from the goblet unknowingly of its contents and is also poisoned. Claudius’ ultimate plan is now falling apart and Laertes claims ‘The King is to blame’ as Gertrude begins to die. Hamlet then forces Claudius to drink from the poisoned chalice and hamlet and Laertes then resolve their differences. Before his death, Hamlet begs Horatio to ‘tell [his] story’ which he does to young Fortinbras, prince of Norway, who also seeks to avenge his fathers death (who Hamlet’s father had killed during a war) he then ends by giving Hamlet a soldier’s funeral after becoming the new King of Denmark. Young Fortinbras regains his lost lands and thus is the only successor of revenge without use of violence or his own death. So we can only argue that of the three sons, two failed to gain revenge (if revenge is to sacrifice oneself) and one succeeded.
We can argue that Hamlet and Laertes did indeed get revenge only to the endings of their very own lives. As the 2003 film of ‘The Revenger’s tragedy’ says it better: ‘the man who seeks revenge should dig two graves’. The final ending to the play had an incredible build up and the audiences emotions will be running high as they feel sadness towards Hamlet and feel involved in the violence and the tragic finale.
The original audience of the Elizabethan times had different perceptions than the modern society, the Elizabethan era loved watching revengeful plays simply because they were sinful and unlawful but this provided entertainment and became very popular in those times. Hamlet is a great revenge tragedy that included many various plots of different characters and many sinful deeds but consisted of the main ingredients of the revenge tragedy genre. The moral expectations of revenge were completely against the church and all religious aspects but were still strongly enjoyed by the Elizabethan audience. Nowadays other themes of Hamlet would not be seen as acceptable such as incest is seen as disgusting and unlawful whilst the Elizabethan era would accept it. The modern audience also would not be able to understand the language used and have to read a lot more into the text to fully understand. The emotions and real messages behinds the text would be missed by the modern society and they would not be able to empathize or understand the text properly. This is another reason why Shakespearean texts are used in English literature to help the students to understand the language and shows the difficulty that people nowadays find in understanding the play.
Use of imagery is evident through personification, similes and mediators to make the language vivid and to give you a real mental image whilst reading the play. In the ghosts account of poison he describes: “Like eagle droppings into milk, the thin and wholesome blood”. Many images in Hamlet are that of disease and corruption as Francisco is “sick at heart” and “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. This is effective in the theme of revenge as a murderous act is to be committed and many ominous images display and illustrate this in its language.
Many various critics have commented on Hamlet, it has attracted a lot of attention and controversial for its many themes such as madness, incest and revenge. Many have argued about why Hamlet takes so long to kill Claudius, some say it is his fear and cowardliness that he may kill Claudius and make himself out to be no worse then Claudius himself. He felt guilt and didn’t want to be a murderer like him and saw himself mirrored in that way at the time. I think that it is Hamlet’s mind of complex thinking that makes him analyze into things and complicates every situation and plot he thinks of, he critically thinks about every action and when doesn’t, he kills another. He further procrastinates the vengeance he sets out to do and in turn, is his downfall.
In my opinion, the play of Hamlet is a difficult and emotional journey which has only one ending in the revenge tragedy genre. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and can only be credited for the many messages and entertainment it brings to its audiences. The complexity of the character of Hamlet in question makes the play very enjoyable and you have to wonder why he acts the way he does. It has made audiences and myself question the play in many ways surrounding its characters and various difficult plotlines. The theme of revenge tragedy has progressed thorough its language, imagery and characters and have helped to develop the main plot. My understanding of the text of the play has helped me to have a different perception of it and understand the struggle between knowing the truth and exacting the actions taken for revenge in the revenge tragedy genre.