Explore the presentation of revenge in ‘Hamlet’
Revenge is a key theme in Hamlet. It is not only essential to understanding Hamlet’s character, it forms the structure for the whole play, supporting and overlapping other important themes that arise. Though it is Hamlets revenge that forms the basis for the story, tied into this is the vengeance of Laertes and Fortinbras, whose situations in many ways mirror Hamlets’ own. By juxtaposing these avengers, Shakespeare draws attention to their different approaches to the problem of revenge and how they resolve these.
The idea of revenge is first introduced by the appearance of the ghost in act 1 Scene 5, and linked to this is the theme of hell and the afterlife. At the end of this scene, Hamlet is irreversibly bound to revenge for the duration of the play, ‘speak, I am bound to hear’ ‘So art thou to revenge’. The ghost appears with the sole aim of using his son to obtain revenge on his brother, and so every word he speaks is designed to enrage Hamlet and stir in him a desire for vengeance. He uses very emotive language to exaggerate the enormity of the crime, and he concentrates Hamlet’s attention on the treachery of Claudius. His description of the murder itself demonises Claudius and contains many references to original sin, ‘the serpent that did sting thy fathers life now wears his crown.’ Hamlet, who has been brought up with absolute notions of good and evil, is susceptible to these religious references, ‘o all you host of heaven! O earth! And shall I couple hell?’
It is ironic that the ghost refers to his own torment, trapped in purgatory, in order to demonstrate to Hamlet the injustice of the situation, yet this serves only to warn Hamlet of the possible consequences of revenge. Instead of enraging him, Hamlet is now wary of acting rashly or without proof as it could place him in a similar situation to his father. The other revengers in the play do not have this wariness, they act immediately without considering the spiritual consequences and it is unclear whether Hamlet would have had a similar attitude had he not been inadvertently alerted to this danger by old Hamlet’s ghost.
Though Hamlet’s immediate reaction to news of his father’s murder is one of anger and a desire for action, by the end of the scene his desire for revenge is already blunted, for a number of reasons. Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras, Hamlet receives the information of his father’s murder from a secret and unreliable source, which means that not only is he unsure of the truth, he is forced to act out his revenge in secret. Throughout the play, Hamlet frustrates the audience with his lack of action, especially as all around him his contemporaries are visibly taking their own revenge.
Fortinbras is in a similar situation to Hamlet, as his father had been murdered by old Hamlet and his land taken. The land itself is worthless and Fortinbras stands to lose more than he can gain; yet like Hamlet it is a matter of honour. Both are exacting revenge for something that nobody else cares for or remembers; a dead king for whom nobody grieves and a patch of worthless land. Part of Hamlet’s dilemma is the moral question of whether his desire for revenge is worth disrupting and endangering the lives of all those around him, ‘whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them’ However, unlike Hamlet Fortinbras does not pause to contemplate the idea of revenge; he acts on it, ‘sharked up a list of lawless resolutes’ and marched on Denmark. The difference in their characters is obvious; Fortinbras’ character matches his name, ‘strong in arm’. He is a man of action, not of words, he has a strong presence and a commanding attitude which demands obedience, ‘Go captain, from me greet the Danish king’ ‘I will do’t my lord’. Fortinbras’ situation is infinitely less complex than Hamlet’s own; the boundaries between good and evil, personal and public, right and wrong, are for him, clearly defined. He is able to act openly, uninfluenced by friends and family. Hamlet on the other hand is surrounded by people who have obligations to both himself and the king, and is therefore unsure of whom to trust.
Hamlets dilemma is founded on this; that any action he takes carries with it risks and possible consequences which could destroy the foundation of his very existence, so he hesitates and does nothing, all the while hating himself for his inaction, ‘makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of’. The problem for Hamlet is that the murder is too close to home, so he is unable to define the boundaries between personal and public. He cannot publicly confront Claudius without proof because he risks losing his claim to the thrown, alienating his friends and family and being exiled from Denmark, as it would be seen as an attempt by the prince to regain the throne, rather than a son avenging his fathers murder. On top of this Hamlet hopes to avoid jeopardising his relationship with his mother, but at the same time he wants revenge on her for her betrayal.
In order to fully understand Hamlet’s psyche and therefore the reasoning behind his actions, it is important to understand how religion affected all aspects of life in Elizabethan times. It was believed that a person who was able to confess his sins before death would be absolved and therefore go to heaven, but if a person were unable to do this their soul would be condemned to purgatory until they were able to confess and repent. Old Hamlet’s soul is in purgatory and Hamlet wants Claudius to suffer the same fate, ‘a villain kills my father and for that, I his sole son do this same villain send to heaven. Why, this is hire and salary not revenge.’ For this reason Hamlet has to wait for the opportune moment to kill Claudius, ‘when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, at game, a-swearing or about some act that has no relish of salvation in it’. However, the other problem which religion creates is that of Hamlets own afterlife. If murder for revenge is wrong then by killing Claudius, Hamlet condemns his own soul along with that of Claudius’. On the other hand, Hamlet is honour bound to exact revenge for his father’s murder, and the consequences of not doing so could be even more drastic. Even suicide offers no solution, as ‘the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of’.
Hamlets indecisiveness is not just a result of his uncertainty about the consequences his actions will have. He is in emotional turmoil at this point in the play, and is feeling betrayed and rejected by those whom he had relied on so far in his life. His anger and frustration at his mother’s behaviour is amplified by her lack of grief, and his desire for revenge at the start of the play is mainly fuelled by his own grief and a sense of injustice. His anger towards Claudius diminishes, as he is distracted form revenge by more immediate concerns, such as his relationships with Ophelia and with his mother.
Part of Hamlets feelings of isolation stem from what he sees as betrayal by his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his lover Ophelia. Hamlets critical relationship with Claudius forces all three to take sides, and decide to whom they owe the strongest allegiance. Ophelia’s father Polonious, Claudius’ right hand man, instructs her to shun Hamlet and, as his dependant she is forced to obey him. Women were viewed as property during Shakespearian times, and without a male protector her future prospects were slim. Also, the emphasis placed on family duty and loyalty was far greater, so to disobey her father would be tantamount to treason. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were given a direct order from their king, so to disobey would actually have been treason. Added to this was their ignorance of Hamlets situation due to both Hamlet and Claudius’ deceit, which meant that they were unsympathetic with Hamlets mental instability and obsession with old Hamlets death.
Hamlet refuses to recognise the impossible situation his friends were placed in, and resents them for abandoning him when he needs them most, even though it is his feud with Claudius that has forced them to into it. Feeling betrayed, he has no compunctions in using them to further his own gains. All three are, ultimately, fatalities of Hamlets vendetta against Claudius, as Hamlet brings about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and drives Ophelia to madness and suicide. Ophelia especially is very much a victim, as in obeying her father she loses Hamlet, and when Hamlet kills Polonious she loses him as well. With Laertes away, she has no-one left to protect her and is very much alone.
In many ways, Hamlet himself is a victim of revenge, as he used as a tool by his father, to instigate revenge against old Hamlets killer. By placing this obligation on Hamlet, on top of all his emotional instability, Old Hamlet effectively pushes his son over the edge and renders him incapable of decisiveness. It is unsurprising that Hamlet is unable to take revenge or in fact make any significant decisions, as he is under considerable emotional and mental strain. Laertes is in a similar situation, as Hamlet his friend has murdered his father and driven his sister to madness. His vulnerable state of mind makes it easy for Claudius to use him as a tool against Hamlet, so the two friends become instruments in the power struggle between the two brothers, a struggle which crosses the divide between life and death.
Laertes’ situation resembles Hamlet in other ways. They are joined by their love for Ophelia, Hamlet as a lover and Laertes as a brother. When Laertes returns to find his father murdered, he faces the same dilemma that Hamlet originally had in that, as far as he knew, the king of Denmark had murdered his father. Unlike Hamlet who promptly chose to employ deceit in order to combat Claudius’s deceit, when Laertes discovers this he immediately confronts Claudius. By doing this he achieves his revenge far sooner than Hamlet, but consequently becomes a tool for Claudius against Hamlet. These two revengers differ in their approach to revenge, but ultimately they come to the same end. They both fall victim to the corruption that surrounds the court of Denmark, with Claudius at the centre. Claudius’ use of deceit throughout the play hides the truth under a veil of dishonesty. Claudius uses other people as tools to achieve his aims, so if they fail he escapes the brunt. He uses Polonious, he uses the king of Norway against Fortinbras, and finally he uses Laertes against Hamlet himself. His corrupting influence means that nobody in Denmarck knows the truth, and Hamlets only attempt to break this veil of deceit causes the death of Polonious instead of Claudius. In act 3 scene 3, Shakespeare uses the curtain concealing Polonious as a metaphor for the corruption surrounding Denmark, making it impossible for Hamlet to take revenge as he is unaware of the truth. Though Hamlet tries to cut through the curtain, he fails and ends up killing the wrong man. This shows him that it is no good trying to confront the problem, he must remove the cloak of deceit and reveal Claudius for what he truly is before he can take his revenge.
Though Hamlet tries to get around this problem by being deceitful himself, and Laertes tries to confront the problem face on, both end up being used as weapons in a fight that kills them both.
The ending of the play is very satisfying despite, or perhaps because of, the deaths of nearly all the characters. For a neat ending, it was necessary that all the characters achieve their revenge, and as there were so many intertwining strands of revenge, it was inevitable that a large proportion of characters would be killed. The play ends with a new beginning, as the corruption at the heart of Denmark dies with Claudius and Hamlet. Hamlet succeeded in taking revenge on Claudius and revealing the truth about his character, and Laertes succeeded in killing Hamlet but died in the process. All this clears the way for Fortinbras, who we see is far more suited to leadership than the indecisive Hamlet.
Fortinbras was more successful in his revenge than Hamlet and Laertes for a number of reasons. He is not held back by the dilemma that freezes Hamlet; of having to choose between betraying his fathers trust or losing the throne and alienating everyone he loves. Hamlet is held back by his proximity to Claudius and the situation, whereas Fortinbras is free to act uninfluenced by the people around him. Another factor in Fortinbras’ favour is that, unlike both Hamlet and Laertes, Fortinbras made the decision to take revenge alone, so it was entirely his responsibility. Revenge has to be nurtured in Hamlet and Laertes, and both are used as tools in the ongoing feud between the two brothers.
Fortinbras is a man of action, and doesn’t waste time pondering the philosophy behind the revenge mentality, as Hamlet does. And unlike Laertes, he plans and organises his revenge, he doesn’t rush straight into confrontation unprepared. In fact, he represents the best qualities of both of them, so it is fitting that it is he who emerges with not only his life, but the throne of Denmark to go with it.