One of the most famous plays created by William Shakespeare is Hamlet. The play deals with multiple themes. However, the most dominant theme that overshadows everything else in the play is the theme of revenge. The issue of revenge is questioned from the point of view of violence. This proposal will compare and contrast human understanding of the nature of revenge prior to and after the creation of Hamlet.
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Prior to the creation of Hamlet, the topic of violent revenge was more or less an acceptable notion. However, the complex and compelling relationship between fathers and sons in Shakespeare’s Hamlet brought to the forefront the issue of revenge (Mosley, 2017). If an unjust act was done upon an individual or their family, then it was a God-given right to defend the family’s honor and administer revenge. The judicial system of the time was an old system from the Anglo-Saxon era. Noblemen were treated differently than peasants. The society was extremely violent. So taking justice into one’s own hands was a norm. The society was used to bloodthirsty situations where only violent outcomes were welcomed. This self-governing attitude towards revenge created multiple problems on different levels. The first and the obvious question was whether or not an individual had the right to take justice into their own hands and take revenge. If an action took place that offended, robbed or killed an individual, then what would be the appropriate form of revenge?
Secondly, should revenge be equal for the same injustice whether an individual is a royalty or a regular citizen? Do laws, if any, apply equally to everybody or should distinctions be made if a different class of individuals is involved? Hamlet raised all these questions and issues. Hamlet was struggling with the answers (Malm, 2017). On the one hand, he could not bear the injustice of his father’s murder, and at the same time, he wanted to make sure that the proper punishment took place for the guilty party. That struggle was evident in English society at that time as well. While prior to the play revenge was seen as a fair game, afterwards new norms divided the society. Violent crimes and violence in general were seen as a remnant of bygone eras. Wise and logical approaches were sought in order to prevent violence and resolve issues. The society was no longer accepting individuals taking justice into their own hands. Hamlet struggled throughout the play with his responsibility of administering revenge. He felt uneasy about violence and murder. He wanted to follow his Christian values but was haunted by his father’s ghost and the request to avenge his murder.
Society was leaning towards less violent, more organized and systematic approach to dealing with criminal acts (Gray, 2018). It was no longer acceptable to punish the guilty parties. Courts would be involved and fair judgment, accepted by all the parties, would be announced. All the parties involved would have to abide by Court’s decision. But even more important was the fact that the society wanted to abide by the Christian values and not seek revenge.
An eye for an eye as a private form of revenge was a standard when dealing with criminal acts in England prior to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shortly afterwards, a move to a proper court system and a corruption-free justice system resulted in England becoming a more civilized society. Other countries and territories looked at England and copied the progressive judicial system adapting it to their local environments. It was no longer acceptable to take revenge. There was a court system to look into all the circumstances and administer proper verdicts to the guilty parties. Above all, human understanding of the nature of revenge changed so drastically that the act of revenge was perceived as negative and was no longer acceptable as something positive and noble.
However, it would be wrong to claim that Shakespeare represents the idea of revenge as the “eye-for-an-eye” principle unwaveringly. The uncompromising concept of revenge as the foundation for social justice and the urge for retaliation is, in fact, questioned in the play as well. Specifically, Shakespeare points to the flaws of the specified logic by making Claudius, the murderer, insist on retaliation: “No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;/Revenge should have no bounds” (Shakespeare, 1599, line 3272). Therefore, the poem can be seen as the transgression form revenge as seeking vengeance to it being a reconciliation with oneself. “Hamlet” transforms revenge from the action aimed at making the enemy suffer to the same extent as their victim has to a personal journey.
Effects of “Hamlet” on the Concept of Revenge
In addition, the concept of revenge after “Hamlet” seems to be not as fixated on making the subject matter the end goal of one’s existence anymore. In the play, the lead character starts his quest with the desire to avenge his dead father and see his murderers face the same fate. Although the lead character is also torn apart by the existentialist crisis in which he perpetuates throughout the poem, he is clearly willing to reveal and condemn his uncle as the person to blame for the death of Hamlet’s father. However, the resolution of the play proves that revenge as the ultimate goal of exerting revenge on an enemy is ultimately pointless. At the end of “Hamlet,” the titular character is emotionally emptied and entirely devastated, and he is as far from relief as he has ever been: “Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting” (Shakespeare, 1599, line 1628). The specified ending transforms the idea of revenge in the reader’s perception, even though it does so rather subtly.
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Furthermore, before ‘Hamlet,” revenge used to be seen as the tool for restoring social balance and maintaining justice. While the ethical arguments of using revenge as the method of retaliation also exist within the narrative, the play also offers a different way of looking at the subject matter. Shakespeare views revenge, or, to be more accurate, the decision to shift from revenge to a personal change, as a point of the lead character’s personal growth. Although the transfer from the idea of causing enemies to suffer from accepting the tragedy and living as one’s best self as painful, the change in the understanding of revenge is represented as the personal development (Dunne, 2016). Therefore, it could be argued that, after “Hamlet” had been introduced to the realm of literature and made available to the public, the idea of revenge was changed to personal evolution. The futility of the endeavors of making the opponent suffer was made explicit in the poem, thus highlighting the path to a new interpretation of revenge. Instead of being directed outward and aimed at hurting others to avenge oneself, it became the tool for reconciling with one’s loss and, ultimately, with oneself.
Thus, “Hamlet” transformed the subject matter form the barbaric “eye-for-an-eye” concept to the complex notion of searching for the opportunity to reconcile with oneself and recognize one’s feelings. The poem separates the era when revenge was seen as a tool for restoring justice and helping one to maintain the social status quo intact to the complex path toward understanding one’s emotional struggle. “Hamlet” humanizes the notion of revenge, turning it from mindless vengeance to the process of exploring one’s perception of relationships between people, societal norms, and basic humanity.
Dunne, D. (2016). Shakespeare, revenge tragedy and early modern law: Vindictive justice. New York, NY: Springer.
Gray, D.D. (2018). Crime, policing and punishment in England, 1660–1914. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Malm, L. L. (2017). Hamlet, conscience, and free will. Web.
Shakespeare, W. (1599). Hamlet. Web.