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The Revenge Theme in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play driven by revenge, with many of the main characters falling victim to it. There is no denying that revenge is a powerful feeling that can completely dominate and destroy a human’s life. One of the most common justifications for revenge is the pursuit of justice that cannot be achieved otherwise. The need to enact justice upon those who have wronged us is one of the primal human desires, making Hamlet an emotionally compelling work of literature. The complex subject of revenge and its morality greatly affects the main character Hamlet and other major characters of this play.

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In the case of the eponymous character of Hamlet, the idea of revenge precipitates him into melancholy, where he repeatedly delays the act of revenge. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is commanded by his father’s ghost to seek revenge upon his uncle, Claudius (Act 1, Scene 5). At first, this idea ignites a fierce fire in Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5). Throughout the play’s narrative, Hamlet’s desire for revenge does not seem as powerful as one might expect, and it strikes only at the end. When one thinks of the word revenge, one thinks of the action and determination needed to serve the righteous justice they believe in. However, Hamlet succumbs to indecisiveness, continuously wondering what action he must take (Act 3, Scene 1). The direct or indirect results of his prolongation unravel a succession of deaths of the most significant characters, which include Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, and Polonius.

The fact that this predicament damages his peace of mind becomes more evident, as he continues to lament his lack of action whenever a chance to do so is presented to him. For example, he feels ashamed while watching a play where he finds connections to his situation (Act 2, Scene 2). The feeling of shame for delaying what he must do is also present when he sees the march of Fortinbras’s army (Act 4, Scene 4). In his nature, the character of Hamlet is not inherently indecisive or afraid of causing harm, as he feels no guilt after having killed Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. In this way, the idea of revenge affects his character’s integrity of mind and inner peace.

The reason behind this lack of action could be explained by Hamlet’s position toward the idea of revenge. As he describes it himself, one must possess “some vicious mole of nature” and the “stamp of one defect” (Acts 1, Scene 4) to be able to carry the burden of revenge. It is up to debate whether this inability is a flaw or a virtue of his, as the concept of revenge is widely considered immoral. At the same time, had Hamlet carried out his task in time, he would have saved multiple lives.

Hamlet’s path to revenge affects not only his inner balance but also the fates of other characters. The character of Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, commits suicide due to Hamlet’s actions in pursuit of revenge. After her father is killed by Hamlet, the man she loves, Ophelia loses her mind and drowns herself (Act 4, Scene 7). However, this is not the only way Hamlet’s attempts at vengeance cause Ophelia pain. After Hamlet disguises himself as a man mad, Claudius and Polonius force Ophelia to confront Hamlet to test his madness. The need to maintain his cover of insanity requires Hamlet to hurt Ophelia psychologically, claiming that he loves her and then denying it the next moment (Act 3, Scene 1). The effect of this event serves as another point of the inquiry of whether the act of revenge is necessary if it constitutes this kind of cold-hearted malignance.

Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, finds her dead in the poisoned cup of wine intended for Hamlet. Her death acts as a forcing agent for Hamlet to finally kill Claudius after struggling with it for a long time (Acts 5, Scene 2). In this case, Hamlet’s revenge upon Claudius is presented as justified since, had Hamlet enacted it sooner, Gertrude’s death would have been prevented.

The ultimate argument towards the futility of revenge is the final act of the play when Laertes fatally injures Hamlet to vindicate his father’s and sister’s deaths (Act 5, Scene 2). The point of revenge as a concept is the feeling of satisfaction of having regained the balance of right and wrong. In this case, however, Hamlet does not have time to rejoice in this satisfaction, with his death growing closer to him. The only good he is capable of doing now is reconciling with Laertes, who is also dying from being stabbed by Hamlet. In the end, all that is left to Hamlet is to have a fine funeral arranged for him by Fortinbras, who has come to claim the throne.

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In conclusion, the theme of revenge, its morality, and how it affects the characters of Hamlet presents itself as a complex subject. On the one hand, Hamlet’s quicker and more assured approach to revenge would have prevented many of the occurring tragedies. On the other hand, the hardships caused by Hamlet’s measures taken to enact his revenge and its consequences depict the act of revenge as reprehensible and worthless.

Work Cited

Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature. W.W. Norton, 2017.

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