Discussion: The Problems of Revenge

This week I’d like to encourage discussion about the themes in Hamlet, and each post will address a different theme or approach to themes in the play.image

This morning, while trying to coax my dog into doing my marking,  I was mulling over  the topic of revenge in the play and Shakespeare’s message about the nature of revenge. The play is clearly not your typical revenge tragedy – it is a messy business.

Three sons seek revenge for a father’s murder, but each son responds differently. Shakespeare raises questions about the purpose of revenge and the legitimacy of seeking revenge. While each character feels the urge for vengeance, the word and the action often differ.

neuroethics of revengeHamlet raises this question of revenge through the motif of acting and the players. He is amazed that the Player King can respond with such genuine emotion to Hecuba. And he, himself, lives with knowledge that should vault him into immediate action. Hamlet’s inner conflict demonstrates the complicated nature of seeking revenge.


The Royal Shakespeare Company has an excellent site for students with quotations on revenge. Consider the following evidence from the three revenge plots:


  • “I am pigeon-livered and lack gall”
  • “Am I a coward?”
  • “proud, revengeful, ambitious”
  • “the play’s the thing/ Wherein i’ll catch the conscience of the king”
  • “A villain kills my father, and for that i his sole son do this same villain send/ To heaven”
  • “thinking too precisely on the event”
  • “a thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom, And ever three parts coward”
  • “O from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth”
  • “O cursed spite/ That ever i was born to set it right”


  • “I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father”
  • “But my revenge will come”
  • “O treble woe, fall ten times treble on that cursed head”
  • “the devil take thy soul”
  • “to cut his throat i’ th’ church”
  • “Exchange forgiveness with me noble Hamlet”

Fortinbras Fortinbras_by_PayRoo

  • “We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name”
  • “delicate and tender prince”
  • “To all that fortune, death and danger dare, And for an egg shell”

Another way of examining the nature of revenge is to focus exclusively on Hamlet and consider his actions within the plot:

Act 1 Scene 5: Hamlet promises his father to revenge his murder, but struggles with the ethics and responsibility of this role.
Act 2 Scene 2: Hamlet criticizes himself for not action and compares himself to other legendary figures who have sought revenge.
Act 3 Scene 3: Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he believes what he sees is his confession; however, Claudius cannot confess and Hamlet misses his opportunity while thinking about sending him to heaven.
Act 3 Scene 4: Hamlet Senior reminds him of his responsibility to see revenge while Hamlet is with his mother.
Act 4 Scene 4: On his way to England he encounters the troops of Fortinbras, and Hamlet is amazed that people kill one another over so slight a gain as ‘a little patch of land’. He sees the action of Fortinbras as admirable and resolves that from now on all his thoughts will be ‘bloody.’
Act 4 Scene 5: Laertes responds to revenge with passion and action; he decides to seek revenge without hesitation.
Act 5 Scene 2: Claudius’s scheme to kill Hamlet results in the death of most of the major characters. However, in the last desperate moments before he dies Hamlet gets his revenge and kills Claudius.

But Hamlet dies in seeking revenge, so what is Shakespeare saying? Don’t just sit there and think – act! Make a comment and start the discussion.


About melaniewhite2012

I am a high school English and Media Studies Teacher, an editor, and writer of educational publications for McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Ltd, and a mother of three. I distance run, exist largely on raw food, fresh air and sunshine, good literature, thoughtful radio, film, and laughter.
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6 Responses to Discussion: The Problems of Revenge

  1. mkaka139 says:

    Hamlet’s revenge plot seemed to be the only thing he left in his life, the only thing he had left to live for. He had lost his father, his girlfriend, and in a way lost his mother to his uncle. Maybe his death was purposeful, as in a subconscious decision on his part. Maybe he knew he had nothing left to live for and so to him “the rest is silence”

  2. I think you are on to something here, Maryam. In fact, when he talks with Horatio abou there being “Providence in the fall of a sparrow” he seems to be accepting a sense of destiny. And he also says, “let be”. If this is true for Hamlet, then his not acting is exactly the action he was supposed to take; not acting is acting. (My head hurts.)

  3. noorkhalili says:

    This is completely interesting because today I was thinking about Hamlet’s inaction that is an action and how this inaction turns to hamlet’s tragic flaw. However, if Hamlet knew that the rest is silence, he would have killed himself way back in act 3. What makes me so confused is that I believe that the destiny gave him the chance to kill Claudius when Claudius was was asking for mercy, yet Hamlet refused to. I don’t know if it makes sense, but Hamlet thinks too much! And his thinking is making him not act upon anything in the play. Since basically, he could have killed Claudius but his thinking about after life made him not do it. Stopping to think before acting cost Hamlet numerous opportunities to seek revenge. I think he is basically procrastinating ( I relate procrastination to everything now! This is because of the song mrs. Jensen told you about.) and his procrastination has led him to inaction.

    • noorkhalili says:

      Mrs. White, I like it how you make your dog help you with marking! I’d like to know what his reaction is. He seems interested about it in the picture though!

      • My dog, Fergie, is a smart Apricot Standard Poodle but I think she’d rather lick the papers than mark them. Hmm. Maybe they are smarter than we humans. For sure, I know they don’t even contemplate revenge.

  4. The ghost tell Hamlet that however he seeks revenge to “Taint not thy mind”. So, even the ghost knows that revenge comes at a cost to those who seek it and to a lot of innocent bystanders. The play is about the tragedy of revenge. There is no positive outcome for those who seek it and it affects everyone innocent or not in the play. In the end, Fortinbras was turned away from his revenge and went to war with Poland. Kenneth Branagh has it wrong in the movie; we agree, with our modern view, that Fortinbras is really invading Denmark but in the actual play, he is not and he can’t be because in order to restore the natural order to Denmark, it can’t be part of the revenge plot. Shakespeare is very definite with the 3 men who want revenge; only the person who doesn’t actively seek it in the end is rewarded. Hamlet is punished for both his inaction and the people he hurts instead of punishing Claudius. Laertes is punished for his impulsiveness that allows him to be manipulated by Claudius. Fortinbras allows his uncle to turn him away from his desired course and is rewarded.
    Love the picture of the dog who really does look like he’s interested in the topic!

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