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.
Hamlet 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”
- “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.