Theme of Revenge in William Shakespeare’s Play Hamlet
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a complex play where many themes are intertwined – themes that are essential to the development of the play. The issue of death and disease, both physical and emotional is very prevalent throughout the duration of the play, as well as fate and divine intervention. The play also questions madness and whether it can be feigned, as well as corruption and its moral implications. Also the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, where Hamlet not only questions life and death, but many of life’s other uncertainties as well.
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However, the most important theme in the development of Hamlet is revenge and question ‘Does revenge pay?’ Revenge is a frighteningly bloodthirsty emotion, which causes people to act blindly and without reason. Revenge is a theme that is cleverly built upon throughout the extent of the play; with it being the driving force behind two of the main characters in the play.
The play is introduced by the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the first scene, which automatically gives the impression that something is amiss.
This is later clarified by the statement; “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv). The ghost materialises before Hamlet suggesting that his death was not as natural as it may first have seemed. The ghost requests Hamlet to “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v) and points him towards the murderer with “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (I.v).
This indicates that King Hamlet murder was committed by his brother, Claudius, who had now taken over as King of Denmark. The Ghost taunts Hamlet, telling him that it is part of every man’s honour to avenge his death. Hamlet agrees to revenge his death, but his mind is still full of many doubts, and he just thinks about what he will do, rather than actually do it. However, when the time for action comes, it is the beginning of a ferocious cycle of hatred, death and revenge, which ultimately consumes all those who use it.
Hamlet’s doubts cause him to forget about his promise to the ghost, and finally to determine if the ghost was true, he attempts to prove Claudius’ guilt. He creates a play, The Mousetrap and it is performed in court. The Mousetrap recreates a similar scenario as the one that had occurred when Hamlet’s father was murdered. Hamlet was watching for a reaction from Claudius to see if he really was the vile murderer. Subsequent to the King’s outburst after watching the performance, Hamlet confronts his mother and began to insult her betrayal of her first husband. Meanwhile the meddling fool, Polonius, was hiding behind a decorate rug that was adorning the wall in Gertrude’s room. Hamlet sensed his presence and thinking that it was Claudius, plunged his dagger through the rug.
This rash action causes much grief and sadness for many people. Hamlet, after Ophelia’s betrayal of him, acts rudely to her, lying about his love for her and suggesting some inappropriate comments to her, mocking her for a whore. This, joined with her father’s death causes her to go mad and eventually drown herself. This was a particularly tragic death because the virginal Ophelia was just an innocent bystander in a cruel plot for revenge. Also hurt was Polonius’ son, Laertes. Laertes believes that it was Claudius that killed his father, but the king quickly puts Laertes on Hamlets trail and pushes him to avenge his father’s murder. From this point on, Hamlet and Laertes become the main characters in the play – two characters driven by a blind revenge.
Despite this, Hamlet continues only to speak about his plans for revenge, and never acts until the last scene. At one stage Hamlet had a perfect chance to kill Claudius whilst he was praying but chose not to because doing so would have meant that Claudius would be sent to heaven, rather than hell. Hamlet wonders about that idea, saying that “Now he is praying…a villain kills my father and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven”. (III.iii) Hamlet thinks that patience will pay off for him in the long run, but unfortunately for him this is not so, and it causes an even greater tragedy.
It is not until Act V that revenge brings the play together. In Scene ii, Hamlet explains to Horatio how he had been sent to his death in England. In a moment of ‘brilliance’, Hamlet substitutes the letter from one demanding his death, to one demanding the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem. Hamlet sees no immorality in this action; he simply sees it as part of his revenge on Claudius, and he does not feel for them as they sided with the enemy, other than himself. They were just “sponges.”
Upon arriving back in Denmark, Hamlet is challenged to a duel with Laertes, who is still powered by the need to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet accepts this as he knows he is better than Laertes. Prior to the duel, Hamlet attempts to apologise to Laertes, blaming the murder on his madness. Laertes, who is still blinded by his quest for revenge, accepts Hamlet’s apology, but says he must retain his honour. He tells Hamlet that “I am satisfied in nature, whose motives in this case should stir me most to my revenge; but in terms of honour I stand aloof … I do receive your offered love like love and will not wrong it.” (V.ii) The pair prepare for their duel, and Laertes selected an “unbaited” sword with a poisoned tip. This shows that Laertes was still not thinking straight because he would have realised that choosing such a sword could proved dangerous for him as well.
During the fight Laertes struck a blow against Hamlet with the tip of his poisoned sword, but the duel continues and the swords get swapped. The next hit was made by Hamlet, who had the poisoned sword at that point in time. Just then the Queen collapses and the King attempts to cover it up by announcing that she doesn’t like the sight of blood. The Queen denies this and tells the court that it was “…the drink! O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink. I am poisoned.”(V.ii). At that point Laertes realises that he has been used by the King and tells Hamlet that he will soon die, because his sword was poisoned too, and that the King was to blame.
Finally, Hamlet has set the scene for the revenge that he has been craving. He attacks the King, pushing him over, and picks up the poisoned wine. He forces it down the King’s throat, yelling “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother.” Laertes dies, content that justice has been served. Hamlet himself dies soon after; his revenge plot is finally complete, and so is Laertes’. However, the price that was paid was large, the death of; Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet himself.
The obsession and need for revenge displayed by the two main revenge characters eventually led them both to their downfall. Not only did they hurt themselves, but many others close to them. Ophelia’s death, for example could be blamed on Hamlet’s desire for revenge, whilst Hamlet’s death occurred as a result of Laertes quest to avenge his father’s death.
Revenge shapes the entire plot of Hamlet and could be blamed for corrupting Hamlet and Laertes, making them almost as evil as the person who started all the problems. Shakespeare highlights the moral implications of revenge, and how a person can be corrupted by their need for revenge. The somewhat clichéd saying ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is outlined perfectly in Hamlet. You cannot receive a punch, return a punch and then all be friends. The second that revenge is planned, a horrible chain that is almost impossible to break forms. The revenge, while completed, also caused many other problems in Denmark. The royal advisors family; dead, the entire royal family; dead, and the Norwegian foe, Fortinbras now takes over as King. Revenge does not pay, the price to achieve it is just way too high.
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