Themes of Revenge in Hamlet
Hamlet is a revenge play. At this time, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, this was a very common genre. It had certain conventions: a villain commits a murder; the son of the murdered man insists revenge; he carries out his duty and pledge, but in so doing destroys himself. In Hamlet, the entire action of the play is centered on the task assigned by the ghost to Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder But Hamlet has to answer four questions: Is the ghost real? Is revenge good or evil? Is Claudius guilty? These questions, complicates Hamlet’s decision and his reflective, intellectual nature and the revenge obligations of Laertes and Fortinbras that parallel the main plot.
Hamlet is tasked with avenging his father’s horrible and unnatural murder. However, he faces a dilemma: should he believe in the honesty of the ghost? The ghost might be a devil. By nature a thinker and truth-seeker, his first step is to evaluate the truth of the ghost’s command, but this self-examination causes delay. Moreover, his extreme depression at his mother’s detestable remarriage, and the fact that Claudius was elected king, has served to make him sarcastic and disbelieving. A chain of circumstances provides a series of obstacles that Hamlet first has to overcome in order to achieve his revenge. This however, affects Hamlet on a spiritual level, as he accepts that both good and evil exist in the world, and that there is a fitness in performing his duty of revenge. His nobility and balance is at constant war with each other from the beginning to the end of the play. The ethical concerns Hamlet has for Claudius and Gertrude are plain to see, at the time, the church considered marriage to a sister in law tantamount to incest. Hamlet’s ethical concerns surrounding his mother’s sudden remarriage is overtly expressed when Gertrude asks Hamlet at her wedding, “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?” (Hamlet 1.2. 76) Hamlet disputes Gertrude’s charge that he is being hypocritical, “Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems’…” (Hamlet 1.2.77) For him, she is the one who has shown hypocrisy and he does not agree with her ‘seems’ (Hamlet. 1.2.76) Whereas, Hamlet’s social concerns for Denmark is purely centered around the king and the influence he might have on the rest of the kingdom. Hamlet makes use of an ambiguous pun that depicts his dislike towards Claudius’s insincerity and Claudius’s attempt to polish over what has happened. Hamlet displays clear hostility, “A little more than kin, and less than kind”, (Hamlet 1.2.64) Hamlet is more than close in relationship to Claudius (an uncle and a ‘father’), but He resents him and has no feelings of liking and kinship for Claudius. (Shakespeare 2008:158)
Another Cryptic pun Hamlet makes use of is in his illustration of the resentment he holds towards Claudius, Hamlet resents Claudius calling him my son, “Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’ sun.” (Hamlet 1.2.66) Hamlet implies that his been deprived of succession to the throne and refuses to take on the role of Claudius’s son. Hamlet faces enormous obstacles in carrying out his revenge. Both his character and circumstances conspire to put him into a state of paralyzed inactivity. His mind is too complex. His keen sense of morality makes him realize that wrong should not lead to further wrong. Moreover, he wrestles with the extremes in his character, which only harmonize when his task is no longer a burden. Then character and circumstance combine to enable his revenge. (Shakespeare 2008:158-159)
The appearance of the ghost exemplifies the theme of appearance versus reality. The king appears to be at prayer, and Hamlet decides not to kill his uncle while he is in the state of grace. Hamlet wants his revenge to be not just for the punishment his life on earth but for eternity. Furthermore, if he does kill him in his state of purity, ” do this same villain send to heaven. O, this is hire and salary, not revenge” (Hamlet 3.3.76-78), for Claudius’s dreadful offense. The reality is that Claudius cannot repent, as he is unwilling to give up his crown or his queen. When Laertes declares that – “the king is to blame”, (Hamlet 5.2. 274) reality and appearance finally meet. On a social level, Hamlet is depressed and melancholy because he believes he can see the evil reality behind the appearance of good in Denmark. The state should be fair, but it is rotten. Men should be noble, made in the image of God, but to Hamlet, life is dust. Women essentially pure and innocent are unfaithful and infected and Love supposedly faithful and honest, is dishonest and unfaithful.
The play shows the strain of knowing the truth about people, living in a world of appearances. Fundamentally, Hamlet expresses the dilemma of living in that world. Marcellus’ remark “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet 1.2. 65), reveals the corruption that is found on all levels in the state. As a result, there are frequent references to, and images of, corruption. Claudius is irredeemably corrupt, guilty of fratricide (the murder of a brother) and regicide (the murder of a king). Hamlet refers to Claudius as “a Canker in our nature” (Hamlet 2.2. 290). The relationship between Claudius and Gertrude, which starts with adultery, is immoral, but this is glossed over. The corruption Claudius embodies taints everything: Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all lose their moral sense under Claudius’s manipulation. The penalty they pay is the loss of their lives. There is an explicit link between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. If this is flawed, the state, “the body” (Hamlet 1.2.163), is sick, so Denmark is frequently referred to as a body made ill by corruption. Laertes ironically says to Hamlet (Hamlet 1.2. 20-21) “that on his choice depends/ the sanity and health of this whole state.” Unknowingly, he has hit upon Hamlet’s task in the play- to restore soundness and morality to Denmark. The consequences of murder for Claudius (Shakespeare 2008: 155-335)
Most Elizabethans believed in ghosts. Ghosts were considered real, and were taken seriously. They could not initiate conversation, and came from an external world. This ghost is dressed in military armor and looks like Hamlet’s father, but it could well be a devil impersonating the dead king. An abnormal set of circumstances has led to the disturbance of the chain of being and infection sets in. Jenkins states that, “the universe, ordered by God, consists of different hierarchies: the angels were closes to God, and were followed by men, beasts, objects, and the devils in the underworld.”(Jenkins. H 1982:154) Although Hamlet does not yet know that his father has been murdered by his uncle, there are already ominous signs that all is not well. Claudius has hastily and incestuously remarried, a ghost walks the night and Denmark is being corrupted by revelry and drunkenness. These signs are witnessed and announced by Francisco who is “sick at heart”. (Hamlet 1.1. 9) A strong feeling of wrongness is present. Horatio acknowledges that the ghost’s appearance signifies “some strange eruption to our state” (Hamlet 1.1 69). The onset of disease is suggested. When the chain of being is broken, disorder is the result. (Shakespeare 2008: 143-148)
The character and role of Claudius is malevolent, perceptive and crafty. He manipulates people and persuades them in taking up his point of view. His great strength is his capacity to see all sides of a situation. He is power hungry. Maintaining power is all that matters to him. He is an excellent storyteller, and his principal weapon is his influential use of language, which enables him to smooth over situations and turn them to his own advantage. He is deceitful. He lies slickly and persuasively. Even when he knows he is mortally wounded, he says, “O yet, defend me, friends, I am but hurt.”(Hamlet 5.2. 350) He knows Gertrude is poisoned but says, “She swoons to see them bleed.” (Hamlet 5.2.350) He earns the qualified pity of the audience. As the audience, we see him as a man tortured by guilt over his actions. He is also an able king, resolving quickly the threat against Denmark. The consequences of murder for Claudius is losing everything he greatly sacrificed so much for his “Queen, ambition and his crown”(Hamlet 3.3 .55)(Shakespeare 2008: 354)
However, on a spiritual level, Claudius reaches out in aid for forgiveness and pity. Especially in this instance, he is begging for forgiveness, this is the first and last time as the audience that we witness Claudius in a twist, he is unable to spin himself out of completely. The characters in the play assume roles in order to hide themselves. Claudius appears to be a grieving brother, concerned uncle and lawful king, but in reality, a he is a murderer and usurper.
The first passage (Hamlet 3.3. 36-98) concentrates mainly on Claudius’s begging for forgiveness so that he is saved from his sinful act that he had committed, the murder of his brother. His confession is rather ambivalent and is in contradiction to that of his true word. He ask’s for forgiveness but he might not be sincerely repenting for his wrongdoing. In his plea, it seems as though he is truthfully asking for a second chance: “Try what repentance can. What can it not? / Yet what can it when one cannot repent” (Hamlet 3.3.64) Claudius’s soliloquy is unexpected, for it shows him struck by his conscience, miserable and human. He makes an honest admission of his crime. However, considering all the facts Claudius has committed a dreadful transgression. Nevertheless, despite his strong intention to ask for atonement, he is unable to do so because of the negative consequences in Heaven,”O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven.”(Hamlet 3.3.37) and his unwillingness to give up what he has gained through his crime, “My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.”(Hamlet 3.3. 55), so Claudius abandons repentance. His prayer has made no transformation, and he carries on untouched. (Shakespeare 2008:272-273)
On a social level of the play, and by means of close examination of the passage wherein Claudius and Laertes plan to avenge the death of Polonius, seek out ways in order to kill Hamlet. As the audience, we are led to believe that on a superficial level Claudius sincerely, truthfully and genuinely feels the need to comfort Laertes in his hour of need. However, Claudius abuses his position as King and in many ways manipulates Laertes. Just as Claudius had poured poison into Late King Hamlet’s ear, so too is he pouring poison into Laertes’s ears, which is evident in their conversation when Claudius asks Laertes, “Will you do this?”(Hamlet 4.7.106). Claudius uses his fury and resentment to his advantage. Claudius misuses the control and power that he has in the kingdom in order to make himself look like the victim in all of this. (Shakespeare 2008: 316)
Claudius repeatedly blackens Hamlet in his conversation with Laertes and subtly compares his acts to Hamlet’s sinful and unacceptable behavior that has progressively led to Polonius and Ophelia’s death. Claudius’s revenge is like a disease without a cure, it festers and becomes an ugly sore, incurable and irrepressible, and his bloodthirsty hunger for taking Hamlet’s life is all he wants and even if it is to the detriment of the current state of Denmark. (Edward. P 2003:57)
However, there is a touch of irony in the relationship that Hamlet and Laertes share. Hamlet seeks to avenge his father’s death, receives messages from a ghost that is meant to represent his late father and based on this, Hamlet, in the heat of the moment, accidentally kills Polonius, hoping that he has killed Claudius. Laertes now switches places with Hamlet, harbors the very same hatred that Hamlet holds towards Claudius only now everything Hamlet went through is happening to Laertes. This sudden reversal of roles adds tremendously to the revenge and murder theme Hamlet. Shakespeare often compares characters similar pictures so that the audience may make a decisive decision on whether its message is real, natural and unintentionally created in order to set the scene. One example of this is the similarity of madness that Ophelia and Hamlet share, however, Ophelia’s madness is real unlike the pretended madness that Hamlet seems to be, a reminder of the real power of grief and the chaotic emotions that Hamlet must have felt. (Bradley. A. C 1952: 137)
On a spiritual level of the play, and by close examination of the text, Claudius kills the late king Hamlet on a somatic, fleshly and bodily platform. However, the murder of the king haunts Claudius on a spiritual level; his guilt is what leads him into going to the church and confessing to his atrocious crime. Claudius, ‘the serpent'(Hamlet 1.5.39) “poured poison in his brother’s ear and now he speaks to Laertes on a metaphorical level and, in turn, pours poison into Laertes’s ears”, (Lecture notes) “Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart?” (Hamlet 4.7. 94-96). His sudden concern leans towards the manipulative, conceited and unscrupulous characteristics of “a serpent” (Hamlet 3.2.239) portraying devious and cunning acts upon his prey, in order to take full advantage of any situation he may find himself in.(Shakespeare 2008: 187-316)
Laertes, however, thinks of double treason; unlike Hamlet, whose aim is primarily to avenge his Father’s death but thinks about the right and wrong in all his decisions. He ponders constantly over himself, attaches meaning to the essence of life, death and the meaning of existence. Laertes not only seeks to avenge his father’s death, but also wants Hamlet to suffer by taking his life and punishing him in his afterlife. He shows deliberate, planned and premeditated murder when he speaks to Claudius and shows no remorse. Laertes says to Claudius that he will “cut his throat i’th’ church” (Hamlet 4.7.103)and the significance of murdering somebody in a holy place as the church, suggests Laertes’s hatred runs much deeper and the punishment that Hamlet deserves should not only last for now but forever.(Shakespeare 2008: 316)
Claudius and Laertes both share commonalties in the sense that both are power hungry. Laertes, flattered by Claudius’s constant praise, falls into his trap and gives Claudius the impression that he is just as vengeful, frustrated and determined in taking revenge on Polonius’s and Ophelia’s death for his sincere concern for Laertes. Claudius takes full advantage of the fact that Laertes is so open to explaining himself to him, being the master of manipulation, unprincipled and unscrupulous uses Laertes’s anger, resentment and rage to get Hamlet killed, ultimately getting exactly what he wanted. (Bradley A.C 1952:123)
In conclusion, the various levels of the play culminate into one direction that ultimately leads to the disintegration of the kingdom and the fall of king of Denmark. On a social level, Claudius abuses his power in order to gain the trust he needs to claim his position in the social realm of the power hungry group. In addition to this, Claudius hopes to occupy the realm of king and to get Hamlet out of the picture entirely. On a spiritual level, the representation of the ghost is seen as either Claudius’s conscience pricking him, the guilt that clouds his mind or it is to indicate to the audience that although Claudius has killed Late King Hamlet in his physical, he has not necessarily killed him in his spiritual form. His soul still lingers in the hope that justice is served and Claudius is brought to task for his sinful acts.
Lastly, on an ethical level, the play does, however, have a slight principled and virtuous hint to it, instances wherein right and wrong are differentiated between, for example, the struggle Hamlet has within himself and the anger he wants to express against Claudius in search of his revenge. Completely leading himself, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius death.