The Shakespearean piece, The Tragedy of Hamlet, is a story of many themes. This is perhaps why students worldwide are taught it in school. Or perhaps it is because of the diversification of these themes, and thus the diversification of responses it invokes, that makes Hamlet so well received by both students and scholars alike. Of these themes, the strongest theme, or rather, the most obvious, is that of revenge. That is not to say that because it is obvious, it is therefore simple.
No one knows the extent of William Shakespeare’s genius, but it is known that when it comes to his works, things are hardly simplistic. In fact, it is believed that the theme of revenge is also one of the more complicated themes because of whom it involves and how it is brought about by the characters that desire it. The characters of whom I speak of are Fortinbras, son of the late King Fortinbras, prince of Norway; Laertes, son of the late Polonius (Lord Chamberlain to the King) and brother to the late Ophelia; and Hamlet, son of the late King Hamlet, prince of Denmark.Order now
As one can see, they all have something in common; they are all sons to murdered fathers. As one reads on, specifics will arise that will make other similarities apparent as well as shedding some light on the methods and motives behind the aforementioned characters’ quests for vengeance. Firstly, there is the son of the late King of Norway, Fortinbras. In the nature of his revenge, he has embarked on a military campaign to regain for his country the lands that were forfeit when his father was slain in a duel with the late King Hamlet.
Now, sir, young Fortinbras Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there shark’d up a list of lawless resolute to some enterprise which is no other– As it doth well appear unto our state–But to recover of us, by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands So by his father lost – — (I. i. 95-104) In anticipation of the attack, Claudius sends Cornelius and Voltimand, his courtiers, to Fortinbras’ uncle to talk to young Fortinbras about his vengeful quest.
Thus, Fortinbras is dissuaded from attacking Denmark, temporarily, and is prompted “to employ his anger, against the Polack- (II. ii. 74-75). Fortinbras’ course is an honourable one: acting to regain what was taken from him when his father was slain. In seeking out revenge, he does so not only on the same field on which his father contended, but on the very one he was bested. So he is unique in that his revenge lacks any actions of dishonour or deceit. Albeit his course does involve “the imminent death of twenty thousand men for a fantasy of trick and fame- (IV. v. 60-61), his character is otherwise devoid of any dishonourable intentions.
It is believed that it is because of his honourable convictions that he is rewarded with a vengeance that does not end with his own demise, as well as, ascendancy to the conveniently empty throne of Denmark. Secondly, there is Laertes, son of Polonius. Laertes seeks out revenge using lex talionis, “an eye for an eye;- and to this he is entitled to. In these times, the eldest son of a murdered father could hardly stand idle while his murderer still breathes.
Well, he could, but if honour meant anything to him; and in these times, honour meant everything, than it was his obligation to exact his vengeance upon Hamlet. Laertes, having such noble qualities as being inherently good and having a basic honesty and courage, takes up this challenge to kill Hamlet. Unfortunately, circumstances are not at their best and returning home to find a dead father and an insane sister certainly plays a large role on how Laertes would have otherwise dealt with the situation, “Let come what comes, only I’ll be most revenged most thoroughly for my father. “” (IV. v. 135-136).
Quick to avenge the loss of his family, we see a rather rash and hot-headed Laertes, and although one can hardly blame him for being in such a state of mind, it is the decisions he makes while in this state of mind that ultimately leads to his death. In his wrath, he conspires with Claudius to develop a plan to kill Hamlet. When asked what he was willing to do, and how far he was willing to go to kill Hamlet and avenge his father, he responds “To cut his throat i’ the church- (IV. vii. 127). This being an unthinkable crime in itself it shows Laertes’ willingness to do anything to avenge his father.
So Claudius suggests a duel with Hamlet and, if left here, his honour would still hold merit. It is not, however, and Laertes suggests the poisoning of his foils to further guarantee his vengeance. ” I’ll anoint my sword. I bought an unction of a mountebank, So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare, Collected from all simples that have virtue Under the moon, can save the thing from death That is but scratch’d withal: I’ll touch my point With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly, It may be death. ” — (IV. vii. 140-148)
It is through this use of deceptive and murderous means that Laertes’ quest for vengeance is cast into disrepute. When the time of the duel arrives, while he does strike an ultimately mortal blow to Hamlet, in the confusion of the fight, the fighters trade foils and ironically Laertes, is stricken with the very foil he poisoned and he too dies of its effects. But to his credit, Laertes does begin to doubt his own motives during the fight: “My lord, I’ll hit him now and yet ’tis almost ‘gainst my conscience – (V. i. 296-297).
As well, as he lies dying of his poison he confesses his own treachery to Hamlet and tells him of the role of the King, thereby indicting him. “It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain; No medicine in the world can do thee good; In thee there is not half an hour of life; The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, Unbated and envenom’d: the foul practise Hath turn’d itself on me lo, here I lie, Never to rise again: thy mother’s poison’d: I can no more: the king, the king’s to blame. “” — (V. ii. 314-321)
Also with his dying breath he absolves Hamlet of all blame; that is of course, if Hamlet will forgive him, which he does. “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me. “” — (V. ii. 330 “333) So, when the specifics of the situation arise, we find Laertes is more victim than villain. Arriving home to find his family dead or insane, he is devastated and his emotions take over. While he does go to Claudius for help, he is more his dupe rather than co-conspirator.
In the end he sees the error of his ways, and while it is already too late he confesses the truth to Hamlet in an effort to right his wrongs. Lastly, is the tragic hero of the play, Hamlet. When the play begins, King Hamlet is already slain and his mother already remarried to his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet is deeply sorrowed by his father’s passing, but he is almost more deeply grieved by his mother’s quick remarriage. So we are painted this picture of a sad and mourning Hamlet, and yet revenge has not even begun to enter Hamlet’s mind.
And why should it? Who has he to blame? His father died of a snake bite, while sleeping in his orchard, so there is no one to blame for his death, except maybe the snake. And he can hardly kill his uncle or his mother for what can only be referred to as an incestuous marriage. It is not until his meeting with the supposed ghost of his father that revenge forms in Hamlet’s mind, and even than, it is a quest more bestowed upon him than taken up. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love— Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. “” (I. v. 23-25).
It is then that he finds out that there is a vengeance to be taken, because it is then that the ghost tells Hamlet who has murdered him. “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown. “” (I. v. 38-39). Upon hearing this Hamlet readily accepts his task of exacting revenge. The ghost also displays his dismay over the queen’s quick remarriage, to his murderer no less, but cautions Hamlet not to raise his hand against her, as he wants her own guilt to weigh heavily in her heart, and let heaven decide her fate. “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, To prick and sting her. “” — (I. v. 85-88) It is such that Hamlet is left to ponder what he must do, and yet he procrastinates in killing Claudius immediately because of lack of proof, and with due reason. This ghost that has appeared to him, while it could very well be the ghost of his poor late father, it could also be a demon sent to torment him and trick him into committing actions that would cause nothing but turmoil and upset in the land of Denmark.
So when a band of actors visits the castle, he enlists their aid in discovering the truth about his father’s murder. He asks them to perform the play The Murder of Gonzago and adds his own sixteen lines that will cause the actors to reenact the murder of King Hamlet. “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. “” (II. ii. 616-617) And catches the conscience of the King it does. Claudius calls for light and storms away, the play being called to an end, and Hamlet could not be happier with the results.
Finally convinced of his uncle’s guilt, he sets it upon himself to finally do the deed and kill him. Claudius, suddenly guilt-stricken decides to pray for forgiveness, and this is how Hamlet finds him. Sword drawn, he again procrastinates in his deed, deciding that if he were to kill him now, while he was at prayer, than his soul would go to heaven, and since his father was not given the chance for forgiveness before he died, than neither shall he. It is in this moment that he decides that he shall kill him while he is committing a sin, so that he will join his father in hell.
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t; Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn’d and black As hell, whereto it goes. “” — (III. iii. 88-95) His next act of vengeance is with his mother. He meets with her after he sees Claudius praying. They quarrel and when she cries out for help, Polonius; who was hiding behind an arras to spy, makes his presence known.
Thinking it is the king, Hamlet stabs at the arras and slays Polonius. This being not very important to this central idea, it is only worth mentioning because it is a small highlight of the scene as well as sets the stage for Laertes’ vengeance. After he kills Polonius, he finally tells his mother his true feelings regarding her marrying her late husband’s brother so quickly after his death. “Such an act That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose From the fair forehead of an innocent love And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths – — (III. iv. 41-46) He further denounces her love of Claudius and paints a portrait of a woman that is weak, sensual, and does not act her age. His words, though, find their mark and she is stricken with the guilt of her actions, “O speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in mine ears. No more, sweet Hamlet. “” (III. iv. 95-97). Finally we arrive at the climax of the play when Hamlet’s quest for vengeance is completed. Upon the death of his mother, and of Laertes’ confession, it seems that Hamlet finally has enough proof of Claudius’ treachery to kill him.
First, he stabs his uncle with the poisoned foil, and then, as a final act of vengeance, he pours whatever is left of the poisoned wine down his throat, which leaves the king thoroughly deceased. “The point! –envenom’d too! Then, venom, to thy work Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother. “” — (V. ii. 322-328) It is so that the dying prince of Denmark is avenged most thoroughly for the death of both his parents, and if not for his accidental murdering of Polonius he might have yet still lived.
But he too was a victim of unfortunate circumstance, and so, Hamlet dies. So concludes the accounts of vengeance in this play. First, we had noble Fortinbras. A character who was not so much a victim of circumstance, but a victor of it. In the end, he is all but given the throne of Denmark and is so rightfully avenged. Next was poor Laertes, a true victim in the play. His whole family, including himself in the end, dies because of the deception and trickery of the royal family. Inherently a good person, neither he or his sister deserved to die, and yet that is the fate in which they find themselves.
And lastly was Hamlet, a true tragical hero. Although obviously skilled with the sword, he was more given to philosophizing. It was his procrastination and analytical traits, while not considered to be of the worse traits a man can get, that prove to be his downfall. Things could have gone very differently in The Tragedy of Hamlet if even the tiniest of details were changed. Unfortunately, all the worse things that could of happened did, and many of the characters in the play find themselves the unfortunate victim of circumstance.