Revenge in Shakespeare's Hamlet | Teen Ink

Revenge in Shakespeare's Hamlet

January 12, 2009
By Anonymous

One of humanity's most basic instincts is that of revenge. Revenge is one of the defining traits
of humanity. The drive to exact vengeance on one's enemy is the driving force behind many pivotal
events in human history. The object of every war is to get revenge on the other side. Revenge is
also a common motive for robbery and murder. There is no denying that revenge is a force for
terrible deeds in this world, but at the same time it is a basic human desire. Stories of
retribution are some of the oldest humans have ever told and also some of the most treasured. In the
Christian Bible, one of the most revered texts in human history, vengeance is a key element to many
stories. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden, God takes his retribution on them by
banishing them from the garden for all time. Cain takes revenge on Abel for outdoing him in his
sacrifices to God. The list goes on, the point being that people have been taking revenge upon one
another since the dawn of man. Even though the desire to obtain revenge often leads people to
perform criminal, or at least unkind, acts, it is necessary for human society to function. Revenge
acts as a very effective deterrent against undeserved violence. When man first learned to use tools
and communicate, there was no police force or other entity capable of enforcing rules of any kind.
If not for the threat of later revenge, there would not have been any reason for early humans to
refrain from killing and stealing from each other. Revenge is the most basic and the most crude
check on greed and just available to humans. The threat of retaliation provides enough of a negative
incentive against many crimes as to be a very effective deterrent for a plethora of would-be
criminals. However, revenge is by no means a perfect deterrent. This is especially clear in
Shakespeare's Hamlet. Take Claudius, for example. He could not conceivably have thought that
Hamlet would not eventually want to take revenge for his father's death. Yet, this rather obvious
consideration did not stop Claudius in the least from killing King Hamlet and marrying his wife.
However, while the threat of revenge was not a very effective deterrent for Claudius, the fact that
Hamlet took his revenge served as an example for all others of the pain and suffering that can be
caused when revenge is exacted, providing a further disincentive for would-be criminals. Even though
Hamlet is not the only character in Hamlet to take revenge, his reasons are the most justifiable.
Claudius has not only killed Hamlet's father, but married his mother and subsequently ruined her
reputation. As crimes go, murder is one of the foulest known to humans. In addition, Claudius is
Hamlet's uncle, a relatively close family member who is supposed to provide love and support.
Instead, Claudius murders Hamlet's father. Even by itself, murder of one's father is a perfectly
acceptable motive for revenge. Especially considering the time period, when a man's honor was
judged in part by the respect he showed towards his father. The Ghost reiterates this bit of
knowledge to Hamlet when he says, "If thou didst ever thy dear father love" Revenge his foul and
most unnatural murder" (I. v. 39-40). During the time period, hamlet would have had to take his
revenge upon Claudius in order to protect his honor. The fact the Claudius is sleeping with Gertrude
only complicates matters. Hamlet feels as though he must not only protect his own honor, but also
that of his mother. The reasoning at the time would have dictated that Gertrude, being a woman, was
not capable of exacting her revenge upon Claudius for killing King Hamlet. The Ghost doesn't even
blame Gertrude for succumbing to Claudius's advances, this is shown when he tells hamlet, "with
witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-/O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power/So to
seduce!-won to his shameful lust/The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen" (I. v. 50-53). In
this passage the Ghost tells Hamlet that Gertrude, being a woman, was too weak to resist romantic
advances, and therefore also too weak to take vengeance upon Claudius. Therefore it would fall upon
Hamlet to take revenge upon Claudius for her. Complicating matters even further is the fact that
Claudius killed a king, and is a king himself by right of his first misdeed. Killing a king is
regarded worse than normal murder, and therefore Hamlet would have grounds for killing Claudius
simply as a patriot and citizen of Denmark. Between Hamlet's patriotic duty and his obligations to
uphold both his own honor and that of his mother, Hamlet had a plethora of valid, socially
acceptable reasons for killing Claudius. The fact that it was socially expected of Hamlet for him to
kill Claudius is a reflection upon human nature. The fact that it has become expected of people to
exact revenge upon their foes shows just how ingrained the concept of revenge has become into the
human psyche. In the play as well, once he is sure of Claudius' guilt, Hamlet never really
questions the need to take revenge upon Claudius, merely the proper method and timing of it. The
desire to take revenge upon one's enemies is an inseparable component of human nature. Shakespeare
knew this, and formed Hamlet around that fact.

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