Revenge in Hamlet

Revenge can take a toll on the human heart and can make the most innocent preform actions they wouldn’t even think upon. In Hamlet by William Shakespeare revenge, whether justifiable or not lies in the heart of the aggrieved party and what they make of the situation. Hamlet goes on throughout the journey finding the murderer of his fathers death. Revenge can change the kind hearted into mad thinking. Revenge is very evident, whether justifiable is a claim that one would have to know what public and private revenge is and whether which is right in each circumstance, its objective rather than subjective and very dependent on one belief. Can it be acceptable and what leads to such vice against one’s kin? The wonder is whether public betrayal can be justifiable by any means of Hamlets actions throughout the play.

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the issue of revenge is portrayed, and it mainly takes the central theme in the play. In the play, Hamlet is on a journey of revenge, a quest to find out the truth about who killed his father and get revenge on them. During the pursuit, Hamlet has to test who his real friends are, where the truth lies and ways in which he can best take revenge on his father’s murderer. One fact that is visible however about revenge, even from Hamlet is the power of revenge to drive even the kindest and innocent people into cruel and inhuman acts. Revenge is like a disease; once conceived, it respects no personal values of an individual or their character. In a way, it always gets its way regardless of the outcomes. It can turn one against friends and even family. It is, therefore, a debatable question of whether revenge is justifiable. Is there an excuse for turning into evil deeds just because one is hurt? Sometimes, to understand why revenge might seem to be necessary, it is essential to look at the motives and reasons behind it. This can at least play a part in explaining why Hamlet found it necessary to avenge his father in any way possible, even when it meant slaying his kin. This might explain the motives, but not necessarily justify the act.

Hamlet as a play is centered on a revenge theme. The story of Hamlet revolves around his quest to find the murderers of his father, who was King. This quest brings him to truths that he was probably not ready for when he started his journey, but still have to end what he started. This play has defined vengeance as a way of punishing an individual in return for an undesirable deed done to oneself. Revenge is often a result of bitterness.

Revenge is not an isolated case that occurs to just a target group of people, It is what many would term as universal, and it can be triggered in anyone despite their behavioral background. In Hamlet, it is not only Hamlet who is driven by the thought of vengeance, but also other characters as well. It is just a natural way of responding to those who hurt them. In the quest of gaining revenge, people tend to change their old ways, apparently until the mission is done. This is because nothing seems to get them the satisfaction they need apart from inflicting pain on those who hurt them. They defy everyone who stands on their way, leading to the harming or even killing of people who were not involved in the initial plan.

The motives behind Hamlet’s revenge quest are quite noble, and what many would excuse as an acceptable motivation for vengeance. He set on a journey to avenge his father, which shows him as a loyal son who would do all it takes to punish those who murdered his father.  However, does this reason alone justify the acts involved in his mission? Does his motive give him a right to kill? The answer to this question should be from a moral perspective which points out that no matter what the reason behind revenge might be, the results are not worth it. In Hamlet, the hero spends most of the time unable to avenge his father by killing his murderer, Claudius. This leads to the death of many people, and in the end, when Hamlet finally manages to kill Claudius, the satisfaction he was hoping for remains unachieved.

One of the incidences that triggered Hamlet’s urge to revenge is the appearance of his father’s ghost. The ghost appears to Hamlet and a couple of his friends and tells him that Claudius, his brother poisoned his father. It also expresses its dissatisfaction with Hamlet’s mother for getting married to Claudius. The ghost is not perceived as a lousy spirit since all it does is tell Hamlet the truth. It also advises him not to confront his mother, and instead of revenging on her he should leave it to heaven. The ghost at first appears to a duo of soldiers, who are initially terrified, but later decide to listen to it, noticing the figure of the slain king. Another remarkable character of the ghost in Hamlet is its humble nature, seen even in the way it addresses the soldiers, and later Hamlet. The spirit does not intimidate the soldiers or Hamlet into taking revenge but instead asks him to do it. This shows that the ghost had no evil intentions. Hamlet proves this after testing Claudius and finding out that he is indeed guilty for the murder of his father, and that the ghost was telling the truth.

The ghost warns Hamlet of Claudius, who it describes as adulterate and evil, and his ability to pretend to be good and seduce. “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, 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. O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there, from me, whose love was of that dignity. That it went hand in hand even with the vow, I made to her in marriage, and to decline. Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor. To those of mine!” (Act 1 Scene 5) This quote from the ghost portrays it as a bitter spirit, not particularly evil. The ghost manipulates itself in the king’s full armor, not as a scary spirit, an image that works further to magnify its good qualities.



Revenge as a concept can occur in two realms. Private revenge refers to a kind of revenge that arises in the secrecy of a few people. The primary purpose behind this type of revenge is because it needs less justification due to the few witnesses involved.  In the play, Hamlet arranges to avenge his father, but he involves just a few of his close friends in some of his plans, including the encounter with his father’s ghost. His intentions seem to scare some of those close to him. “We sense that Hamlets early surrender to rage can only lead to chaos and destruction, but that his later serenity is somehow his salvation, in short, we sense that the desire to inflict private punishment can only lead to evil” (Prosser 254) secondary source.

Public revenge, on the other hand, is meant to serve the purpose of entertaining by involving more people in witnessing it. This kind of revenge is mostly used when the motives of the person performing it are fair and appealing to the majority of the public since it is more prone to justification. In the play, Hamlet hatches a plan to find out whether Claudius was indeed guilty of killing his father by putting up a fake play. “He poisons him I’ the’ garden for his estate…You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife” (Act 3 Scene 2) Claudius’ reaction proves that he was indeed guilty, thus, revenging his father is justified at this point.

The experiment to find out the validity of the ghost’s claims takes place to test whether the ghost was sincere in its allegations. Hamlet, with the help of a group of players perform a play dubbed The Murder of Gonzago. In this play, Hamlet adds some scenes meant to recreate his father’s murder as the ghost had described. Claudius reacts in a way that shows the play strikes his conscience. This reaction makes Hamlet believe the ghost’s words as noble, “The spirit that I have seen. Maybe a devil, and the devil hath power. T’ assume a pleasing shape – yea, perhaps. Out of my weakness and my melancholy” (Act

2 Scene 2)

In Act three Scene three of the play, Claudius, wary of his evil deeds confesses to an empty stage, “O’ My offense is rank.” This shows that since he is portrayed as a villain, the guilt of his actions still haunted him. Finally, when it’s his day of reckoning, he asks to be forgiven; however, his plea is not heeded upon since he rejects the offer to give up his crown in return. “My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer. Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?. That cannot be; since I am still possessed. Of those effects

for which I did the murder, My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardoned ‘d? and retain the offence? In the corrupted currents of this world. Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself. Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;” (Act 3 Scene 3) This scenario alone brings about a picture of a man haunted by his deeds, probably one worth forgiving, but again a man who is not ready to give up his old ways of lust and greed. This contradicts the initial urge to offering him forgiveness.

The acts of revenge in Hamlet are visible in more than one character. Besides Hamlet who is in a mission to avenge his father’s death, there are a few other characters in the play who are in similar quests, some with more justifiable motivations than others. After confirming the ghost’s story, Hamlet confronts his mother for her infidelity. Polonius, who is loyal to Claudius comes to, but Hamlet kills him thinking it was the king. This death, followed by the resulting destruction of  Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter hurts Laertes (Polonius’ son) who comes after Hamlet after Claudius incites him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Act 1 Scene 5)

The urge of these two characters to revenge changes them in very great ways. Hamlet, in a quest to avenge his father treats his girlfriend in a hostile way, an act that leads her into committing suicide. It also makes him a murderer, responsible for the deaths of many people, including innocent ones such as Polonius. This quest makes both Hamlet and Laertes lose people close to them, a price that is arguably incomparable to their vengeance urges. The impulse to avenge his father changes Hamlet in ways he notices “It appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” (Act 2 Scene 2).

A hero in any literary text is expected to display and maintain certain moral sanity throughout the plot. However, Hamlet is a hero driven more by his need for revenge than displaying commendable moral conduct. His deeds in the text are probably meant to hide the fact that his goal is to take revenge. “Hero’s detached soliloquies exceed in profundity and poetry anything the theater had ever heard, make the madness the revenge is supposed to feign to conceal his purposes an occasion for paradoxical wit and cynical philosophy as well as a symptom of the hero’s mental anguish” – (312 Hudson review). The quest to avenge King Hamlet’s death has been justified in the text, mainly due to the evil nature of his murder, as well as the overall conduct of King Claudius who refuses to reform as the plot develops. This makes revenge an acceptable punishment for him. This shows that for the innocent, revenging against evil deeds by evil people can be justified.

There is no doubt that Hamlet is the hero in his quest for revenge in the text. From the beginning of the story, Hamlet relies on his instincts, going beyond limits to find his truth and find a valid reason to avenge his father, instead of just acting as a result of the ghost’s words. Hamlet then sets off to a journey of vengeance, unsure of whether it was right to kill Claudius. His indecisiveness on whether or not to revenge costs the death of several people. Eventually, he makes up his mind and revenge by killing Claudius and giving away the crown.  The ability to trust his wits instead of relying on other peoples’ opinions makes him the master of his destiny; a true hero in his quest.

The wonder is whether public betrayal can be justifiable by any means of Hamlets actions throughout the play. It is evident from Hamlet that revenge, whether justifiable or not should be the ultimate answer to reacting to evil people. Revenge is capable of changing even the most innocent and kind among people into savage beasts. In the end, the revenger remains guilty just like the person they were trying to punish. It is therefore not fair to justify any reason for revenge. Indulging in acts of vengeance will only put one in a more bottomless emotional pit than they were eventually, as a result of doing things they would not have typically done.