Last Updated 19 Jan 2023

Duality of the Revenge in the Play Hamlet

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The Obligation To Avenge Is Truly A Cursed Spite He Who Ignores It Is A Coward He Who Accepts It Is A Murderer

Whilst an audience would feel Hamlet must follow his visceral feelings and exact a bloody revenge, there is also the moral issue that both a viewer and Hamlet must wrestle with in order to make a decision over whether the death of a murdering, incestuous Uncle is necessary. From the time the audience hears of his intentions they feel sympathetic towards his cause even though he is to commit a chilling crime. This is best explained by Francis Bacon, the writer of Of Revenge who states that revenge is a kind of wilde justice and:

The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs, which there is no law to remedy

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There are surely no greater wrongs than killing a brother and a King in one fell swoop, but there are other motives for this revenge, primarily honor. It is the ghost of Hamlets father whom fuels revenge in the early stages of the play, he urges Hamlet to abandon all nature, a euphemism for morality, and kill Claudius in order to release the spirit from purgatory in a similar manner to Claudius the ghost asks Hamlet to turn his love into actions:

Ghost: If thou didst ever thy father love

Hamlet: O God!

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder

However Hamlet is an introspective character who does not know whether to trust the ghost of his father, which, according to Sir Walter Murdoch leads to intense psychological pain through his obsession for gathering information to prove or disprove Claudius guilt. However it can also be argued that Hamlet, despite his desire to extract revenge against Claudius, is also actively looking for means with which to relieve himself from the stress and protect his morale and religious principles that harboring this obsession causes him, even if seeking psychological refuge in such ways might mean forfeiting this endeavor. This would relieve him from an impossible dilemma and free him from the feeling of cowardice.

An example of this fixation of proving the murder of his father is the re-enactment of the crime through the play within the play in order to catch the conscience of the King. This is undertaken by Hamlet, as he does not wish to be seen as a coward, but at the same time wishes to find out if the ghost was simply a hallucination triggered by his hatred of his Uncle. He proves his Uncles guilt through the watching of facial expression and his reaction afterwards is of strong elation:

O good Horatio, Ill take the ghosts word for a thousand pounds. Didst perceive?

Very well my lord

Upon the talk of poisoning?

I did very well note him.

Aha! Come, some music; come the recorders.

For if the King like not the comedy.

Why then, belike he likes it not perdie

However this is also a good example of procrastination, Hamlet is aware that he is caught in a situation, where he is to abandon his morale values, either his honor, or his visceral directions, which will label him murderer if he honors his father, or coward if he does not, his morality and religion appear to hold him back. Normally the role of the avenger is cursed, he must sully his hands in order to purge the court although with reference to religion, it would appear that the Gods are on his side, Hamlet is struck by the fortunes of fate, for example the coincidental meeting with the players or the finding of the commission heading to England, this prevents Hamlet from dying at the hands of two friends. A parallel can be drawn here with Tourneurs The Revengers Tragedy, where Vindice encounters many happy coincidences; every stage of his journey is blessed with the divinity of chance.

Whilst some critics argue that Hamlet was paralysed by the pale cast of thought in order to increase the duration of the play, it must be stated that it provides an interesting contrast with the impulsive Laertes. Some see his revenge as ideal, for he explicitly dismisses the highest obligations that rule human conduct and these morals are usurped by revenge, in a similar way to Claudius claiming the throne:

To hell allegiance! Vows to the blackest devill

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,

That both the worlds I give to negligence,

Let come what comes, only Ill be revenged

Most thoroughly for my father

These two characters differ on one major aspect, thought. Whilst Hamlet intricately plots and studies Claudius in order to make sure the Ghost was not a hallucination brought about by his hatred of his Uncle. Laertes acts swiftly in order to prevent the intrusion of morality. This is the main downfall of an avenger, thought, Hamlet was able to act quickly in order to dispose of the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as the unfortunate Polonius, without consideration of the moral implications, similarly with Laertes who when asked how he would transform his hatred more than in words he replies to cut his throat ithe church. However, Hamlet, in comparison, is a deeply introspective character who wishes to be spared from the agonizing possibility of engaging in a crime that violates many moral, political and religious principles according to Sir Walter Murdoch.

The protestant Elizabethan people as a whole, although deeply religious, would view the matter in a similar fashion to Laertes, that justice should be brought about through the death of the villain. One might consider that Shakespeare based Laertes upon Queen Elizabeth, who proved that she was not prepared to reason with moral implications until after she had exacted revenge. For example in dealing with the Essex rebellion she had a personal friend killed, Lord Essex, in order to ensure that somebody paid for her inconvenience. The people were particularly keen on watching people pay for their misdoings Marchette Chute, author of Shakespeare of London writes:

Apart from the excellent shops, the great single magnet was the law courts During each of the law terms, especially the autumn term of the michaelmas, the population of London swelled like the tidal flow of its own Thames

This is evidence that the courts were a source of great pleasure and that the fate of the criminals was of interest to the people of London, where Shakespeare lived. In Hamlets case it would have been viewed as an unavoidable inevitability that Claudius would be killed due to the strong bond between families. He gave his word to his father and a fathers wish was to be exacted perfectly. G.B.Harrison states that there was a significant sense of loyalty and devotion amongst families, if Hamlet had not killed Claudius he would have been viewed in a similar light to Polonius whom abandoned his integrity by discussing his sons exploits with somebody outside the family, he accused his own blood of visiting brothels which were frowned upon, although quite popular amongst the Elizabethan people.

Politically the play would have had many references to Shakespearean England, where the court was dominated by corruption and plotting in a similar manner to that of Denmark in Hamlet. This is highlighted through the treatment of the Duke of Essex, along with many other high-powered figures. Hamlet takes up a stance equal to that of the Queen, as both were attempting to purge the court, yet Hamlet does not have the strength to do so. The ruthless Laertes would have been viewed as a stronger character than the methodical Hamlet for his cowardice would not appeal to the values of the Elizabethan man, Laertes crime would be seen as acceptable, due to the similar stance taken by political figures such as the Queen whom would almost certainly exact revenge upon the incestuous villain Claudius.

On the other hand a modern audience would take a completely different stance, Laertes sudden rage, is seen as a veil that overshadows all reasonable thought according to Sir Walter Murdoch, this is perceived nowadays as a crime of murder as the title suggests. However, Hamlets procrastination is not seen as cowardice but more as a consolidation of the Christian doctrine. George Bernard Shaw states in Back To Methuselah:

He has evolved into the Christian perception of futility and wickedness of revenge and punishment, founded on the simple fact that two blacks do not make a white.

Although Hamlet asks himself Am I a coward? this would seem to appeal more to an Elizabethan audience who would be able to empathize more with the necessity of killing his Uncle, and would view his hesitation as a form of cowardice. An audience watching the play today however would be sympathetic with Hamlets desire but the moral standards applied in the twenty-first century would view the crime as murder and his procrastination would not be cowardly. In this manner, as the title suggests it is a cursed spite as he would be scorned upon by both audiences, but at the time Shakespeare wrote the play the audience would welcome Hamlets need to fulfill his promise to his father.

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