Essay Title: Explore the concept of revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
In the Elizabethan era revenge was an important issue; this was a popular theme in the theatre and a main plot of the day. Shakespeare’s plays were in great demand by the public and had a great effect on the audiences who watched. Although most of the Elizabethan revenge plays were set in Italy or Spain the Elizabethan was still able to grasp the concept of the issues that were being raised in the play and was able to apply these issues to their daily living.
Shakespeare was greatly influenced by the classical Roman dramatist Seneca; Shakespeare applied Seneca’s ideas to his work. This is because the structure and the plot of Seneca’s work were of such a high standard that Seneca became well known.
Many revenge tragedies consists of a typical structure which, when analysed is found to be comprised of five parts which are as follows:
Exposition – this is usually shown through the image of a ghost who motivates the character to take revenge.
Anticipation – this is where a planning of the revenge takes place.
Confrontation – This occurs between the avenger and the proposed victim.
Delay – The avenger has doubts as to whether or not he or she should carry out the murder.
Completion – this is the finale, which often concludes with the death of the revenger.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet there are two main plots, that is the main plot and the sub- plot.
In the main plot of the play, Hamlet is commanded by the ghost of his father to seek revenge for his death.
Before Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost Hamlet had no real motive of his own to seek revenge for the death of his father, as he was unaware of the cause. However, during this encounter the ghost says: -
“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Act 1 Sc5 Line25)
This is where the tragedy begins, Hamlet is unsure of what to do at this point, as he wants to do the right thing for his father. The ghost explains the events of his murder to Hamlet.
“O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? And shall I couple hell? Oh fie! Hold, hold, my heart,” (Act 1 Sc5 Line 92-93)
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This shocks and appals Hamlet. This is evident through the language and punctuation that Shakespeare uses to express Hamlet’s surprise and disgust of his uncle’s betrayal
Hamlet has many questions in which he needed answering, as he does not understand why the death of his father has happened, he seeks to get his questions answered of how to seek revenge from a spiritual realm as he feels God has forsaken him.
“Ay so, God bye to you. Now I am alone.” (Act2 Sc2 Line 501)
Hamlet is indecisive as to what action to take, he vows to the ghost never to speak to anyone of their encounter or their conversation. With his newfound information, Hamlet now had to find evidence that Claudius committed the murder. The ghost of Hamlet’s father instigates Hamlets drive for revenge.
From then on, Hamlet’s behaviour towards other people changes causing him to act strangely with everyone. He speaks in riddles for example, he withdraws people in society so that he is not asked any personal questions, which may cause him to declare he is looking for revenge, especially by Marcellus and Horatio who have also seen the ghost and are eager to find out who it was and what it required of Hamlet. Marcellus and Hortatio have been sworn to secrecy, not to speak of what they have seen. If they do see Hamlet acting strangely they are not to show any knowledge of why this is happening.
At this point Hamlet begins to feign his madness in order as part of his revenge tactic so that he can “buy time” to find out if Claudius committed this murder or not.
“Why what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of the dear murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore un pack my heart with words and fall a – cursing like a very drab, A scullion!” (Act 2 Sc 2)
Hamlet is ashamed of his own inaction. This is because he needed to be clear with his intentions as to what his motives are.
Hamlet is now playing on his madness in order to catch his uncle’s conscience; as another revenge tactic Hamlet puts on a play which re-enacts the story of his father’s death. This use of reverse psychology does work as Hamlet and Horatio notice Claudius’ uneasy behaviour as the play progresses.
Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy also uses the technique of a play within a play in order to inform the Spanish King, Viceroy and the Duke of Castile of the events, which have occurred (Act 4 Sc 1). As for Hamlet, he does this so that he can investigate the reaction of Claudius. Hamlet wants to distinguish the fact as to whether or not Claudius is guilty of his father’s murder. The ghost informs Hamlet as to what happened the night he was murdered and he is told to seek revenge.
“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Act1 Sc5)
Despite evidence to suggest Claudius is guilty and the desperate words of Hamlet’s father’s ghost convicting Claudius of the murder, Hamlet’s own conscience causes him to have second thoughts about killing his uncle. He ponders over his eternal consequences after death. Claudius is aware of what Hamlet is trying to achieve and knows he is feigning his madness. Claudius knows the reason why Hamlet has been acting this way and is threatened by this, as he knows he stands a chance of losing every thing. Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England because he fears he is a threat to everyone because if his madness so he wants every one to believe. Claudius has ulterior motives. He plans later in the plot with Laertes to have Hamlet killed.
When Hamlet returns home from England he argues that his reasons for revenge are well justified. Hamlet expresses his regret in actions towards Laertes, he acknowledges that Laertes is seeking revenge and he understands him as a fellow avenger.
“That to Laertes I forgot myself, For by the images of my cause, I see The portraiture of his. I’ll court his favours. But sure the bravery of his grief did put me Into a towering passion” (Act 5 Scene 2 Line 76- 80)
The second plot, which is the sub-plot of the play, is with relation to Laertes who wants to seek revenge for the death of his father and sister at the hand of Hamlet.
While Hamlet is feigning in sanity, without any motive he kills someone who was spying on his mother who was in private room who turns out to be Polonius. This careless action or reaction also results in the death of Hamlet’s love and Laertes’ sister Ophelia.
When Ophelia was told the tragic news of her father’s death, she was deeply affected mentally this consequently resulted in her insanity. Laertes is very vengeful as he returns from his voyage to find his sister in this strange state of mind and his father dead. Laertes turns to Claudius in his despair. Claudius attempts to calm Leartes down by reassuring him it was not him who committed the murder of his father but they together can investigate who is responsible for this even though he knows the main suspect.
“Like a good child and a true gentleman. That I am guiltless of your father’s death, and am most sensibly in grief for it, it shall as level to your judgement pierce As day does your eye” (Act 4 Sc 5)
The feud has now begun with Laertes, with his duty to avenge the death of his father. Laertes visits his sister and is daunted by the extent of her madness. This disturbs Laertes greatly and becomes his main focus that is, seeking revenge for the monstrous act, which has taken place.
Claudius has his personal grudge against Hamlet and comes up with a plan of how Laertes can seek his revenge on Hamlet, which concludes with his death. Claudius plans for Alerts and Hamlet to have a duel, but he plans on sabotaging the duel by having one of the swords without a blunt. Laertes bids to poison the tip of the sword to ensure that Hamlet’s death is certain. Claudius agrees to this, as he believes it is the way to secure all that he has at stake, as Hamlet knows about the murder of the late king.
At this point of the play revenge dominates many characters causing the dramatic tension to be very intense with both the plot and sub plot. The play is now at it its climax, leaving the audience in suspense as to what is going to happen next.
In both plots the main characters want to seek their revenge, Laertes on Hamlet and Hamlet on Claudius. When looked at in depth both Hamlet and Laertes have a link with Claudius. Hamlet wants his revenge on Claudius; but also Laertes who wants revenge on Hamlet is used by Claudius to remove Hamlet.
At this point of the play Shakespeare shows the consequences of revenge through multiple tragic events. Firstly Claudius asks Hamlet if he will duel with Laertes, he accepts. Hamlet apologises for the murder of his father and also Laertes accepts. They begin their duel. Claudius offers to order wine in celebration of Hamlets triumph Hamlet declines the drink, but Gertrude drinks from the cup unaware that it is poison. As the two continue to duel Hamlet gets wounded they exchange swords, Claudius was unaware that this was going to happen and Laertes is then wounded. Claudius believes his plot is going to plan not knowing that Laertes and Hamlet have settled their differences as Leartes reveals deceitful plan. Hamlet is livid at this precise moment with Claudius as he wounds him and forces him to drink form the poisonous cup. Claudius dies shortly after Leartes and finally Hamlet who declares Fortinbras to be his choice for king.
In concluding it would be fair to say this revenge tragedy is more about questions than answers. (AOL.co.uk: Search: Shakespeare’s revenge) Although the play is dominated by revenge Shakespeare devotes the climax of the play to the consequences of seeking revenge. The character of Hamlet was presented as a great and noble figure that suffered a great deal after his father died to the point of where he lost every thing including his mind. This suffering is evident from the beginning of the play and continues throughout as Hamlet is faced with making some difficult decisions. To make his situation worse he loses his chance for the throne, which was his birthright, his mother, Ophelia, friends and his peace of mind. Hamlet experiences a tremendous down fall and recognises that there is satisfaction in getting revenge however, he continues to seek revenge.
From a moral standpoint revenge is seen as an immoral act as it is seen as seeking personal justice which is socially unacceptable however, it is also a human instinct which requires a great deal of self control to gainsay . Some people resort to revenge based on the theory of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” which they believe justifies their actions before God. Criminals still use this as a way of defending “honour” today even though seeking your own revenge is illegal.
The plot in Hamlet draws us in to the play, which allows the reader to think deeply about the issues that have been raised about morality as the play questions moral goodness. This is where Hamlet comes face to face with the fact that we as humans are all going to die regardless of wealth or class.
Although Hamlet was set in the Elizabethan era, the issues raised in this essay are still relevant to a contemporary audience. The issues were as relevant then as they are today.