The Qualities of Revenge in Hamlet
By Mark Epstein
The desire for revenge seems simple, but it gives rise to different results according to the character and choices of the avenger.
Shakespeare employs Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras as three key characters in his depiction of revenge in Hamlet. He presents the devastating results of becoming consumed with revenge, its influence on those motivated by it, and its consequences to those around the avenger. However, Shakespeare also provides Fortinbras’ search for vengeance as a foil against those who are consumed by vengeance.
Revenge evolves Hamlet throughout his quest for it. The first Hamlet we meet is a stable, albeit grief-stricken, son. He experiences confusion and even bitterness over his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to her late husband’s brother; nevertheless, he is civil and clearly in his right mind. However, upon encountering his dead father’s ghost, who informs him of his uncle’s murderous act, Hamlet begins his transformation into the cold-hearted killer who inadvertently murders Polonius with no hint of remorse. The ghost, on his way to “sulf’rous and tormenting flames” tempts him into violence and feeds Hamlet’s confusion, hate, and bitterness. Hamlet, when presented with the opportunity to punish the king with death, stops short, realizing that by killing his uncle in the act of prayer, he would send “this … villain … to heaven.” Hamlet clearly shows he seeks pure vengeance instead of justice. His true goal is for his uncle to join his father in eternal suffering. While Hamlet cautions his mother against a heart that “damnèd custom” brazes so “that it be proof and bulwark against sense,” he later appears to have experienced this same sort of hardening of the heart. When his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, betray him at the orders of King Claudius, Hamlet arranges for their deaths and reports his actions to his friend Horatio with a shocking indifference, telling him “they are not near [his] conscience.” Hamlet becomes blinded by his own pursuit of vengeance. He sees himself as the ultimate arbiter of justice, and justifies his own viciousness by his ends.
Hamlet’s disintegration to this point of evil did not occur without interruption. His desire to acquire empirical evidence of his uncle’s wrongdoing before acting exhibits his maintenance of his sense of true justice, even as he initially considered revenge. Nevertheless, when Hamlet does hurl himself into his quest, he enters with no regrets or remorse, and, as eventually joins ranks with the devil in trying to send men to hell. Unfortunately, this not only transforms Hamlet’s heart, but has devastating consequences for those surrounding him. As noted above, he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, once his childhood companions, to their deaths. He also unintentionally kills his uncle’s councilor Polonius, resulting in the madness and eventual death of his previous romantic interest, Polonius’s daughter Ophelia.
Laertes, unlike Hamlet, instantly boils over at the news of his father Polonius’s death, jumping into action in pursuit of vengeance. Laertes “becomes in an instant everything Hamlet took several acts to become,” as Peter Leithart puts it, descending into a malicious and self-justifying quest for blood. He declares “that both the worlds [he gives] to negligence, let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father,” meaning that he cares nothing about the consequences in this world or the next for his actions. As he exacts his revenge, prompted by the murderous Claudius, bodies accumulate across the stage. As with Hamlet, through Laertes Shakespeare clearly demonstrates that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and that the true reward of their all-consuming revenge is death. Laertes’s scheming with Claudius results in the deaths of Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother), Claudius, Hamlet, and of Laertes himself in the final scene. Laertes does not start out as an enemy of hell, claiming to care nothing of the world to come, and, in his hatred, he becomes a great ally of it through the destruction of his revenge.
Fortinbras, son of the king of Norway, remains the final revenge-seeker. Shakespeare parallels Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras throughout the play. The three are all sons working to gain revenge for their fathers. Nevertheless, while Hamlet and Laertes end the play in pools of blood, Fortinbras stands to gain a kingdom. A distinction does appear to be present between Fortinbras on the one hand and Hamlet and Laertes on the other. Hamlet and Laertes openly forfeit their souls, essentially volunteering themselves as tools of the devil as they exact revenge out of pain and hatred. One could argue that although Fortinbras sought revenge, his heart’s focus was on justice for his father and his country, which had lost land to Denmark. Although Fortinbras does initially threaten Denmark with invasion, seeking to regain land lost by his father, when rebuked by his uncle, he agrees to return to Norway. He peacefully travels back through Denmark, honors the agreement against conflict, and forgoes his attempt at revenge, thus demonstrating that his soul is not consumed or destroyed with vengeance.
With Fortinbras, Shakespeare clearly illustrates Proverbs 20:22, where Solomon proclaims, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.” When Fortinbras yields his hopes for revenge, his revenge is carried out by others. As he passes through Denmark, the entire royal family implodes and Hamlet restores Fortinbras’s father’s lands to him, appointing him the next king of Denmark. While Hamlet and Laertes drown in devastating hatred, Fortinbras keeps a clear mind and avoids the consequences they face. One must be mindful of the condition of his heart, keeping his sense of justice from turning into consuming vengeance.
Mark Epstein is a 17-year-old homeschool student. He enjoys writing, mathematics, music, languages, government, and debate; his hobbies include distance running, reading, mountain biking, and airsoft, and this year he is trying moot court. He is considering undergraduate studies in law and government.