Hamlet is considered by many to be the best tragedy that was ever written and staged. The character of Hamlet is even regarded as the most popular fictional character of all time. All in all, Hamlet is considered the best work of arguably the best writer in history, William Shakespeare. There are many aspects of the text from which Hamlet owes its success. One of these key aspects is the themes that can be unearthed from the text. And perhaps the most notable and obvious of all of Hamlet’s themes is the theme of vengeance. Revenge is what caused many direct actions of several main characters.
Of all of the main characters, there are three who explicitly exude vengeful motivations: King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet, and Laertes. The bulk of the narrative had revolved around the vengeful motivations of these three main characters. Moreover, the text of Hamlet portrays the concept of vengeance as a natural phenomenon in humans. Shakespeare’s portrayal of vengeance could be confirmed by the instances of conflicts in today’s world. Before we traverse further in this discussion, it is imperative that we have a definition of the term “vengeance” for this paper to have a guiding trajectory.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, vengeance is a sort of retribution inflicted for the purpose of retaliation for an offense or injury (Merriam-Webster). By considering that definition and the plot of Hamlet, we could see on trait of vengeance is that it is cyclic. When vengeance is attained it would only result to another vengeance. It also appears that another characteristic of vengeance is that it can be transmitted from one family member to another, much like a disease. King Hamlet’s ghost claims that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius.
The ghost’s words had sparked the wildfire of vengeance in Hamlet’s heart “…murder in the highest degree / as in the least tis bad / but mine most foul beastly and unattural” (Shakespeare act 1 scene 5 lines 486-488). It appears that initially, Hamlet was not filled with vengeful thoughts. It was his dead father who told him to pursue revenge. Through the ghost’s words to Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to be alluding to wars. All wars are practically fueled by revenge. We can see this especially in religious wars. If an individual of a particular has been killed in a war, other members’ of that particular will be stirred with vengeance.
The opposing forces will also undergo the same process of vengeance whenever a member of their religion is murdered in religious wars. This is the very reason why these kinds of wars are seemingly never ending and why religious extremism exists. It is also very important to note that more often than not, those who seek revenge, just like Hamlet, are stripped of other motivations like justice or principles. These maddened individuals follow the “tooth-for-a-tooth and eye-for-an-eye principle. ” A more contemporary example of vengeance as a motivation is the seemingly never ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The hostility between these countries has been on-going ever since. In fact, the hostility has been on-going for son long that these people had forgotten the roots of this war. What motivates them to fight are the deaths of their respective countrymen during conflicts (La Guardia 54) But the most popular instances of a cyclic vengeance kind of conflict are between the extremist of the Christian and Muslim religion. It important to note the use of the terms “extremist” and “extremism” in this paper, this paper is not aiming for further disputes.
Hostility between these two groups has been ever present since ancient times. Just like Hamlet, vengeance in religious extremism also seems to be stimulated by words. In the case of Hamlet those words of vengeance had come form his father’s ghost, but for religious extremists words of vengeance had spring forth their respective holy scriptures. For Christian extremists, there is a portion of the Bible which states that Israelis should exterminate individuals who worship God differently and individuals who worships a different god (Deuteronomy 13: 6-16).
For Islam extremist, vengeance is expressed in a more explicit manner “[to the]one who attacked you attack him in the same manner as he had attacked you” (Quran 2:194). In a smaller and non-religious scale, the same process of revenge is also undergone by individuals involved in clan or family wars, street gangs, mafia, fraternities and other types of organizations that are often trapped in a web of violence. Just like what the characters of Hamlet and Laertes had shown us, death of a family member often leads an individual to harbor vengeful thoughts.
Going back to the text of Hamlet, the character of Laertes had spoken about how his vengeance was fueled by Hamlet’s offense against his family “grief upon grief, my father murdered / my sister thus distracted / cursed be his sould that wrought this wicked act” (Shakespeare lines 1742-1744). Although, Hamlet did not mean to murder Laertes’ father—for Hamlet’s vengeance was targeted towards Claudius, not Laertes father Polonius—Hamlet still committed the act. As a result Hamlet becomes the target of Laertes’ vengeance.
Because of the murder of his father, Laertes expressed words of hate targeted to Hamlet. Laertes had wished for Hamlet’s soul to be taken by the devil (Shakespeare, act 5, scene 1) and had said he would even cut Hamlet’s throat even inside the church (Shakespeare, act 4 scene 7). As a concrete example of the kind of vengeance that the characters of Laertes and Hamlet had exuded, we can utilize the US-Iraq conflict. The US government had waged war against Iraq in response to the 9-11 incident.
There were many casualties during this conflict but the majority of the casualties were suffered by the side of Iraq. Again, just like Laertes and Hamlet, the quest for vengeance had rooted from the death of family members. In the case of the US-Iraq conflict, it was the deaths of their respective countrymen. Conclusion It is undeniable that the narrative of Hamlet revolved around the theme of vengeance; but is also important to note that the plot also revolved around the themes of madness and insanity.
Hamlet and Laertes had been pushed into a mad quest for vengeance because of their father’s respective murders. Moreover, the story of Hamlet seems to have no instances of the concept of “peace”. Revenge is what fueled the movie and kept it at full throttle. The audience watch the main characters act blindly because of vengeance. The conflict was only resolved when Hamlet had successfully murdered the murderer of his father. It can be interpreted that Shakespeare may have wanted to argue that as long as vengeance exist in the hearts of men, humanity can never attain true peace.
In addition to that, the character of Hamlet had exuded maddened and blinded vengeance. Hamlet’s type of vengeance could also be seen as the driving force of our time’s conflicts. If we impose a little logic to the discussion of Hamlet and vengeance, we could unearth a very useful insight. Hamlet is considered by many as the greatest and most popular tragedy of all time and vengeance is the most dominant theme of the greatest and most popular tragedy of all time. It could be inferred that vengeance is the greatest tragedy of humanity.
Courtney from Study Moose
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