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According to American author Jodi Picoult, “When you begin a journey of revenge, start by digging two graves: one for your enemy, and one for yourself.” Those who decide to embark on a path of vengeance must be cautious because not only will the guilty be condemned but the innocent will condemn themselves. In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet becomes consumed with his plans for seeking revenge on Claudius in honor of his late father. Hamlet’s drive roots in his father’s ghost manifesting before him and explaining that he was murdered by Claudius via poison as opposed to a snake bite.
From then on, Hamlet debates himself on the morality of taking a life for the sake of vengeance. Internal conflict soon sprouts in Hamlet due to several reasons and regarding finally taking action in his murderous quest. Through irony and character foils, Shakespeare illuminates the fact that no one wins in the game of revenge, and it will only end with devastating consequences for all.
To begin, Hamlet battles with his religious views as they disagree with the motives behind his path of destruction. In the play’s first act, Hamlet exclaims, “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” while delivering a soliloquy about his disdainful new family situation (I.ii.131-132). Hamlet is contemplating suicide despite the unholiness attached to taking one’s own life during that time period; however, he doesn’t go through with it because he fears God’s disapproval.
Revealing Hamlet’s struggle between his religious beliefs and what is called for avenging his father’s death gives the audience a better understanding of his frustrated inner thoughts as he deciphers his will to kill Claudius for his father but at the cost of his relationship with the Father. This life-or-death decision leads Hamlet to procrastinate coming to a final consensus. Eventually, Hamlet concludes in the third act that he needs to kill Claudius but realizes “a villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” once he sees Claudius is praying (III.iii.76-78).
Hamlet’s goal is to send Claudius to hell where he belongs which cannot happen if Hamlet kills him while he is praying. Determined to seek his revenge as Claudius partakes in sinful behavior, Hamlet delays his deadly deed yet again so that he has more time to contemplate what he plans to do. As Voltaire best states it, “all men have a sense of justice imprinted on their hearts and naturally wish that heaven would interest itself in the cause of innocence; in every age, therefore, and in every nation, they will behold with pleasure the Supreme Being engaged in the punishment of crimes which could not come within the reach of human laws. This is a consolation to the weak and a restraint on the insolence and obstinacy of the powerful.” 1 Since Hamlet’s father appeared to him as a ghost begging for his assistance, he took it upon himself to discipline Claudius rather than wait for a greater, invisible force to distribute his just deserts. By wasting these lengthy periods of time to weigh the justification of his retaliating murder and hope that an outstanding power does it for him, Hamlet proves to the audience that revenge is not worth the pressure and anxiety constantly looming overhead because the result is bound to deteriorate both the person committing the act as well as the person receiving the consequences.
Hamlet is further shamed by the political situation with Norway in which he sees some circumstances similar to his. He becomes aware of his sustaining cowardliness and does not know “why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do [i]t” after discovering the army of Fortinbras (prince—now king—of Norway) marching towards Poland to battle over a worthless piece of land (IV.iv.46-48). Between recognizing the abundant opportunities he had for carrying out his mission and Fortinbras’s dedication to obtaining an insignificant piece of land in the name of his father, Hamlet reflects on his persistent lack of action and understands that he must decide whether or not he will finally execute his plots for revenge. Hamlet declares to himself, “When honor’s at the stake…how stand I…[to] have a father killed, a mother stained” (IV.iv.58-59). Fortinbras is the character foil to Hamlet in the sense that they both lost their fathers and are in the process of vengeance; in contrast, Fortinbras undertook his father’s royal position and began his conquests for his country without hesitation whereas Hamlet allowed his uncle to take his rightful crown and was inert with his plans for a prolonged time span. In continuation, the obvious fact that Fortinbras is the mirror image of the oblivious Hamlet triggers his decision of having his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (IV.iv.68). Hamlet’s ashamed feelings soon morph into determination of committing his restless revenge because Fortinbras’s path encouraged him to take the violent route to make the vengeance of his father’s death worthwhile.
Moreover, Hamlet morals greatly suffer due to his quest of retaliation because he is so focused on executing the murder of Claudius that he is unconscious of his ways that are equally treacherous and reprehensible. In the third act of the play, Hamlet speaks with his mother in her bed chambers as Polonius hides behind a tapestry. Polonius’s presence is unknown to Hamlet until he hears something from that direction in which Hamlet immediately pulls out his sword and sheathes the King’s councilor’s to death. Little did he know, it was actually Polonius eavesdropping on their conversation instead of Claudius as Hamlet had expected. This action reveals the difference in personality of Hamlet since the beginning of the play because he wouldn’t have so rashly decided to stab an unidentified person up until this point. Transforming from a person too fearful to take his own life to someone who is willing to murder anyone who prevents him from avenging his father’s death is a dramatic character change in Hamlet. Displaying no guilt for his immoral deed against Polonius, it is ironic that Hamlet tells Claudius to “seek [Polonius] i[n] th[e] other place yourself” (IV.iii.35-36).
Assuming both Claudius and Polonius are destined to hell for their sins, it never occurs to Hamlet that he will be joining them for murdering another person and eventually many more. Shakespeare includes this irony so the audience has a clear representation of the detrimental distortion that vengeance can cause to a person. George Steevens makes the point that “Though he assassinated Polonius by accident, yet he deliberately procures the execution of his schoolfellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who appear to have been unacquainted with the treacherous purposes of the mandate which they were employed to carry. Their death (as he declares in a subsequent conversation with Horatio) gives him no concern, for they obtruded themselves into the service, and he thought he had a right to destroy them. He is not less accountable for the distraction and death of Ophelia.” 2 As one can observe, Hamlet has completely forgotten about the ones who mean the most to him (his childhood friends, his true love, etc.) and become consumed with his ruthless plan of reprisal that lacks all of his previous morals.
Similarly noted earlier, Shakespeare incorporates another character foil to Hamlet to expose his absolute downfall. At the end of the fifth act, both Laertes and Hamlet were poisoned, yet it is solely Laertes who pleads for Hamlet’s forgiveness by saying, “Hamlet, thou art slain…exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, nor thine on me” (V.ii.321,336-338). Laertes’s motive for wanting to kill Hamlet was also to avenge his father’s death; however, he has a moral superiority over Hamlet because he possesses the ability to forgive and be the bigger person. This foil of Hamlet’s demonstrates virtue and human decency with his dying words despite Hamlet’s absent apology and murdering of Laertes’s father along with indirectly causing Ophelia’s suicide. Unlike Laertes, Hamlet does not experience an epiphany before his life’s termination and therefore, dies an immoral person. Resolute to seek vengeance on Claudius in honor of his father’s death, Hamlet ceases to grapple his morals whilst destroying his entire life as well as others’.
In summary, throughout Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet is continuously searching for the answer of whether it is righteous or not to seek revenge on Claudius for secretly murdering his father, the previous king of Denmark. With many religious, moral, and political aspects for Hamlet to consider while deciding his plan of retaliation, he postpones his act of wrath until the very end. Dedicating an immense amount of time to this act of retribution demolishes Hamlet’s life in the process and ultimately leads to his demise. Incorporating literary devices such as irony and character foils, Shakespeare highlights the ruthlessness of revenge, demonstrating to his audience that all reprisal ends in disaster, making it wiser for one to forgive and move on with life rather than “keep his own wounds green.”
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