Hamlet's revenge

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How is the theme of Revenge shown through Hamlet and Laertes and how do their attitudes differ towards Revenge?

-- Sarah-jane Steggles (Sarah-Jane.Steggles@staugustines.edin.sch.uk), January 09, 2003


If you've read/watched the play, and understand the question, you probably don't need us to tell you that Hamlet wants vengeance against Claudius for killing his father and King, usurping the throne, marrying his mother (with all that that enails!), and, towards the end, for getting elected King when Hamlet wanted to be; Laertes wants vengeance against Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius, and for being (as Laertes sees it) responsible for his sister Ophelia's madness and death.

Now, why not have a look at other questions in the forum on Hamlet &/vs Laertes, and action/inaction, decision/indecision? Then pop back here if you need any help.

One suggestion, though: you might want to consider how and by whom each character is pushed to take revenge, and of course the relative social and political positions of Claudius and Hamlet who are to be the victims of vengeance. Because these points have a helluva lot of impact on how Hamlet and Laertes each deal with the notion of 'Revenge'.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 11, 2003.

Revenge plays a critical role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Hamlet and Lartes both seek revenge on each other for their father’s deaths. Hamlet blames Lartes because he was the King partner in crime against his father’s reign as king. Lartes know Hamlet killed his father with no real motive for doing so just out of anger. Lartes is also angry at Hamlet because of his relationship with his sister. Both Hamlet and Lartes are surrounded by much dramtic action in the play causing hard feelings and resentment of each other. Lartes exibits much hostile behavior to Hamlet some of witch Hamlet mirrors. Hamlet and Lartes both seek revenge against each other for various things in the play. In Shakesphere’s Hamlet, Lartes seeks revenge on Hamlet. The element of revenge is seen in Lartes speech often throughout the play. “How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with. To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the words I give to negligence, Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged Most thoroughly for my father.”( Hamlet Lines 127-133 Laretes pg.75) In this lines, Laretes had just been told of his father’s death by the King and Queen. Larestes knows at this point in the play that his father life has been taking by another but he does not know by who. Laertes, in these lines, shares his surprise of the madness. Then later, Laertes shares his anger and hostile about his father’s death. Laertes reflects to the audience how deep seeded his angry is in his soul. Laertes tells the audience that he will seek revenge for his father’s death against who ever caused it. Hamlet tells Laertes that he is sorry for the death of his father, just before Laertes speaks the quote below. Hamlet tells Laertes that he did not kill his father that his madness did and he to was a enemy of his madness. Hamlet speaks to Laertes as a friend and brother trying to console him. “I am satisfied in nature, Whose motive in this cause should stir me most To my revenge. But in my terms of honor I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement Till by some mastels of know honor I have a voice and precedent of peace. To keep my name ungored.”(lines 218-224 pg. 97) Laertes speaks these lines to Hamlet responding to what Hamlet has just said. Laertes tells Hamlet that in these line that in his nature he is sound in mind but how ever the murder of his father is a disturbing thing for a man to bear. Laertes finds no rest in his father’s death. Laertes must do something to give him peace and to keep his reputation untarnished. Charles Boyce states “Laertes: charater in Hamelt, son of Polonius, who seeks vengeance against Hamlet for his father’s murder.”(pg.258) Larestes seeks revenge on Hamlet not only for the death of his father but for the relationship Hamlet has with Opheila, Laertes’s sister. The following lines from scene I V, vii demonstrate this point. Opheila has just sung a song about a dead lover and exited the room. In this part of the play, Opheila is considered insane by those around her. When Laretes makes the following statement to the King. “And I so have I a noble father lost, A sister into desp’rate terms, Whose worth, if praises may go back again, Stood challenger on mount of all the age For her perfection, but my revenge will come,” pg.79 ( lines25-29 ) In these line, Laertes in speaking of his feeling of his dead father and disturbed sister. Laretes emits the fragile mental state of his sister. Laretes compares his sister to the pretty, stable, young girl that she was at one time. Laretes intimates that the person the caused his sisters “terms” is the same person responsible for his father’s death. Laretes resents the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, trying to blame both of their short comings on Hamlet. Critic, Charles Boyce states “Laretes is shallow and immature, as shown by the trite moralizing that inspires his insistence that Ophelia distrust Hamlet’s love and by his rhetorical and exaggerted response to his sister insanity.” ( pg. 358).

In this scene V, ii, Laretes seeks revenge physically on Hamlet. In this scene, Laertes and Hamlet challenge each other to a sword fight at the suggestion of the king. Laertes and the King made the sword sharp tipped and also poisoned the sword. So, when Hamlet was cut he would surly die from the wound no matter how small. The following lines are spoken by Laertes after he has just cut Hamlet with the sword “It is here. Hamlet, thou art slain; No medicine in the world can do thee good. The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, Unbated and envenomed.”( lines 292-296) In these lines, Laertes is telling Hamlet that the sword was purposely altered his sword. Laertes tells Hamlet that the sword has been sharpened and poisoned. He also tells Hamlet that his sword is poisoned and that Hamlet will die, no matter what. Hamlet has just taken revenge on Hamlet for the death of his father. Charles Boyce states his options of Laertes in his Guide to Shakesphere. “The king proposes a plot: they shall arrange a fencing match , in which Hamlet will use a blunted sword intended for sport while Laretes shall secretly have a sharp sword. Larestes agrees and adds that he has a powerful poisoned that will apply to his sword.”(Charles Boyce pg. 236) “Laertes seeks revenge and eventually kills Hamlet.”(Charles Boyce, pg 233)

-- crissie spear (confederatesouthernbelle@hotmail.com), May 08, 2003.

Revenge is shown because Hamlet or Ham for short, having killed the father of laertes (claudius), is finally killed by laertes. This however is only a basic reading of this.

If compared to the other characters and their subsequent revenge vendetta's, it can be seen that those who were indicisive(hamlet) or used deceitful means to murder (claudius, laertes) faced death themselves. THis could be suggesting to readers that this is in fact not a good thing to do- rather that if revenge is going to be practiced, that it be done with speed and openeness

hope this helps Julz

-- Julz (jsunario@aol.com), November 04, 2003.

"Revenge is shown because Hamlet or Ham for short, having killed the father of laertes (claudius), is finally killed by laertes"

as shown above is meant to say polonius


-- Julz (jsunario@aol.com), November 04, 2003.

isnt polonius laertes father?

-- colleen (uniquegrl22@cs.com), December 16, 2003.

yes, polonius is laertes' father. if the other people actually read the book, they would know...it would help if they knew how to spell also.

-- Diana W (bananabud_rox@hotmail.coom), January 20, 2004.

you call him ham? that's weird.

-- (mookey@stinks.edu), February 07, 2004.

THe concept of divine justice must be taken into account, in Hamlet's usurping of the divine prerogative over life and death, he would be considered to be comitting blasphemy of the most incongretuated order. Where the play breaks away from the revenge tragedy conventions is Hamlet's registering that he is simply a tool of Providence. His actions are no longer driven by passion and lust for vengeance and this feeling is replaced by the cause of justice to repair the revolt in Nature. piece

-- billy-ray jooles (brjtheking@chachacha.com), February 15, 2004.

Hamlet killed Polonius- Laertes is spelled L A E R T E S!!!!!!

-- Cowgirls (debbiel@omniglobal.net), March 25, 2004.

This website gave me the impression that it is unreliable. I wish people would get their facts straight before putting a response. How does Hamlet's and Laertes'revenge differ?

-- Grace (MIsspookie210@cs.com), April 01, 2004.

Is it really better to get revenge faster, Julz? Hamlet planned and waited to get revenge on Claudius and he died just like Laertes who acted with quickness.

-- Grace (Misspookie210@cs.com), April 01, 2004.

Apart from all the usual old things of quickness/rashness - vs - slowness/thinking first (for which, see other questions in the forum comparing Hamlet and Laertes, and discussing revenge), Laertes needed Claudius to think out a devious plot for him. Hamlet thought his up by himself. Without this, Laertes probably would have just dashed up to fight Hamlet with a sword, as he did with Claudius in IV.v - and Hamlet probably would have won, as he does when fencing with Laertes in V.ii.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), April 03, 2004.

Hamlet wants to revenge because of words, the ones of the specter and he will do it through words. Laerthes looks at the situation and as proof : Polonius's death, Ophelia's madness Hamlet becomes mad because of his identification with his father (Oedipus complex)

-- sarah lechon (sarah.lechon@laposte.net), April 21, 2004.

Hamlet wants vengeance because of acts - Claudius's killing of Hamlet's father, and Hamlet's mother marrying Claudius. He wants to have revenge through an act - killing Claudius.

Hamlet does not have and Oedipus Complex. He admires his father, and possibly wishes he were more like his fathe. But he does not want to be his father, nor take his father's place.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), April 21, 2004.

Many studies have been made concerning Hamlet's Oedipus complex, especially the one of Ernets Jones, the adapatation of Laurence Olivier focus on this point. The prayer scene is ambiguous because he feels very converned with the sexuality of his mother. When I say Hamlet wants to revenge because of words it is because the specter can be judged as unreal. Some people think that he never appears it was just an Hamlet's illusion.

-- sarahlechon (sarah.lechon@laposte.net), April 22, 2004.

There are lengthy responses to the Oedipus Complex question in the question about that in this forum, including several from me. Here I'll just reiterate that the existence of studies by secondary critics is in no way conclusive. Such studies are merely their own interpretations of the text of the play. The same goes for versions of the play in performance. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Hamlet has an Oedipus Complex. Rather the contrary is the case.

Whether the spectre is real or not, obviously the events that it tells Hamlet of were real acts. These are what Hamlet cares about.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), April 23, 2004.

what is shakespear trying to say about revenge in hamlet? and how does he show it? thanks

-- Ben (bass_maniak@hotmail.com), June 01, 2004.

My view of Hamlets revenge on Laertes is that they are both senile. This is seen from the conjunction of intimices delivered in their sword fight in act V sc. ii. It is also normal to suggest a somewhat feeling of homosexuality as the pair of gays draw battle with their pricks. Hammy.

-- Hammy (hammy123@hotmail.com), November 24, 2004.

What? What does homosexuality have to do with anything?

I think Shakespeare is trying to show the immorality of taking revenge. After all revenge is the main theme of the play and the results are not pretty. To be brief, eight main characters end up dead by the end of the play, directly or indirectly related to Hamlet's obssession for revenge, spurred on by the pressures of his "father's ghost".

By the way, there is never any proof throughout the play that the ghost is really Hamlet Senior, nor that the ghost's intentions are honourable... though it seems for some reason that many people I talk to simply assume this. In fact, I believe there is evidence that points towards the ghost being a demonic being, especially in the diabolicial swearing ritual. But even if the ghost was Hamlet's father, it remains that the effects of his command for vengeance are disasterous.

There is also a great deal of symbolism in the last act, especially pertaining to the poisoned sword and cup. For example: Laertes is stabbed by his own "sword of vengeance", and Claudius is forced to drink out of his own "poisoned cup". Notice the theme of poison connecting to the death of Hamlet Senior, as well. Notice the "poison of revenge" that infected not only Hamlet, but everyone around him, regardless of their innocence. Look at poor Ophelia, a victim of Hamlet's bitterness and malice, originating from the ghost's revelation. Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "jerks" though they may have been, were caught up in the maelstrom of Hamlet's vengeance. The only ones that survive are Fortinbras who abandonned his original path of vengeance against Denmark, and Horatio who, in Hamlet's words, is "not a slave to passion".

It is also apparent that Shakespeare sees vengeance as not a product of rational thinking, but rather a product of irrational emotions. Hamlet swears his revenge within moments of hearing the accusation. Although he thinks greatly upon the matter later, the greatest part of his resolve is conducted without thought, and the rest of the time is him trying to convince himself that he should get on with the act.

The delay is another way in which Shakespeare shows that Hamlet's course of action is morally dubious. However, it is for Shakespeare's purpose that Hamlet never discover the reason for his delay. If he decided it was morally wrong, he would have ceased in his course of action, and if he had decided it was morally right, he would have gone and killed Claudius right away. But from the beginning (after the initial emotion wears off) Hamlet knows there is something wrong with what he's doing. He considers once that maybe the ghost was dishonest, but unfortunately never considers whether his path is morally right. Sure, it is justified (is there a greater or nobler cause than Hamlet's?) but Shakespeare's purpose is to show the best instance in which revenge might be the right course, and then proceed to show us why it is the wrong course. The end, of course, is tragic.

If you wanted to explore these arguments more thoroughly, go ahead. I wrote a lengthy essay on it (much better proof that I didn't have the time to go through here). Some other proofs might be the Elizabethan value of Scripture (ie. Jesus' message to "turn the other cheek", and "'vengeanve is mine', says the Lord,") this might have had an effect upon Shakespeare's view of revenge, from a religious perspective. Another thing you could look at might be the different ironies presented throughout the play that run contrary to Hamlet's course of action, i.e. the player's speech, Fortinbras's army. Anyway, just explore on the internet and you will probably be able to find a good number of sights (more credible than this one) that have "scholarly arguments" you can examine.

-- Loralee Dyck (gandalf_the_grey115@hotmail.com), December 02, 2004.

I agree with most of this. The source of the story is of course not Christian, but pagan, in a culture where vengeance and compensation were not nearly so questionable.

I do think the ghost is King Hamlet's though. Hamlet obtaining his proof of Claudius's guilt, and so of the truth of the ghost's story, through his play- within-the-play, "The Mousetrap", is supposed to prove that the ghost is indeed King Hamlet's.

I also think in the end that Hamlet decides it is right to kill Claudius. He says to Horation: 'is’t not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned To let this canker of our nature come In further evil?' (V.ii) His reasoning is that Claudius's evil is indeed cancerous, growing out to affect, infect and harm many others. So his vengeance in effect becomes less vengeance, and more an execution for the sake of general good and saving.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), December 04, 2004.

I agree with Loralee. Hamlet is exactly about the immoralty of revenge, and how the act of personal revenge "poisons" the mind, body and soul. I have made a similar argument in another thread very recently on this forum. I especially agree with you regarding the ghost NOT being a spirit of health. Catherine may think that Hamlet's "proof" at the Play Scene proves otherwise, but we only have to look at Banquo's speech in Macbeth I.iii where he says

"oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles"

to give a contrary view point to the nature of the ghost. There is other evidence that the ghost is not a "good" one. It originally stalked away when Heaven is invoked, by Horatio. The second time around Horatio does not charge it by Heaven and the Ghost is about to speak when ti si suddenly arrested by the crow of the cock. It is supposed to react as suddenly to the voice of the cock as it did to Horatio's invocation of Heaven. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare's audience understood the symbolic meaning of the cock. An ancient belief that held that roving demons scattered in fear at cockcrow. To be sure that his audience understood the significance of the ghost's response to the cock, Shakespeare added explanation speeches by Horation and Marcellus:

"It started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons"

And Horatio is reminded that only "extravagant and erring spirits" are banished by the herald of the sun.

This first scene establishes that the ghost is probably malignant. It also establishes the Christian framework of the play. Hamlet is very much a "Christian" play just as we might agree that King Lear is a "pagan" one.

The nauture of the ghost is called into question again during the "closet" scene, in which the ghost remains unseen by Gertrude. Firstly the ghost appears at a moment when it is most ironic to Hamlet's situation. It forestalls Gertrude's repentance by convincing her that Hamlet is indeed "mad". It is then easier on her because it frees her from the necessity of facing her own guilt and that of the man she has given herself to. If the ghost DID show itself to Gertude she would know that Hamlet is sane, she would learn the truth about Claudius and she would have to face herself honestly, and out of such painful self-knowledge comes salvation. No, I don't think that this is a merciful spirit of health we have here. We suppose that it is an "honest" ghost because of two reasons. One being that when Hamlet tests the ghosts word at the play scene it seems to prove true. I answered this earler in my reference to Macbeth - surely this idea would not have been new to Shakespeare or his audience when he wrote Macbeth five years after Hamlet. The only other reason we have for assuming the Ghost's honest nature are the preconceptions that we come to the play with, and we are all guilty of these. We assume that Hamlet is given a moral and obligatory duty by his fathers spirit and the play is about is failure to follow it through. What we really have is Hamlet (a melancholy, mourning thus susceptible young man) being led to believe that he has to undertake a revenge killing (almost out of emotional blackmail: "If thou didst ever thy dear father love / Revenge...") and the effect that the undertaking of the role of private revenger has on him and on those around him.

If the ghost's was honest and its command sincere, would it command a course of action that would lead to the deaths of two entire families?

-- Patrick Walker (the_right_hand_of_doom@msn.com), December 05, 2004.

By saying that the story was originally a pagan one, I meant that Shakespeare is dealing in a Christian way with a story whose origins are in a pagan culture. So he has the ghost attempt to persuade Hamlet to a paganistic - or at least 'eye for an eye' - course of action which does not sit comfortably with Hamlet's New Testament conscience. I don't think anyone assumes that this course of action is a moral duty. But it is seen by Hamlet (and the ghost) as a duty a son should fulfil. And it is surely humanly understandable that both of them should want vengeance on Claudius.

I also think that if the ghost were not King Hamlet's, but demonic, it would not command Hamlet to treat Gertrude gently, and to 'leave her to heaven', as it does in both I.v and III.iv. In doing this it is showing mercy and love, even though it does not extend these to Claudius.

Moreover, Hamlet, although he questions so much, never does question that revenge is something his father would ask of him. He only questions whether it is or is not his father doing the asking, and eventually decides that it is. The ghost, he finds out, told the truth; and that is something else one wouldn't expect of a demonic being.

There is no suggestion that the ghost intends the deaths of two families, only the death of Claudius. That it all goes horribly wrong is really not it's fault any more than anyone else's.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), December 05, 2004.

Okay, firstly I think though Shakespeare's audience would have sympathised with Hamlet's 'moral dilemma' they would have well understood the sinful and dangerous nature of private revenge. Like all of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists, the audience would have sympathised with Hamlet's dilemma whilst disapproving of the course of action he has decided to take - in this case (as from the end of his To Be Or Not To be soliloquy I would argue) that is private blood revenge.

I am NOT saying for an instance that revenge was a moral duty or should be seen (or would have been seen) that way, but Shakespeare's audience would have been swept along with Hamlet's emotional journey and would have shared Hamlet's ethical dilemma: between what he believed and what he felt.

As for your comment about the ghost's instruction to Hamlet regarding Gertude:

"Leave her to Heaven"

The irony is surely the clue! Why Gertude and not Claudius? The implication may not be immediately obvious when we see the play, and I may be wrong - but perhaps Shakespeare intended this subtle irony. The same as the Ghost's instruction to Hamlet regarding Gertude during the closet scene:

"Step between her and her fighting soul"

This is generally taken to mean "comfort your mother", but as I argued in my previous post about the Ghost's intentions in this scene, the line conveys an exact meaning that has not really been noted. "To step between" means "to come between...by way of severance, interception or interuption". See All's Well That Ends Well, V,iii,319, where Helena says that "deadly divorce" shall "step between" her and Bertram if her tale is not true. Thus the Ghost could mean exactly what he says: Hamlet is to cut off Gertude from her fighting conscience!

You say that if the Ghost were demonic it would not have shown the signs of sympathy it seems to have with Gertrude. I have already answered something regarding that above, but you seem to have overlooked the point I made regarding the contradictory statement from Macbeth. There are, I have come to believe, too many clues pointing to the ghosts demonic nature to believe otherwise, but there are always points to the contrary to leave room for doubt - I cannot answer everything. There are still ambiguities, and always will be.

You said: "Hamlet, although he questions so much, never does question that revenge is something his father would ask of him. He only questions whether it is or is not his father doing the asking, and eventually decides that it is"

Absolutely. Hamlet does not question whether it is something his father would ask of him. In the scene that he talks with the ghost he believes the ghost is an honest one and in the heat of passion he swears revenge. Only upon "that passion ending" does he questions the ghosts authenticity. In 'To Be Or Not To Be' Hamlet debates the MORAL nature of private revenge (should Claudius be proved guilty) and I believe this soliloquy carries him to the conclusion that it is indeed nobler "to act" than to "endure". Upon Hamlet BELIEVING the Ghost to be true in the play scene he completely assumes the role of private revenger, until V.i. and his graveyard meditations. Thus I believe the arc of Hamlet's journey touches all the things you mentioned. You said "There is no suggestion that the ghost intends the deaths of two families" Perhaps not necessarily, but as I pointed out earlier, it was a generally accepted belief that private revenge was utterly dangerous to the mind, body and soul, it began with malice and ended with despair; it was completely sinful in nature, was a usurpation of Gods office, and was a rebellion against the divine providence of God; was held in absolute contempt by the church, society and the state...No matter how righteous the revenger thought himself to be, his motives for revenge would make him as evil as his injurer in Gods eyes.

-- Patrick Walker (the_right_hand_of_doom@msn.com), December 05, 2004.

Therefore, I might conclude, as I forgot to above, Shakespeare is showing the tragic consequences of this course of action. Although by Hamlet's reappearance in Act V he seems to have left his 'black revengers role' the wheel, I guess, as already been set in spin.

-- Patrick Walker (the_right_hand_of_doom@msn.com), December 05, 2004.

I might also add, doesn't Shakespeare show in the role of Laertes in IV.v and thereafter, the course that Hamlet has chosen and, we have every reason to believe, he is still determined to follow. Look at Laertes in IV.v - do we really want Hamlet to act this way? Hamlet has said almost exactly the same things as Laertes.

Look at Laertes' speech "To Hell allegiance..." in IV.v. Laertes' assertion that patience would proclaim him a bastard to his father echoes the Ghost's appeal to Hamlet's "nature". Both swear to forget all forms, all vows, all allegiances, and to devote themselves wholly to revenge. Both reject conscience. Both determine to dare damnation. Both openly align themselves with Hell and the demonic. The only difference is that Laertes' compresses all these desperate resolutions into one furious minute and expresses them so violently that we cannot miss their implications. Over the last three acts Hamlet has said no less. Even if we have been trapped before by his emotions we should now see him in a new light.

And people criticise Hamlet for his "failure to act"!!

-- Patrick Walker (the_right_hand_of_doom@msn.com), December 05, 2004.

All nice and possible. I'm simply trying to say that the thing is a ghost, so it is therefore supernatural, beyond the natural, and characters therefore question what it is, where it comes from and what its intentions are. But I believe that its character shows far too many signs of its human provenance, with a very human nature - and indeed that it has a character consistent with what we know of King Hamlet - for it not to be King Hamlet's ghost. Yes, in the beginning, it does all those things Horatio talks about that are consistent with the behaviour of supernatural beings. But that doesn't mean it can't be a supernatural King Hamlet.

I didn't overlook your point about "Macbeth". I said that telling the truth is something one wouldn't EXPECT of a demonic being. Contrary to "Macbeth", there is no suggestion made in "Hamlet" that the ghost could be telling the truth for a demonic end - and I think the absence of this suggestion is pointed. Moreover, the point with both Hamlet and Horatio is that they hang their decision of credibility on the truth or otherwise of the ghost's story: its story is no 'trifle', but the whole burden and meaning of its visit, so the truth of the story would certainly indicate its honesty.

Of course none of this makes the desire and aim for revenge morally 'right'. Never said it was to be seen so, whether in Laertes, Fortinbras, Hamlet, King Hamlet or anyone else. The play has to be a tragedy, because revenge as well as murder, morally, has to be punished. But still, the desire and aim for revenge aren't demonic, but are really thoroughly human.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd.edu.au), December 05, 2004.

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