Vengeance in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in 1601. But this date has no consensus among scholars. There is consensus, however, in the fact that Hamlet is one of the most popular plays of Shakespeare, one if the most performed, adapted and analyzed play, and Shakespeare’s longest plays at 4,042 lines long; it is alongside King Lear, Julio Cesar, and Romeo and Juliet, regarded as four great tragedies of Shakespeare. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotation, Hamlet is the most quoted English work. Its influence goes beyond English bearing far-reaching influence in not just world literature but in western culture. Analyzing Hamlet carries a scope that goes extends into religious, philosophical, psychoanalytical, socio-cultural and gender studies. Considering the voluminous content and context of the play, for a richer understanding of Hamlet to be drawn, it must be limited to a particular theme, thus the study of vengeance in Hamlet.
The play opens with the “bitter cold” atmosphere of vengeance. Denmark is in a state of war with Norway whose King Fortinbras seeks revenge on Denmark over the defeat and murder of his father the last king. This is Shakespeare revealing an important theme. It is ironical that the Horatio and Marcellus, the two sentries watching for the signs of Fortinbras forces, that serve as pointers to the main revenge mission of the play. They see a ghost which they rightly suspect to be that of the recently demised King Hamlet of Denmark. Although the ghost does not speak to them, it sets the act in motion; when the ghost leaves the two sentries decided to contact Prince Hamlet. Ultimately, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father who claims to be trapped in purgatory, “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away”, urging Hamlet: “so art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” Hamlet goes away with resolution: “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge.”
The motion to avenge is fully set in the first act, but the play takes five other acts to resolve the denouement. And by the time Hamlet gets his revenge, he is an object of vengeance as Laertes. This delay in the part of Hamlet has being a subject of prognosis over the centuries. Thomas Hanmer in his book Shakespeare observed “There appears no reason at all in nature why this young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible.” On his part, Samuel Johnson explained the situation thus: “Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an agent.” British literary critic A.C Bradley did not seek to explain the delay but rather to rationalize it:
We approach the task of examining it [the delay], it is as well to remind ourselves that the virtue of the play by no means wholly depends on this most subtle creation. We are all aware of this, and if we were not so the history of Hamlet, a stage-play, might bring the fact home to us. It is to-day the most popular of Shakespeare’s tragedies on our stage; and yet a large number, perhaps even the majority of the spectators, though they may feel some mysterious attraction in the here, certainly do not question themselves about his character or the cause of his delay, and would still find the play exceptionally effective, even if he were an ordinary brave young man and the obstacles in his path were purely external.
Bradley’s rationalizing comment is based on the presumed thoughts of the theatre-goers of the play. By doing this, he forfeits his position of critic and takes the position behind the unscholarly audience, thereby robbing his argument of its objective and a strict academic posture. Bradley, however, made an important assertion on the character of Hamlet which ultimately draws the curtain on this argument. He states thus: “There may be questions which we cannot answer with certainty now because we have nothing but the text to guide us.” And the delay of Hamlet stands out as one of such unanswerable enigma in the play.
Shakespeare uses a series of devices to keep the play alive while Hamlet delays manifest. These devices also serve to rationalize this delay and add artistic mysteries that made the play famous. First, Shakespeare made ample use of soliloquy. Soliloquy is a dice in drama in which a character addresses a thought, and event or a problem with the character being the only perceived audience. There are seven soliloquies in Hamlet of which six dwelled on the revenge scheme. In the first soliloquy (the second in the play) after the ghost charges him to avenge his death, Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s revolve to “wipe away all trivial fond records” and carry out the mission.
Of the other soliloquies, Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” stands out. This soliloquy written in elevated poetry that appeals to generations reveals an emotional part of Hamlet as he grapples with the inner battle in him. He wonders if it is a noble act to die for the noble act of avenging his father’s death. Inclusively, he tries to take into cognizance “a sea of troubles” that murdering his uncle and stepfather would cause the whole of Denmark. Though less famous than the above, Hamlet’s last Soliloquy when he discovers his deportation to England is equally revealing, He regrets the “all occasions” that inform his “dull revenge”. Bradley referring to it as “least indispensable of the soliloquies” explains the soliloquy which equally speaks for the other soliloquies:
Has a direct dramatic value, and a great value for the interpretation of Hamlet’s character. It shows that Hamlet, though he is leaving Denmark, has not relinquished the idea of obeying the Ghost. It exhibits very strikingly his inability to understand why he has delayed so long. It contains that assertion which so many critics forget, that he has “cause and will and strength and means to do it.”
The second device which Shakespeare utilizes in the play as regards Hamlet’s desire for, and delays, in getting vengeance is the play-within-the-play method. Alexander Grinstein discussed the technique, giving it Freudian interpretation thus, “The dramatic device of a play within a play has proven very effective and has been successfully employed in many plays. Its use, although frequently dictated by technical considerations, may actually be considered to be related to a familiar psychological mechanism seen in dream work, namely, a dream within a dream.” Hamlet’s play “The Murder of Gonzalez plays a dual role. One, it seeks to get absolute certainty that Claudius is the killer of the deceased Hamlet, the play being a “the mirror up to serve as continual symptom of Hamlet’s disease mind, it, in turn, a tactic which he chooses to fox Claudius into a state of unpreparedness for Hamlet’s strike.
The play achieved this purpose. It rattles Claudius who rises to his feet, breathless and demands, “Give me some lights”; a demand that just stops short of pleading guilty. The play for those who are oblivious to the king’s guilt solidifies Hamlet’s claim of lunacy, something he affirms with his response of Claudius concern about his health: “Excellent, I’faith, of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so.”
The third device that Shakespeare reveals in the play which holds a direct relationship with vengeance is the use of symbolism. There are many symbols in the play including the skull which serves a pointer that death which is the cause of the revenge and its remedy. The poison that shows corruption, dishonesty, and betrayal in the part of Claudius that caused the wrong to which Hamlet seek to avenge. The poison also serves as the end of all the desires, drama, and scheme for corruption.
The most encompassing symbol in the play is the ghost. According to Charles Boyce, the Ghost plays a crucial role in this play; he stated it thus: “The Ghost pushes Hamlet to face the trauma of his father’s murder and his mother’s acceptance of the murderer. It keeps his anguish sharp. However, the Ghost is absent at the end of the drama. It has represented the emotional demands of Hamlet’s grief and despair; when Act 5 offers the play’s reconciliation of good and evil, the Ghost has no further function.”
In conclusion, the study of vengeance in Hamlet has infinite dimensions. The above dwells on the aspect of the devices with which Shakespeare establishes the theme. Soliloquies, the play within a play, and symbolism are some of the devices of a theme that is one of the many facets of Shakespeare’s complex mind. In fact, such is the complexity of his mind and art that AC Bradley’s famous assertions that “there may be questions which we cannot answer with certainty” rings true.
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