Hamlet and Revenge

Revenge is on Hamlet's mind, but why does he fail to act for so long?

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Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet and Revenge." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979. Jamieson, Lee. (2017, September 10). Hamlet and Revenge. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979 Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet and Revenge." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979 (accessed September 21, 2017).
Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hulton Archive - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is interesting that what is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, "Hamlet," is a revenge tragedy driven by a protagonist who spends most of the play contemplating revenge rather than exacting it.

Hamlet’s inability to avenge the murder of his father drives the plot and leads to the deaths of most of the major characters, including Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

And Hamlet himself is tortured by his indecision and his inability to kill his father's murderer, Claudius, throughout the play.

He finally exacts his revenge and kills Claudius, but it is too late for him to derive any satisfaction from it; Laertes has struck him with a poisoned foil and Hamlet dies shortly after.

Action and Inaction in Hamlet

To highlight Hamlet’s inability to take action, Shakespeare includes other characters capable of taking resolute and headstrong revenge as required. Fortinbras travels many miles to take his revenge and ultimately succeeds in conquering Denmark; Laertes plots to kill Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, Polonius.

Compared to these characters, Hamlet’s revenge is ineffectual. Once he decides to take action, he delays any action until the end of the play. It should be noted that this is not uncommon in Elizabethan revenge tragedies. What makes "Hamlet" different from other contemporary works is the way in which Shakespeare uses the delay to build Hamlet’s emotional and psychological complexity.

 The revenge itself ends up being almost an afterthought, and in many ways, is anticlimactic. 

Indeed, the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy is Hamlet's debate with himself about what to do and whether it will matter. His desire to avenge his father becomes clearer as this speech continues. It's worth considering this soliloquy in its entirety.

 

To be, or not to be- that is the question: 
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep- 
No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die- to sleep. 
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub! 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause. There's the respect 
That makes calamity of so long life. 
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, 
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, 
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay, 
The insolence of office, and the spurns 
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes, 
When he himself might his quietus make 
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear, 
To grunt and sweat under a weary life, 
But that the dread of something after death- 
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn 
No traveler returns- puzzles the will, 
And makes us rather bear those ills we have 
Than fly to others that we know not of? 
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, 
And thus the native hue of resolution 
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, 
And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regard their currents turn awry 
And lose the name of action.- Soft you now! 
The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisons 
Be all my sins rememb'red.

Despite this eloquent musing on the nature of self and sin and what actions he should take, Hamlet remains paralyzed by indecision.

How Hamlet's Revenge is Delayed

Hamlet’s revenge is delayed in three significant ways. First, he must establish Claudius’ guilt, which he does in Act 3, Scene 2 by presenting the murder of his father in a play. When Claudius storms out during the performance, Hamlet becomes convinced of his guilt.

Hamlet then considers his revenge at length, in contrast to the rash actions of Fortinbras and Laertes. For example, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius in Act 3, Scene 3. He draws his sword but is concerned that Claudius will go to heaven if killed while praying.

After killing Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England making it impossible for him to gain access to Claudius and carry out his revenge.

During his trip, he decides to become more headstrong in his desire for revenge.

Although he does ultimately kill Claudius in the final scene of the play, it's not due to any scheme or plan by Hamlet, rather, it is Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet that backfires.

 

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Your Citation
Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet and Revenge." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979. Jamieson, Lee. (2017, September 10). Hamlet and Revenge. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979 Jamieson, Lee. "Hamlet and Revenge." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/revenge-in-hamlet-2984979 (accessed September 21, 2017).