Revenge in ‘Hamlet’

Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hulton Archive - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is interesting that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy driven by a protagonist unable to commit to the act of revenge. In the story, it is Hamlet’s inability to avenge the murder of his father that drives the plot forwards and the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all result from Hamlet’s delay.

Action verses Inaction

To highlight Hamlet’s inability to take action, Shakespeare includes a number of 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 revenge 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 a unique piece of writing is the remarkable way in which Shakespeare uses the delay to build Hamlet’s emotional and psychological complexity.

Hamlet’s revenge is delayed in three significant ways:

  1. Hamlet must first 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.
  2. Hamlet then intellectualizes his revenge, contrasting with 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.
  1. 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, we cannot credit Hamlet with plotting the revenge – rather, it is Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet that backfires.

Perhaps if Hamlet had acted earlier, lives could have been saved?