Humanities › Literature Hamlet and Revenge Share Flipboard Email Print vasiliki/Getty Images Literature Shakespeare Tragedies Shakespeare's Life and World Studying Comedies Sonnets Best Sellers Classic Literature Plays & Drama Poetry Quotations Short Stories Children's Books By Lee Jamieson Theater Expert M.A., Theater Studies, Warwick University B.A., Drama and English, DeMontfort University Lee Jamieson, M.A., is a theater scholar and educator. He previously served as a theater studies lecturer at Stratford-upon Avon College in the United Kingdom. our editorial process Lee Jamieson Updated September 23, 2018 What is arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, "Hamlet," is often understood to be a revenge tragedy, but it is quite an odd one at that. It is a play 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. When he finally does exact his revenge and kills Claudius, 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. Take a closer look at the theme of revenge in Hamlet. 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 delay 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. Though the piece begins with his pondering suicide, Hamlet's 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 sufferThe slings and arrows of outrageous fortuneOr 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 endThe heartache, and the thousand natural shocksThat flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummationDevoutly 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 comeWhen we have shuffled off this mortal coil,Must give us pause. There's the respectThat 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 spurnsThat patient merit of th' unworthy takes,When he himself might his quietus makeWith 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 bournNo traveler returns- puzzles the will,And makes us rather bear those ills we haveThan fly to others that we know not of?Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,And thus the native hue of resolutionIs sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,And enterprises of great pith and momentWith this regard their currents turn awryAnd lose the name of action.- Soft you now!The fair Ophelia!- Nymph, in thy orisonsBe all my sins rememb'red. Over the course of this eloquent musing on the nature of self and death 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, becomes 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.