What Hamlet Teaches Us About Revenge

From a Lecture Series by Professor Rufus Fears, Ph.D.

One of the big questions throughout anyone’s life is a common one: Should you take revenge? How much time should you give to pondering revenge?  In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we see firsthand where the path of vengeance can tragically lead.

Revenge Theme in Hamlet

Hamlet is the story of a youth who sets out on the path of vengeance, driven by the noblest of motives as he sees it: to avenge his father. Shakespeare was at the height of his creative talents when Hamlet was produced, probably in 1600. Every play of Shakespeare is profound in its simple understanding of how people really operate, what their motives are. Without going to religion—deep beliefs in God—he asks simply: How do humans operate? One of his central themes is jealousy and vengeance, these motives that drive far too many human concerns and actions.

A Haunting Visit in Hamlet

Our play begins on a cold night in Denmark in Elsinore Castle, where the king is in residence—the new king, Claudius—his brother having died. He has married the wife of his brother, his own sisterin-law, Gertrude.

Hamlet Playbill, Circa 1611

On this cold night, the watchmen of the guard are moving back and forth, trying to stay warm, and suddenly, they say, “There it is again, the ghost. We’ve seen him before, and he always appears at this same time. He will say nothing to us. Speak to him, Horatio, for thou art a scholar. You have studied with Hamlet at Wittenberg in Germany. Speak to him in Latin; see if you will get a response.” But the ghost moves on as the dawn begins to break.

The king, his wife, and his most trusted adviser—Polonius—are deep in conversation. There is a threat to the royal power of Denmark in Fortinbras, prince of Norway, whose land is now occupied by the Danes and who is believed to be raising an army to overthrow the power of Demark. Fortinbras believes that the tumultuous episode at the court, in which the king died under mysterious circumstances and this new marriage has occurred, will weaken Denmark.

So they have serious matters of state to ponder. The young prince, Hamlet: Why did his father die so mysteriously? Why would his mother marry her brother-in-law so quickly? As he said, “The meat that they cooked for the wake of my father could have been served the next day at their wedding feast. How could my mother have done such a thing? It is even incest to have married her brother-in-law like that.”

Then his friends tell him about the ghost. He goes with them and walks, and the ghost appears to him. “Come apart with me,” the ghost finally speaks.

“I am your father, armed as I was the day we conquered the Norwegians but now a pale shade doomed to wander the Earth and suffer the torments until you have laid my soul to rest by avenging my death”

Hamlet's father's ghost
Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father.

“I will unlay for you how they killed me. Your uncle—my brother—found me into the garden where I take my accustomed nap. They said a serpent bit me, but he poured poison into my ear that turned my blood into gelatinous fluids, and I died. My wife—your mother—was already engaged in an adulterous, incestuous affair with him, and together, they took my life.”

“I’ll kill them both!”

“No, leave your mother to heaven, but kill him.”

Hamlet adopts the pose of having lost his mind under this grief, and from having been a scholar, he has turned into a distracted and distraught young person, blathering to himself.

This knowledge is deep in the soul of Hamlet, and he has no doubt that it’s not a figment of his mind. After all, his friends have also seen the ghost; it’s a real ghost. Shakespeare’s audience believed in ghosts. The Salem witch trials would happen long after Shakespeare, when witches could conjure up spirits. So this is a real creature, this ghost, the spirit of his father. But how to carry this out? How not to be seen to be plotting their vengeance? Hamlet adopts the pose of having lost his mind under this grief, and from having been a scholar, he has turned into a distracted and distraught young person, blathering to himself.

Hamlet Receives The Best Advice

The old adviser, Polonius; the new king, Claudius; and the mother, Gertrude—who loves Hamlet deeply and is already feeling pangs of remorse over having married this man she had the affair with—worry about him. They urge him not to go back and try to study in Wittenberg; he’ll be too distracted.

In the meantime, Polonius has his own family issues: His daughter, Ophelia, is much attracted to Hamlet, and his own son, Laertes, is about to go back to Paris to study more. As he is sending Laertes—his son— off, Polonius gives him his advice.

One of the things about Shakespeare is his magnificent language.  It has a great theme; it is written in noble language; it speaks across the ages; it speaks to each of us individually. Great language, noble language—never has the English language reached such beautiful heights as in the hand of Shakespeare.

So in one of these memorable statements—these memorable passages— Polonius gives some of the best advice on how to live your life that you will ever get, and we should read it:

... my blessing with thee!

And these few precepts in thy memory

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportioned thought his act. [Ponder that as Hamlet goes through with some unproportioned acts.]

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
 Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; [Make good friends, keep them.]

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged courage. [Don’t undertake too many enterprises or get involved with too many people and their schemes.] Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; [don’t get in a lawsuit] but being in,

Bear’t that thou opposed may beware of thee. [In other words, you get in a fight, see it through to the end.]

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; [Keep your own counsel.]

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. [Listen to what everybody’s saying about you and criticizing you, but you be spare in your criticism.]

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

I just read on a door posted in a career counseling bureau at the university: “Dress for the job two steps up from what you want”; in other words, if you want to be a dean, don’t teach the way I do, in some raggedy shirt, but dress in very expensive suits and a power tie—or a power dress and power pearls.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, 

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.

Still good advice for all these people with credit-card debt, don’t you think?

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

That is my message always to my students: Yes, you should listen to your father and mother about law school or medical school, but ultimately, you choose in life what is your mission or calling. Find it out, follow it, do what you love. It’s all right there in Shakespeare, there in Hamlet.

Hamlet Plots Revenge – Something Rotten In Denmark

1730 Bust of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare
Bust of playwright William Shakespeare

So with these words of wisdom—and they are true words of wisdom— Laertes goes off to France. The plot begins to thicken in Denmark, for there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet sets it upon himself to find out how to avenge his father.

Laertes has also spoken with his sister, Ophelia, and she has told him that Hamlet is really interested in her. He has warned her off: “Hamlet is meant to be king over Denmark, and there will be other decisions that will enter into the wife he chooses.

He will only break your heart, and moreover, I do not think he’s a very constant fellow. I think he will only trifle with your affections, so as thy brother, I tell you, spurn Hamlet.” So she does; she spurns his advances before he has turned into madness.

But now he begins to act mad, and he is gibbering around the court, doing all kinds of strange actions: jumping around, dressing in strange clothes. Ophelia comes to the reasonable conclusion that she has driven him crazy. By not accepting his love, she has made him lovesick.  She goes to her father, and he says, “I think your brother was wrong. He is a very fine man. I think you should accept his love and make him happy. Maybe that will bring him back to his senses, because I worry much about our kingdom with no heir to the throne and the Norwegians threatening war.”

How often we misperceive others and misperceive their actions. In the midst of all of this, Hamlet must ponder his future. In one of the most magnificent single sets of lines in all of literature, he asks a very central question:

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?

Do you suffer these outrageous things that happen to you? Do you step back? Or do you take action? Should he suffer this outrageous chance that has occurred of his father being murdered and his mother committing incest and adultery? Or should he try to oppose them, knowing full well that to oppose them, he may die?

A Moral Dilemma for Hamlet

All those wrongs you have to put up with, all those people who cut you off at the freeway exit—that’s just one of the minor wrongs—but are you going to put up with it? Or are you going to go into road rage and chase them down?

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? [That’s what Seneca said: You always have the way to freedom, in this case, with a dagger.]

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 traveller 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, … [So you have the path to freedom, but you fear what might come after.]

Then Ophelia comes to him, and she says, “I realize you love me now”.

He says, “Go to a nunnery. All of you women are untrue. You’re all unchaste; the only way you’ll keep good and pure is to go to a nunnery, so get thee to a nunnery. Get thee to a nunnery, I tell you. I want nothing to do with you. I will not allow you to play me false.”

So now he has crushed her, and his spurning her love does drive her crazy; she loses her mind. She goes around the palace mad, insane, singing strange little songs that she creates for herself.

Hamlet – The Play Within The Play

In the meantime, Hamlet has decided to bring the action into full play. There has arrived there, at the castle, a group of traveling actors. He has seen them perform before, and he asks them, “Can you put on a play? Can you put on the play about the murder of the duke that I saw you perform?”

“Yes, yes, we can.”

“And if I write a scene for you—a few lines— can you incorporate it and put it on?”

“Yes, of course, prince.”

He writes it out—not so mad now—and tells his parents that he has arranged for this play to be put on. They draw up, a banquet is given, and the players come out. In the course of the play, the king is lying there in the garden asleep, and his brother, the rival—being written by Hamlet—comes in and puts poison in his ear and then weds the queen. Hamlet asks his mother about it, “What do you think about this play?”

She says, “I think that lady denying her guilt doth protest too much.”

“Do you?”

“I can’t go on. Why did you have this play shown to us, son?”Hamlet Play Scene

“Don’t you like it, Mother? I find it a wonderful play; I find it very true to life.”

“What is this?” the king says. “Who gave orders for a play like this to be put on? Can’t you see it’s disturbing the queen?”

She rushes out of the room. Hamlet follows her. He’s going up to the room to kill her, but as he’s going, his uncle has already made his way to the chapel.

Hamlet stops, and the uncle is there before the altar. Hamlet says, “Oh, I can kill him right now,” but his uncle is in the act of praying, confessing his evil, confessing his sin. “No, if I kill him now, his soul will go right to heaven. He’s got to die with that sin unconfessed. With a prayer on his lips, I’ll save his life. That is the final evil to my father: to let my uncle go to heaven when he ought to burn forever in hell.”

This is a transcript from the video series Life Lessons from the Great Books. It’s available for audio and video download here.

He then goes to confront his mother. As he is confronting her, there is a rustle behind him in the curtain. He thinks it’s the king who snuck up there to hear, so the king is away from the altar. Hamlet draws his saber—he’s very good with his rapier—and stabs that curtain time and time again. But he hasn’t killed the king; he has killed Polonius, who hasn’t done anything. In fact, he has been like an uncle to Hamlet. Polonius falls out from the curtain, dead, the first of these murders that Hamlet has committed.

Hamlet drags the body off to bury it, and then he demands that his mother confess to this sin. He has gotten to be a very dangerous person now. His uncle is coming up with various schemes to send Hamlet off to England. He’s a disruptive force in the kingdom. Yes, indeed. So he’s going to send him off to England and get the king of England to dispatch Hamlet there. The plot has gotten thicker and thicker. The uncle, despite his will—the king—has been drawn into this plot of vengeance and death.

Now, poor Laertes comes home, and he learns that not only has his father been killed by Hamlet but that his sister, Ophelia—driven mad by Hamlet— has drowned. Whether she fell into the stream and was too mad to get herself out or killed herself, she’s dead. So both his father and his sister have been killed by the action of Hamlet, both of them entirely innocent people.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Ophelia singing in the river before she drowns. Painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851 and 1852

Hamlet now—learning of Ophelia’s death—goes to the churchyard where the grave is being dug, but she’ll have to be buried, perhaps, in unconsecrated ground: She’s a suicide, it has being ruled. So now he’s sending her soul to hell.

Hamlet And The Gravediggers
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

He stands there, talks and jokes. These are the scenes that Shakespeare puts in, in the middle of his play. The gravediggers who laugh and joke like jesters. They’ve done this many a time; they’ve buried many a person in their long careers as gravediggers.

Hamlet ponders these bones that they are digging up. “Why that could have been a famous attorney who made a great deal of money in legal affairs; perhaps he dealt in real estate. Now, he’s nothing but a skull. Yes, that’s what we all come to: a skull. Ah, that skull! Yorick, Yorick, I remember him well. He was my father’s court jester when I was a little boy. He was a fool that could say to the king anything he wanted to. Why, I’d make him carry me around on his back. Oh, I have known him well and kissed those lips that are now but a skull.”

Hamlet’s Quest For Revenge Continues

Hamlet has to have his revenge, and Laertes has to have his revenge.

The king has to get rid of Hamlet once and for all, so he works together with Laertes to help Laertes avenge the dead Polonius and Ophelia. He says, “I want you to go to Hamlet and say you will forgive him. But honor [honor, a word that Shakespeare knows means nothing] demands that you have at least one duel, make several passes at each other, and then draw blood, and then honor will be restored.”

Hamlet is all too willing to do it. He deeply regrets the wrong that he has caused his friend. But this will be no fair duel: The rapier will be dipped in poison, the rapier held by Laertes. A banquet is laid out, the mother is invited down, and she’s worried; she says, “I don’t want my son killed. I know he acts strange these days, but you cannot take him away from me. I love him too much.”

The king says, “They’ll make a few passes, draw a little blood, and honor will be satisfied. Then we can begin to get our son back sane again.”

The duel begins, but King Claudius is not going to leave anything unchecked. He also has a big goblet of poisoned wine there that he’s going to have Hamlet drink. So they begin their dueling back and forth; they’ve made one or two passes and neither one is injured. The king says,

“Hamlet, why don’t you have a little drink? You know you look awfully hot and flushed.”

“No, no, I want to finish the duel.” “Oh, just have one little drink.”

The queen says, “I’ll have a drink. Oh, I’ve begun to feel poorly, dear. Stop the duel!”

It’s too late. They are now furious with each other; it’s not a matter of honor anymore but of hate. All the hate that Laertes feels for Hamlet, who has done such wrong, boils up, and they begin to grapple hand to hand. In the grappling hand to hand, they continue to trade off with the poisoned rapier. Ultimatley, Laertes wounds Hamlet with it; Hamlet grabs it away and wounds Laertes; both now having been struck with the poison point.

The king let’s them know their fate, “You are both going to die.”

Hamlet, who now has the poison rapier, asks, “What, is it poisoned? Then you take it, too, adulterer,” as he stabs the king, his uncle. Then—as the man is dying—grabs him, opens up his mouth, and pours the rest of the poisoned wine into it. “Thou incestuous, adulterous, damned Dane.”

Hamlet dies. His mother dies. Laertes has died, and the king is dead.

The prince of Norway, Fortinbras, arrives at Elsinore Castle amidst this welter of corpses. With his last breath, Hamlet has proclaimed Fortinbras king of Denmark, so he is the only one to profit.

The older I get, the more I study Hamlet, I have no sympathy for him whatsoever. He is a deranged person who brought nothing but misery into the world. I am going to give you a life lesson. You’ll say it’s simplistic; I think it’s the best lesson you can have: Move on.

Yes, he killed your father and married your mother; leave it behind. You’re not going to change a thing, and vengeance surely won’t.

From the lecture series Life Lessons from the Great Books
Taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.