What Hamlet Teaches Us About Revenge

From the Lecture Series: Life Lessons from the Great Books

By J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma

One of the great questions throughout anyone’s life is a common one: Should we 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.

(Image: Suchota/Shutterstock)

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. Shakespeare’s plays are profound in their simple understanding of how people really operate and 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, motives that drive far too many human concerns and actions.

A Haunting Visit in Hamlet

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

On this cold night, the watchmen of the guard are moving back and forth, trying to stay warm. Suddenly, they shout. “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.

Elsewhere, Claudius, Gertrude, 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. They believe him to be raising an army to overthrow the power of Demark. Fortinbras believes that the tumultuous episode at the court, in which the previous king died under mysterious circumstances and this new marriage has occurred, will weaken Denmark.

This is a transcript from the video series Life Lessons from the Great Books. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

They have serious matters of state to ponder. In the next scene, the young prince Hamlet wonders: Why did his father die so mysteriously? Why would his mother marry her brother-in-law so quickly? He remarks, “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.

Horatio, Hamlet, and the ghost.
Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost, on platform before the Palace of Elsinor. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene IV. (Image: By Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

His friends tell him about the ghost, and he goes with them and walks. There, 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.

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!” declares Hamlet.

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 lies 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 spirit of his father is a real creature. But how will Hamlet carry this out, to not be seen plotting his 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.

Learn more about recognizing the harm caused by returning evil with evil

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

Polonius Gives The Best Advice

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 off his son, Polonius gives him his advice.

Shakespeare’s language is magnificent.  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.

In one of these memorable passages, Polonius gives some of the best advice on how to live your life that you will ever get:

... 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.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, 


For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.

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.

Shakespeare is saying to listen to your father and mother about law school or medical school, but to be wise and prudent in matters of life. Ultimately, you choose in life what is your mission or calling. Find it out, follow it, do what you love. It’s all there in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Learn more about how wisdom enables us to take information and apply it to our lives

Hamlet Plots Revenge—Something Rotten In Denmark

With these words of wisdom, Laertes leaves for France. The plot begins to thicken, for there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet sets it upon himself to discover how to avenge his father.

Ophelia and Laertes
Laertes warns his sister, Ophelia, about Hamlet (Image:By William Gorman Wills/Public domain)

Laertes has also spoken with his sister, Ophelia, and she has told him that Hamlet is genuinely 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.” Ophelia does; she spurns his advances before he has turned to madness.

The play explores and expands the theme of how we misperceive others and their actions.

Hamlet begins to act his mad pose: gibbering around the court, performing strange actions, jumping around, and dressing in strange clothes. Ophelia comes to the reasonable conclusion 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.

A Moral Dilemma for Hamlet

In the midst of all of this, Hamlet must ponder his future. His moral dilemma comes to the fore in his most famous soliloquy, and 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?

Hamlet must determine if he should suffer the outrageous chance that occurred when his father was murdered and of his mother’s affair. Or, if in opposing these events, that he may die.

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? [As 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, … [You have the path to freedom, but you fear what might come after.]

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

Hamlet dismisses her. “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.

In his pursuit to avenge his father, he has crushed her, and in spurning her love, he does drive her crazy; Ophelia loses her mind. She goes around the palace mad, insane, singing strange songs she creates for herself, a consequence of his actions.

Hamlet—The Play Within The Play

Hamlet Play Scene by Daniel Maclise 1842
The Play-scene in Hamlet (Image: Daniel Maclise/Pubic domain)

In the meantime, Hamlet has decided to bring the action into full play. A group of traveling actors has arrived at the castle. He has seen them perform before, and he asks them, “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.

Appearing more sane, Hamlet writes it out and tells his parents he has arranged for this play to be performed. A banquet is given, and the players come out. In the course of the play, the “king” is lying asleep in the garden, and his brother, the rival—written in by Hamlet—comes in, pours 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?

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?

Gertrude rushes out of the room and Hamlet follows her. He plans to kill her. As he’s going, his uncle has already made his way to the chapel.

Hamlet stops, and King Claudius 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 and 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.

The Consequence of Hamlet’s Revenge

Hamlet returns to his mission and goes to confront his mother. As he confronts her, there is a rustle behind him in the curtain. He thinks the king has left the alter and snuck in to eavesdrop. Hamlet draws his saber and stabs the curtain several times. But he hasn’t killed the king; he has killed Polonius, an innocent. Polonius falls out from the curtain, dead, the first murder Hamlet has committed.

Hamlet drags the body off to bury it, and then he demands that his mother confess to this sin. He is a dangerous person now and has become a disruptive force in the kingdom. As a precaution, King Claudius is devising various schemes to send Hamlet off to England. There, the king of England will dispatch Hamlet. Despite his will, King Claudius has been drawn into Hamlet’s plot of vengeance and death.

At this time, Laertes returns home to learn 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 by accident and was not mentally competent enough to save herself, or killed herself, she is now dead. Both his father and his sister, innocent people, have died by the action of Hamlet.

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 (Image: John Everett Millais/Public domain).

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

Hamlet’s Quest For Revenge Concludes

Hamlet has to have his revenge, as does Laertes, for his father and his sister.

To get rid of Hamlet once and for all, the king works together with Laertes to help the young man avenge the dead Polonius and Ophelia. King Claudius says, “I want you to go to Hamlet and say you will forgive him. But honor [honor, a word that Shakespeare knows means nothing to the king] 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 he has caused his friend. But this will be no fair duel: Laertes’ rapier will be dipped in poison. A banquet is laid out and Gertrude is invited down. 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.

In reply the king tells her, “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 to chance. He also has a goblet of poisoned wine for Hamlet to drink. Hamlet and Laertes begin their dueling back and forth; they’ve made one or two passes and neither one is injured.

The king tells him, “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.”

Claudius persists. “Oh, just have one little drink.

No.

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

It’s too late. The prince and Laertes are now furious with each other; it’s not a matter of honor anymore, but of hate. All the hate Laertes feels for Hamlet 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. Ultimately, 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. As Claudius is dying, Hamlet 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.

Hamlet’s quest for revenge brought misery to his world. The best life lesson from the tragedy of Hamlet may be simplistic, but ultimately, we are tasked to move on. Hamlet teaches through his actions that vengeance will not improve a situation, but can create destructive repercussions that unintentionally harm the innocent people who surround us.

Common Questions About Revenge in Hamlet

Q: What is Shakespeare saying about revenge in Hamlet?

Shakespeare’s message about revenge in Hamlet is a complex one. In Hamlet’s case, he felt he had a moral obligation to avenge his father’s death. However, as Shakespeare demonstrates, the path of vengeance is a messy one with destructive repercussions and often takes many innocent lives in the process.

Q: How is the theme of revenge used in Hamlet?

The theme of revenge is woven throughout Hamlet in that multiple characters in the play—Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras—are seeking revenge, though their reasons for wanting vengeance differ.

Q: Was Hamlet justified in his pursuit for revenge?

Although Hamlet was understandably shaken by the appearance of the ghost, his pursuit for revenge destroyed many lives and made the situation worse than it had been.

Q: Who did Hamlet kill?

Hamlet is responsible for the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. He is also responsible for the deaths of Ophelia, whom he drives to suicide, and the death of his mother, who is poisoned by Claudius.

This article was updated on August 15, 2019

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