Revenge and justice

Hamlet's mission of revenge

Revenge is also an important concept in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare.

When Hamlet learns from the ghost of his deceased father that Claudius has murdered him, he resolves from now on to be guided by nothing but the revenge mission set before him: "And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmix'd with baser matter" (1.5.109)

The injustice done to his father is particularly treacherous: he was sent to his death "Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd" (1.5.83) and is therefore condemned to stew in purgatory during the day and wander around as a ghost at night. His father's continued misery in the afterlife provides Hamlet with an even greater reason not to reject the demand for vengeance placed upon him. He feels called to restore justice in Denmark: "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5.208).

Hamlet, however, is a reasonable man; he does not immediately allow his impulsiveness and feelings of revenge to control him. Instead of immediately confronting his uncle Claudius with his father's accusation, he takes it upon himself to first verify his uncle's guilt on his own. He even feigns insanity to be able to investigate without interference. However, his inaction torments him. He curses himself for not pursuing his, for him almost divine, mission with a greater determination: "I, the son of a dear father murder'd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, A scullion!" (2.2.569-573)

Unlike in other Elizabethan revenge dramas, such as "The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd, Hamlet does not use the acting performance, the play within the play, to kill the object of his revenge. He merely wants to first obtain definitive proof of the Claudius’ guilt.

After the actors perform a fictional play that resembles the murder of Hamlet's father, Hamlet can be certain that Claudius did indeed murder his father. At the very point where the king is murdered in the play, Claudius breaks off the performance with a pale face and leaves the room immediately (3.2.257). Hamlet now has no reason to delay his revenge.

Hamlet's hesitation

Shortly after the performance, Hamlet finds Claudius alone in prayer and wonders for a long time whether it would be just to murder him at this moment. The scene in which Hamlet hesitates and finally decides against murder can be interpreted in two different ways.

First, it is possible that Hamlet truly thinks he can avenge his father only if he murders Claudius while he is involved in a more sinful activity. Hamlet, consequently, struggles with the question of how justice can be restored. His own father is condemned to burn in hell because he could not make a final confession before his death.

For Hamlet, the question now arises whether he has to inflict the same fate on Claudius in order to be fully avenged: "and am I then revenged, To take him in the purging of his soul, When he is fit and season'd for his passage? No" (3.4.89) He decides to murder Claudius only when he encounters him in an activity that, in all likelihood, will send him directly to hell.

For a Christian audience, Hamlet might even appear as a wicked and godless avenger who presumes to be able to decide for himself who will go to heaven and who to hell.

In fact, Hamlet proves to be unusually cruel at this point. So far, he has not even attac...

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