Victim or perpetrator


Victim of fate

At the beginning of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, the young prince Hamlet is clearly the victim of a tragic fate. He has recently lost his father and must now watch as his mother remarries after only a few weeks - to his uncle. Hamlet can no longer find any meaning in his life, he is angry with his mother, despises his uncle, and feels alone and isolated in his grief for his father.

Instead of expressing his feelings publicly, however, Hamlet silently piles them up inside himself (Act 1; Scene II). When Hamlet then learns from the ghost of his deceased father that Claudius has treacherously murdered him and that he demands revenge from Hamlet, the distribution of roles in the drama seems clear: Claudius is the villain and Hamlet the hero who must restore justice in Denmark by fulfilling his task of revenge.

Instead of immediately planning a glorious campaign of revenge against Claudius, Hamlet does nothing at first except adopt an insane-seeming manner. Despite his lethargy, he can be sure of the audience's sympathy. He seems like the victim of his own feelings, his own melancholy nature and indecisiveness, qualities he also admits himself: "Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, And can say nothing" (2.2.551-553)

He devises a plan to help convince himself of Claudius's guilt during a theatrical performance that he himself manipulates. This approach makes him appear to be a cautious character: he does not want to falsely call anyone to account, not even his suspicious uncle. (2.2.580-591)

The ironic culprit

It would be all too easy, however, to call Hamlet the victim of the drama. Already in Act 3, he has easily broken Ophelia's heart through a savage series of insults (3.1.113-157). Although he probably distances himself from her for noble reasons (see: Hamlet as a love story), after his outburst she calls herself "I, of ladies most deject and wretched" (3.1.163).

Hamlet's insults do not only affect Ophelia. Polonius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern also have to endure Hamlet's violent verbal attacks at times. While his verbal outbursts still seem too harmless to call him a perpetrator, the situation changes as soon as Hamlet also resorts to physical violence and - certainly the most irritable thing about it - does not even regret it.

When Hamlet observes Claudius in prayer and thinks whether he should murder him in this situation, he reveals downright unchristian traits. Hamlet only wants to murder Claudius in such a way that he will definitely go to hell. However, the situation can also be interpreted as Hamlet's morally conditioned hesitation to take another person's life (see: Revenge and justice).

The situation changes seriously, however, when Hamlet stabs Polonius. He can be credited at first with mistaking Polonius for Claudius and also with acting in a fit of rage. When Hamlet discovers the identity of the murdered man, however, he is hardly shocked that he has just taken another man's life. He even attacks Polonius with words: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune; Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger." (3.4.37-38)

Victim and perpetrator

As soon as Hamlet also falls into a perpetrator role, he is once again cast in the victim role by Claudius' murderous intrigues. The audience learns in Act 4 that Claudius sends Hamlet to England to have him murdered upon his arrival there (4.3.57-71). However, due to a dark premonition, Hamlet finds the letter demanding his execution before he arrives in England.

Instead of simply destroying the letter, however, he rewrites it to demand the execution of his former schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Unlike Polonius' murder, Hamlet's new move is not made in the heat of the moment, but after cool deliberation. Hamlet has deliberately decided to send the two henchmen to their certain death. His reason is that they had both interfered too much in his business: "They are not near my conscience; their defeat Does by their own insinuation grow" (5.2.63).

The end of the drama can be understood as a symbol of Hamlet's dual position between perpetrator and victim. In the beginning, he is again the unsuspecting victim of a plot by Claudius, who has used Laertes for his own ends. Hamlet is to be eliminated in a supposedly fair duel against Laertes with the help of a poisoned blade. Should Hamlet unexpectedly survive the duel, Claudius intends to poison him with a jug of wine.

In the heat of the battle, Hamlet is mortally wounded, but also inflicts a fatal injury on Laertes with the prepared blade, without knowing it is poisoned. Only when Laertes informs Hamlet that the sword and the wine are poisoned and that he has fallen victim to a murderous intrigue, does Hamlet take action as the perpetrator and avenger against Claudius. He stabs the king and at the same time forces him to drink from the poisoned wine. At the end,, Hamlet acts as a wise and forward thinking statesman. Before he dies, he appoints Fortinbras as the new Danish king.


The new ruler

If there is a villain in "Hamlet," it is undoubtedly the new Danish king Claudius, because of his brutal and ruthless intrigues and plots from the beginning to the end of the play.

Before the beginning of the drama, Claudius has killed his own brother in order to be able to marry his wife and become Danish king himself. In doing so, he has shown no regard for old Hamlet's peace of mind, sending him to the afterlife "Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd" (1.5.83). His brother is now condemned to stew in purgatory during the day and wander around as a ghost at night.

As if the violent and ruthless murder of his brother were not enough, Claudius is also a master of hypocrisy and corruption. He manages to make all of...

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