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Revenge in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"


Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark

The most important theme in William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1599) is that of vengeance. It is basically a revenge tragedy written in the style of an earlier Elizabethan revenge drama—namely, Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1587). In fact, many elements of Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy—such as the play-within-a-play employed to trap a murderer and a ghost calling for justice—appear also in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In fact, Shakespeare's play is believed to be based directly on another of Thomas Kyd's revenge tragedies—namely, Hamlet (1589)—whose manuscript has been lost and is now referred to only as the Ur-Hamlet (the prefix Ur- means “primordial” in German).

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the primary revenge plot is that of Prince Hamlet's royal father mysteriously dying and his mother marrying her brother-in-law barely within two months of his death (contrary to Hamlet's accusations, hardly an “incestuous marriage,” according to today's standards). Suspecting that his uncle may have secretly murdered the old king in order to marry his widowed queen and usurp the Danish throne, the young Prince seeks revenge on his uncle and step-father, the newly-enthroned King Claudius. Hamlet waivers and postpones his revenge quite a lot, doing so perhaps because he knows very well that the “testimony” of a vengeful ghost would not hold water in any court of law. Nor does Hamlet's enthusiastic staging of The Murder of Gonzago at Elsinore Palace produce any convincing evidence of King Claudius' suspected regicidal and fratricidal guilt.

The young Prince may have perhaps recalled a future cautionary tale of another, much more modern Hamlet (President George W. Bush) who trusted the words of his father's ghost (Vice-President Dick Cheney?). Under strong encouragement from his own Ophelia (National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice), he slew Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as well as more than a million innocent Iraqis—only to find that Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction, nor was it involved in any way in the 9/11 terror attacks. As Napoleon's top diplomat Duke (duc) de Talleyrand once put it very cogently, “This is worse than a crime, it is a mistake!” In the end, the Danish Prince Hamlet wreaks vengeance (at long last!), turning the revenge tragedy into a Rambo-style bloodbath, in which he is himself killed.

There are also two revenge subplots in the play. In the less important one, Prince Hamlet's father, King Hamlet Sr., has killed in single combat on the battle-field the king of Norway. In revenge, his orphaned son, Prince Fortinbras of Norway, prepares to invade Denmark militarily in order to take over the Danish throne (which he eventually does at the end of the play). In the second revenge subplot, the young Paris-based scholar Laertes seeks vengeance for the murder of his father, the foolish but innocuous Lord Polonius, whom Prince Hamlet has most thoughtlessly and carelessly killed, somehow mistaking him for “the smiling villain”—that is, King Claudius. He has also seduced Laertes' younger sister, “innocent” and “fair” Ophelia, only to refuse to marry her later on. We learn what exactly has happened from poor Ophelia's mournful Saint Valentine's song (Act 4, Scene 5: 46-55, 58-66). Aware that the deflowered Ophelia could no longer marry a nobleman, Hamlet urges her to join a “nunnery,” but in her subsequent lunacy she chooses instead to drown herself. Which is another reason why a vengeful Laertes assassinates Hamlet by stabbing him with his poisoned-tip rapier during a demonstration duel at Elsinore Castle (involving some Las Vegas-style gambling about who will win the duel).

What has “sweet” and “innocent” Ophelia done to deserve such a grievously terrible fate? In her Valentine Day's song, a deranged Ophelia seems to blame herself, as much as Hamlet, for her cruel plight: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donned his clothes, / And dupped the chamber door, / Let in the maid that out a maid / Never departed more.” / “By Gis and by Saint Charity, / Alack, and fie for shame! / Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; / By Cock, they are to blame. / Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.'” / He answers, “'So would I ha' done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to my bed.'” (Act 4, Scene 5: 48-55, 58-66). But is “pretty” Ophelia really to blame for her tragic demise, rather than her arrogant, abrasive, irresponsible (and perhaps careless) princely ex-lover?

When they are all alone in Scene 3, Hamlet pitilessly asks Ophelia: “Why wouldst thou be a / breeder of sinners?... What should such fellows / as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are / arrant knaves; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery” (3.1.122-123, 128-131). What Hamlet implies is that men, his princely self included, are so evil (all “arrant knaves,” in his own words) that an “innocent” young woman like Ophelia should not give herself to any of them, get married or give birth to any future “sinners,” but become a nun instead. With these pessimistic and misanthropic words, Hamlet is letting her know that their earlier blossoming romance is suddenly over. His gratuitous cruelty to her drives the poor (and pregnant?) girl to insanity and suicide, which only reinforces Laertes' angry determination to avenge the murder of his father Polonius by killing Hamlet by all possible means—fair or foul.

In the graveyard (where the drowned Ophelia is to be soon buried), Hamlet is holding in his hands the skull of his favorite court jester Yorick, sorrowfully asking it: “Where be your gibes now, your gambols, / your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to / set the table on a roar? / Not one now, to mock your own / grinning? Quite chopfallen?” (5.1.176-179). His unanswerable but foreboding questions about one's physical mortality and the death of one's supposedly immortal soul set the darker mood and atmosphere for the play's tragic finale, which culminates in several self-destructive acts of vengeance and the violent deaths of the main characters—Queen Gertrude, King Claudius, Laertes, and Prince Hamlet himself.


To Err is Human, to Avenge—Divine

Hamlet asks in his memorable soliloquy, “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” (Act 3, Scene 1: 57-61). Like all other characters in Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet speaks in poetry (poetic Diction). As a result, he often thinks in metaphors (“All the world's a stage”). This figurative language (poetic language) also affects what emotions Hamlet feels and how he emotionally responds to the world around him and to the situations in which he finds himself. For example, Hamlet refers to his life's troubles as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (another metaphor).

At this point in the plot, Hamlet faces a choice: must he oppose evil even at his own peril? Should he put up with an unbearable situation (the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”) and do nothing? Or confront evil and try putting an end to it? In other words, must he avenge the suspected murder of his father? Or remain a passive observer at court? Isn't death preferable to an unhappy, wretched life? Hamlet says, “To die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” (Act 3, Scene 1: 65-69). Hamlet is considering suicide and is wondering if death might be like a deep sleep or a dream, which is much preferable to the disgusting reality of Denmark. But he fears the “dreams” of the afterlife, since what comes after death is so totally uncertain as to give everyone pondering suicide a “pause.” In other words, Hamlet is afraid that such an un-Christian death might bring the nightmares of the netherworld, rather than a dreamy, sleep-like relief from his earthly sufferings and gloomy daydreaming about revenge.

Hamlet asks: “Who would fardels bear, / To grant and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (Act 3, Scene 1: 77-83). Isn't a suicide an easy way out of such an “evil” and “rotten” world? What would Hamlet prefer: the familiar burdens of an “weary life” on earth? Or the unknowns of death, that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns”? Hamlet's “dread” of the uncertainties of death, which is paralyzing his will to avenge his father's murder, persuades him to abandon his thoughts of suicide. He will confront his earthly problems head-on (including what to do, in revenge, with his uncle).

There is a fourth revenge plot in Hamlet that the play's Commentary does not even mention (I have described the other three plots above). King Claudius wants revenge on his nephew and stepson Hamlet for killing the King's best friend and most trusted adviser, Lord Polonius. Unwilling to alienate Queen Gertrude by openly punishing her son, Claudius sends Hamlet to England, where he is to be put to death on secret orders from the King. But Hamlet intercepts the royal letter carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of his best friends who are, however, acting in this case as secret agents for the King. He alters the letter's contents so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are put to death upon docking in England, instead of him. In the meantime, King Claudius is shaken by the tragic suicide of “poor” Ophelia, for which he blames Hamlet alone, refusing to believe in his stepson's insanity defense. That is why the King conspires with a vengeful Laertes to have Hamlet killed during a friendly duel with Laertes at Elsinore Castle. Laertes dips in poison the unprotected tip of his rapier before dueling with and wounding the young Prince, while the King puts poison in Hamlet's drink. But their revenge conspiracy backfires and ends in total disaster. With nearly everyone in the royal court dead or dying, a foreign prince, Fortinbras of Norway, arrives on the scene and takes over the kingdom of Denmark.

So, vengeance is the most important theme in this Elizabethan revenge tragedy. In ancient (pagan) Greek mythology, revenge and vengeance were a privilege reserved only for the Olympian Gods like Zeus and Apollo, but were denied to mere mortals like Oedipus or Lysistrata, for example. Nemesis was the pagan Greek goddess of Revenge and Divine Retribution who punished all mortals offending the Olympian Gods and their laws. According to the classical Greek playwright Euripides (Medea; Electra; Bacchae; The Trojan Women), those humans whom Nemesis wished to destroy, she first made mad. Which seems to be exactly what happened to Ophelia and perhaps even to Prince Hamlet himself.

The most important universal theme in Hamlet is indeed that of revenge, but there are other important themes as well. One of them is parental love, such as Queen Gertrude's tender love for her troubled son, Prince Hamlet. Or Lord Polonius' tragic love for his ill-fated daughter, “pretty” and “sweet” Ophelia that Prince Hamlet ultimately destroys. And also for his scholarly son Laertes, whom Polonius very wisely advises on the eve of his son's Paris-bound departure: “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act. / Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. / Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel, / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. Beware / Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, / Bear't that th'opposed may beware of thee. / Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. / Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment. / Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, / But not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy, / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.... / Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For a loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the 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.” (Act 1, Scene 3: 58-71, 74-79). In other words, Polonius' fatherly advice is, “Don’t say openly what you’re thinking, and don’t be too quick to act on what you think. Be friendly to all people but don’t overdo it. Once you’ve tested out your friends and found them trustworthy, hold onto them. But don’t waste your time befriending every new guy you meet. Don’t be quick to pick a fight, but once you’re in one, hold your own. Listen to many people, but talk to few. Hear everyone’s opinion, but reserve your judgment. Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man.... Don’t borrow money and don’t lend it, since when you lend to a friend, you often lose the friendship as well as the money, and borrowing turns a person into a profligate. And, above all, be true to yourself. Then you won’t be false to anybody else.” One wishes that young Laertes had followed his father's sagacious advice.


Stratfordians vs Oxfordians

I am surprised that the play's Commentary (pp. 363-369) omits to mention the big and still raging controversy regarding the authorship of Hamlet and all other Shakespearean works. Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian-born neurologist and founder of modern psychoanalysis, was among the early skeptics, who questioned the conventional wisdom that the “untutored” and “provincial” actor Bill Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet: “I no longer believe that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him.... It is undeniably painful to all of us that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare, whether it was in fact the untutored son of the provincial citizen of Stratford, who attained a modest position as an actor in London” (Freud, Autobiographical Study, 1927: 130). Dr. Freud, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi and other famous doubters (collectively known as the “anti-Stratfordians”) felt that the author of Hamlet and all other Shakespearean plays was somebody with an aristocratic sensibility, who was extremely well-educated for his time and very familiar with the royal court's politics and etiquette, spoke several foreign languages, including Classical Greek and Latin, and had traveled and lived abroad, in particular Italy.

Speaking in the PBS's recent Shakespeare Uncovered TV series (2015), the probably best Shakespearean actor alive today, Derek Jacobi, claims that most British historians and literary critics (the so-called “Oxfordians”) now believe that Shakespeare's plays and sonnets were all written by somebody else, not the uneducated “Bard” from Stratford-upon-Avon. Their author is most likely Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), who used the name of one of his protégés, the little known and semi-literate amateur stage actor Bill Shakespir, to present them to the admiring English public. This all happened at a time when a highly-placed aristocrat like Lord de Vere would have been disgraced in the eyes of Queen Elizabeth I and the other top noblemen serving in the royal court, had he published his literary creations under his own titled name. The “Bard” from Stratford-upon-Avon himself mentions some secret friend and benefactor who had helped him financially with staging his plays and publishing his sonnets. There are also doubts about whether the “Bard” was really semi-literate (tutored to read, but not to write), as rumored, because when he died in 1616, he left no letters, poems, papers or books whatsoever behind—not a single one of “his” literary manuscripts, not a Bible, nor even a prayer book (in those days, the latter two books would be found in the home of every literate English Christian). His wife Anne Hathaway and his three kids—Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet—were all known to be illiterate. Bill himself never signed anything throughout his life (about which practically nothing is known to historians), using instead a stamp with his own inscribed signature: “Just a mere glance at his pathetic efforts to sign his name (illiterate scrawls) should forever eliminate Shakespeare from further consideration in this question—he could not write” (as the University of Chicago Professor Mortimer J. Adler wrote in a letter dated November 7, 1997).

But once you accept actor Derek Jacoby's contention that Bill Shakespir was not the author of the Shakespearean plays and sonnets, and attribute them to their far more likely creator, the foreign-traveled (he even lived for awhile in Italy) and extraordinarily erudite for his time (Master of Art degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge universities) and even for his aristocratic station Edward de Vere, everything seems to fall into place. Old conundrums that Shakespearean scholars have spent many a sleepless night trying to solve are no longer shrouded in mystery or controversy. For many years literary scholars have marveled why Shakespeare so viciously maligned the character of King Richard III, totally misrepresenting him in his history play Richard III as a physically deformed (a hunchback, no less) and evil-minded usurper of the English throne. But it is clear to the “Oxfordians” that Edward de Vere used his on-stage misrepresentation of Richard III to attack the reputation and unbridled power of his real-life uncle/guardian and political rival, the unscrupulous Lord High Treasurer Sir William Cecil, as well as his physically deformed and equally unscrupulous son, Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen's Secretary whom Elizabeth fondly called “Pygmy” and who inherited his father's all-powerful mantle at the royal court. Obviously, it did not matter much to the resentful Earl of Oxford that he was married to one of Sir William's daughters, Anne.

By contrast, not only did the petty commodity merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon have no reason to cross swords with the all too mighty Cecil family, but had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have most likely spent the rest of his miserable life imprisoned in the Tower of London (if he could avoid a swifter punishment by “beheading and quartering”). Not so with the powerful 17th Earl of Oxford, who was one of the “Virgin” Queen's favorite lovers and even fathered one of her illegitimate children—a son, who later became the illustrious Sir Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) and whom the supposedly childless Elizabeth dotted on (at least until his participation in the Earl of Essex's ill-fated armed revolt in 1601 against the Cecils' dominance over the Royal Palace). In fact, the Earl of Southampton was another of Bill Shakespir's generous benefactors.

For many years the so-called “Stratfordians”—that is, the pro-Bill Skakespir literary scholars—have racked their brains, trying to figure out the mysterious identity of the “Dark Lady,” appearing in several of Shakespeare's love sonnets. Some believed that she might have been a “veiled” married aristocrat whom the “Bard from Avon” met secretly following the afternoon matinées of the Globe Theater. Others believed that she might have been more likely an unknown barmaid from London Towne whom the “Bard” dated during his long absences from home and family in Stratford. But if the “Oxfordians” are right, it is quite clear that our “Dark Lady” was none other than Oxford's royal lover, Queen Elizabeth, who was often veiled in public and who liked dressing (though not posing for portraits) in black to stress her unmarried status. So, all these love sonnets were, in fact, a lover's passionate praise for and a royal courtier's self-serving flattery of the so-called Virgin Queen, who knew but disapproved of Edward de Vere's literary aspirations and pretensions. Another Shakespearean mystery is laid to rest. As Hamlet says in Act 5, Scene 2: “The rest is silence”....

Here is another literary surprise: acrostic codes have been discovered embedded in many Shakespearean sonnets that appear to be messages from fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, not from the “Bard” or even from Edward de Vere, which some literary scholars interpret as proof that Marlowe was the real author of William Shakespeare's poetry. The word “acrostic” means that something is written in a cryptographic or “constrained” form (from the old French noun acrostiche, which is derived from acrostichis, meaning “constrained” in Latin). An acrostic poem is thus one in which a particular word or name is spelled out by the first letter of each line, usually indicating the poem's topic or the person to whom it is dedicated.

One ought to see the remarkable British movie Anonymous (2011), a political thriller in which Derek Jacobi plays the Narrator, Rafe Spall is William Shakespeare, Vanessa Redgrave stars as Queen Elizabeth I, and Rhys Ifans plays the drama- and poetry-composing Sir Edward de Vere (the “real” author of Hamlet, as it appears from the movie). According to the DVD-attached interviews with the movie's artistic creators, German film director Ronald Emmerich and Hollywood screenwriter John Orloff, Hamlet is a largely autobiographical play most likely penned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (perhaps with the help of either Christopher Marlow or Ben Johnson, or maybe even both) and is based on Thomas Kyd's older Ur-Hamlet model. According to the two interviewees, the play is partly based on the Earl of Oxford's complicated life story (he was rumored to be Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son, raised by his own all-powerful uncle/guardian to become later the unsuspecting Virgin Queen's lover and father of one of her illegitimate children, the 3rd Earl of Southampton). Anonymous thus seems to be a disputatious retort to Josh Madden's Oscar-winning but ridiculously superficial love fantasy Shakespeare in Love (1998), mentioned approvingly in the play's Commentary (p. 363).



At the play's finale, the viewer is still left with the unanswered question: should one seek justice even if it means risking one's own life? In other words, should Hamlet avenge the treacherous murder of his father even if he himself might end up dead? Hamlet asks the tragedy's most important dramatic question in this memorable soliloquy, “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” (3.1.57-61). At this point in the dramatic plot, he faces a philosophical dilemma: should he reconcile himself to his great personal loss and family tragedy (the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”) and do nothing to oppose evil? Or confront his murderous uncle Claudius and avenge his father's assassination, as the ghost has implored him to?

Alternatively, is a quiet, “dream-like” death preferable to an unhappy, wretched life on earth? A melancholy Hamlet is disgusted with the horrible world he lives in, as he muses: “To die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause.” (3.1.65-69). Hamlet is quite obviously considering the possibility of dying, for he wonders if death might not be like a restful deep sleep or an eternal dream, which to him seems preferable to living in Denmark's “rotten” reality. At the same time, he fears the “dreams” of the afterlife, since what comes after death is so unknown as to give “pause” to everyone pondering suicide. He fears in particular that an un-Christian death (like a suicide) might bring all the nightmares of Hell, rather than dreamy, sleep-like relief from his earthly suffering and daydreams about vengeance.

Finally, is Hamlet really considering suicide as a kind of Ophelia-style escape from the “evils” of this “rotten” world? A hesitant Hamlet asks himself, “Who would fardels bear, / To grant and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (3.1.77-83). What would Hamlet prefer? The familiar burdens of a “weary life” on earth, or the unknowns of death—that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns”? Hamlet's “dread” of the uncertainties of death, which has paralyzed his will to act, evidently persuades him to abandon any thought of killing himself. He resolves instead to punish that “smiling, damned villain,” King Claudius. But it is the King who acts first (along with his secret co-conspirator Laertes) rather than the vengeful Hamlet.

In concluding, I urge everybody to see all Hamlet films, of which there are at least a dozen made in English (the plots of some of them have been moved to modern times). They all feature famous actors (Lawrence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi, among others) and present very different (and memorable) interpretations of the play. For example, the brilliantly-filmed black-and-white Russian version (1964), in which the Danish Prince is played by the legendary Russian actor Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy, leaves no doubt at all that King Claudius is guilty. During Hamlet's mischievous staging of The Murder of Gonzago at Elsinore, the King gets a heart attack (or a stroke) and runs out of the darkened hall in panic, clutching his throat and screaming (in Russian) “Light! Light! Somebody bring me light!” By contrast, I remember very little (except for Sam Waterston's excellent acting) from the one and only time I ever saw Hamlet performed on stage—at the Shakespeare in the Park annual festival in New York City's Central Park (free tickets).


Works Cited

Anonymous. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Derek Jacobi, Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, and Joely Richardson. Colombia Pictures, 2011. Film.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. pp. 363-470. Print.