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The act of revenge never fails to gather an audience, due to the simple fact that revenge raises one of the great questions in regards to human life: how does one seek justice when the law ceases to function properly? William Shakespeare tapped into the human fascination for the act of revenge, and produced a play which has revenge as its predominant motif. Hamlet has not one, but three revenge plots; each interrelated in a most mesmerizing manner. In the play, young Fortinbras, young Hamlet, and Laertes all act to avenge their slain fathers. The first plot is because of the slaying of King Fortinbras of Norway by King Hamlet of Denmark; “…our valiant Hamlet – for so this side of our known world esteem’d him – did slay this Fortinbras” (1.1.96-98). As a result, Fortinbras seeks revenge against Denmark. Hamlet wants revenge for the murder of his father by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. The final revenge plot involves Laertes getting revenge against Hamlet for the death of Laertes’ father, Polonius. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses revenge as the major force that drives the play, and shows that revenge taken rashly rather than through reason leads to downfall.
All acts of revenge have four steps. The first step of seeking vengeance is a motivation for action. In the opening scene, Horatio asserts: “But to recover of us, by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost” (1.1.114-116). Following that speech by Horatio, the motivation for Fortinbras’s revenge becomes known; Fortinbras wishes to reclaim the lands lost to Denmark when his father was killed. Hamlet’s revenge is also introduced; the Ghost of Old Hamlet speaks to the Prince for the first time, and Hamlet learns his father’s death had been a murder. The guilt lay squarely on the shoulders of Denmark’s new King; “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown” (1.5.46-47). The Ghost orders Hamlet to, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.31). Hamlet does not trust the Ghost, and accepts the fact that he lacks actual proof to justify killing Claudius. The majority of Denmark was Protestant during the setting of the play, including Hamlet. He had attended Wittenberg, a Protestant school, and Protestants did not believe in purgatory, or ghosts either, which leads Hamlet to think the ghost is a demon. Accordingly, before Hamlet will act on the Ghost’s words, Hamlet will use his scholarly ability to confirm it in his own manner. Unlike Fortinbras, who is ordered to do nothing, Hamlet’s efforts towards revenge and proving his uncle’s guilt are hindered by his indecisiveness in taking his revenge on Claudius.
With his motivation for revenge, Hamlet remains suspicious of his uncle’s apparent guilt. Hamlet attempts to remove his high suspicions by feigning madness, so he can do and say almost anything he wants to, without fear of rebuke. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (2.2.206). Polonius, in addition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends, are used by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. Unbeknownst to Claudius, Hamlet sees right through their false words, and effortlessly recognizes Claudius’s true intentions. While faking lunacy, Hamlet bides his time while he figures out what to do in regards to revenging his father; by following his initial suspicion, Hamlet figures out a way to prove Claudius’s guilt. A traveling acting company visits Elsinore Castle, and Hamlet first asks the players to perform a speech that particularly harps on the revenge motif; “With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus, old grandsire Priam seeks,” (2.2.488-489). Hamlet requests the speech because Pyrrhus resembles Hamlet in that his mission is to kill a king in revenge for his father’s death; Pyrrhus’ father was Achilles who famously died from an arrow wound in the ankle. He also resembles Claudius in that Pyrrhus is the murderer of the rightful king of Troy. In the soliloquy, Pyrrhus is presented as a hellish character, without remorse or pity. Hamlet may have also asked for the speech because he questions the morality of revenge and the speech’s portrayal of Pyrrhus helps him to confirm these doubts in his mind. Hamlet then has a spur of the moment idea, and plans to have the players perform a play; the play in mind is, “The Murder of Gonzago.” Hamlet expresses his plan, saying, “…the play ‘s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (2.2633-634). It mimics the method in which King Hamlet was purported to have been murdered by Claudius. Hamlet’s plan will remove all doubt, so his revenge can take place.
Thus, Hamlet’s confirmation of his suspicion will occur after Claudius watches the play; Claudius’ reaction will remove all suspicion of the Ghost’s words so that Hamlet can have his revenge. Hamlet tells Claudius the play is called, “The Mouse-trap” (3.2.261). Claudius flees the room after seeing the play, and Hamlet fittingly shouts, “What, frighted with false fire!” (3.2.292). Hamlet’s affirmation of his uncle’s guilt allows him to take vengeance; “Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on” (3.2.422-424). Hamlet comes upon Claudius when he seems to be praying, so he decides to delay his killing, because he is convinced that killing Claudius while he is praying will send him to Heaven which would ultimately disallow his revenge; “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven; And so am I revenged” (3.3.77-79). Ironically, Claudius, “And that his soul may be as damn’d and black as hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.99-100), is not praying, because he is unable to repent. Hamlet’s delay in achieving his revenge unfolds into his undoing.
Hamlet now has a good motive, and no longer any doubt of Claudius’s guilt. Hamlet needs only to kill Claudius, and his revenge will be complete. But Hamlet’s short temper and blind rage causes him to kill Polonius, “How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!” (3.4.29), thinking he was killing Claudius (whom he believed to be spying on Gertrude and Hamlet) instead. Hamlet damns himself, and Hamlet’s vengeance will have a major complication; as a result of her father’s murder, Ophelia committed suicide, and Laertes now wishes to kill Hamlet to seek his own revenge. Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes are now all in similar predicaments; it is the honorable thing to do to revenge slain fathers, and that is exactly what they each plan to do. Laertes and Hamlet are both infatuated with revenge to the point at which they will act quickly without thinking, and ignore the consequences. Claudius orders Hamlet to England, with the apparent intent to collect tribute, but his real intent is for Hamlet to be executed, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be there to observe his death. On his way, Hamlet comes across the army of prince Fortinbras, where he makes his final, and most important, soliloquy. Much is said about revenge and his failure to have accomplished it: “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!” (4.4.33-34). Hamlet becomes distressed that he has yet to kill Claudius, and it seems that everything now reminds him of his unaccomplished mission. Hamlet vows he will have his vengeance, and nothing will stop him from killing Claudius; “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”(4.4.68-69). In his final soliloquy, Hamlet shows extreme respect towards Fortinbras because of his apparent readiness to risk everything only to gain a small, unusable patch of ground in the name of honor. Hamlet is angered that he has waited so long to take his revenge, and will not be delayed any longer. Meanwhile, Laertes and Claudius are concocting a scheme to kill Hamlet. Laertes, in his blind rage, takes Claudius’s words to be the whole truth. The two agree to stage a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and Laertes will use an unbated, poison-soaked sword. “I’ll touch my point with this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly, it may be death” (4.7.166-168). Laertes is bloodthirsty for revenge, and it seems he will be successful, because Hamlet apparently trusts him, and will not expect Laertes to drop to Claudius’s level.
However, Claudius largely underestimates Hamlet, who said he would make his enemies, “Hoist with his own petard: and ‘t shall go hard but I will delve one yard below their mines, and blow them at the moon” (3.4.230-232). As a result, Claudius and Laertes will die by their own apparent trap. Hamlet returns having previously sent a letter to Claudius that said he would be returning to Denmark alone. He implied he had done away with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, having made a royal order that executed them in England. Horatio notes that Hamlet is now acting rather kingly, “Why, what a king is that!” ((5.2.70) By ordering the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet is on the path of vengeance, and is assuredly now a decisive, smarter person. Hamlet confronts Laertes, and offers an apology, which Laertes refuses. Laertes is still too angered to back down from his position, and his anger will bring about his death.
Consequently, Hamlet and Laertes engage in their duel. Laertes strikes Hamlet, and mortally wounds him, “It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain; No medicine in the world can do thee good; In thee there is not half an hour of life.” (5.2.344-346) However, Hamlet strikes Laertes with the same foil, and Laertes shouts, “I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery” (5.2.337), and accepts his own death. Laertes is revenged, in that Hamlet will die. Yet, he does not blame Hamlet in the end, but rather, Claudius. After Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine, and dies, and after his own fatal wound, Hamlet kills Claudius, “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother” (5.2.337-339), and Claudius dies, following Gertrude into death. Hamlet’s revenge is achieved, but at great cost to him – his own life. Before his last breath, Hamlet names Fortinbras the new King of Denmark, which makes Fortinbras’s revenge complete as well, as his is now ruler of Denmark.
Revenge is the driving force of Hamlet and is what brings about the death of Hamlet and Laertes and the rise of Fortinbras. Hamlet waits too long to take his revenge, and then acts suddenly and thoughtlessly, which allows Laertes to mark him a dead man. However, the same spontaneous and hasty pursuit of revenge also brings about Laertes’ death. Ironically, Hamlet and Laertes (and Claudius as well) all die by the same sword because of their blind fury and lack of foresight. Only Fortinbras acts smartly and with a keen eye. He first pretends not to attack Denmark by instead indicating as though he were going to attack Poland, when his true intentions were to invade Denmark all along. Because of his steadfastness and patience he is able to exact his revenge and live through it as well.
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