Mahatma Gandhi once said “an eye for an eye makes the world blind. ” This quote quite simply means revenge, or getting even, makes losers of us all; obviously condemning revenge. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare portrays this topic in a similar way, indicating strong disapproval of vengeance. This play opens with Hamlet discovering that the death of his father (and King) was done by his uncle who remarried the Queen (Hamlet’s mother) and took the crown of Denmark. Hamlet wants revenge, but first needs proof that it was definitely Claudius.
In finding proof, Hamlet angers Laertes who ends up seeking revenge on Hamlet while Fortinbras is seeking revenge on all of Denmark. Eventually, Claudius and Laertes formulate a plan to kill Hamlet, but all three, and more, end up dead leaving Fortinbras with the crown of Denmark. This plot, from beginning to end, was carried by revenge from mainly Fortinbras, Laertes, and of course, Hamlet. The play has a dismal ending and as it revolved around revenge, one can deduce that the theme was condemning revenge, specifically that the revenge will most likely result in bad situations and unfortunate circumstances.
The genre of Hamlet, while obviously a tragedy, is often specified further as a revenge tragedy. Revenge, according to the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a “cancer of the mind and soul,” and this Shakespearean play supports this. A tragedy is defined as when “a character undergoes suffrage or downfall” (Goldey). In Hamlet, this suffrage and downfall is caused by revenge. Revenge tragedies that were “extremely popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre” require the “completion of an act of violence in response to an original affront” (Stott).
With this being said, the main plot of this play is Hamlet trying to complete the act of killing Claudius in response to Claudius’ original act of killing King Hamlet. Additionally, we know this play ends in a “blood bath” (Barnaby) and we know from Andrew Stott that “according to the laws of revenge tragedy, all those who kill must in turn be killed. ” Throughout the play, Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all were somehow responsible for at least one death; consequently, they each died. As for the other deaths, they were as a result of revenge around them.
By all definitions, Hamlet was a revenge tragedy, meaning it was a tragedy based on, and driven by revenge. The theme of this play is revenge, specifically that revenge will most likely result in bad situations and unfortunate circumstances. Revenge can be found all throughout this play. For example, Fortinbras was only a minor character, but even he was trying to avenge something. In battle, King Hamlet (of Denmark) killed his arch nemesis, the King of Norway. The prince of Norway, Fortinbras, therefore wanted revenge on all of Denmark for the death of his father.
Fortinbras is “spending all of his time worrying about Denmark who isn’t a real threat to his country” (Goldey). Shakespeare is showing that Fortinbras’ time could be much better spent for his country rather than trying to get revenge for himself. Also, as Dr. Kline from UTEP states “Fortinbras has no real reason to attack Poland,” but is thought to have done it in order to fulfill his revenge and eventually attack Denmark. Dr. Kline also states “thousands of men died, over a barren patch of land” regarding Fortinbras attack on Poland.
Through analysis, it is clear that ultimately because of revenge, thousands of men died for essentially nothing and for essentially no reason. Fortinbras’ rein is led by getting revenge for himself while not being as cautious about matters regarding his nation; that causes him to make bad decisions. Shakespeare is portraying to the audience that while he may avenge his father’s death, the amount of wrong-doings is more notable. He may eventually get the country of Denmark, but his reputation and public opinion suffered because of revenge.
Through Fortinbras, Shakespeare is indicating revenge is over-consuming and a bad idea. Shakespeare also gave Laertes the unfortunate desire for revenge towards Hamlet that eventually got him killed. Laertes’ sister, Ophelia, was Hamlet’s “lover” and his father, Polonius, was the political advisor of Denmark. In scene four of act three, Hamlet “kills Polonius by thrusting a rapier through the arras” (Shakespeare). Then, for the killing of Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England which takes away the second of the main two men (Polonius and Hamlet) in Ophelia’s life. She then commits suicide.
So, whether it is true or not, Laertes sees only Hamlet to blame for the deaths in his family and henceforth wants revenge. Laertes, either because of his revengeful nature or some other external factor, is not well respected as a character. Philip Edwards stated “[Hamlet in the end] descends to the level of Laertes. ” Since the end is when Hamlet attempts to avenge his father’s murder, and Edwards indicates a low respect towards Laertes, it can be deduced that the lack of respect is due to the revenge he seeks. After Laertes successfully avenges his family’s deaths, he turns into a different person.
As he and Hamlet are both dying, he says: ”He is justly served. It is a poison tempered by himself. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s deaths come not upon thee, Nor thine on me. ” (Shakespeare) Essentially, he is telling Hamlet what happened, apologizing for everything and “clearing the air” (proverb). This shows a personality shift in his character (from negative to positive) that results from the burden of revenge being lifted. Shakespeare is showing Laertes is good without revenge hovering over him, but bad when it is.
His point is revenge brings out the worst in people, further supporting the theme. Obviously, the main character in this play is Hamlet and his revenge is the main subject that carries the plot. Hamlet meets with the ghost of his father, the previous King, who tells him Claudius is the murderer and goes on to ask Hamlet to avenge his death. Hamlet questioned the validity of the ghost’s story so needed his own proof before he did avenge it. Once he acquired the necessary proof, the revenge was “slow-moving” and “difficult” (Goldey) and a lot went wrong along the way.
For example, as discussed in Ms. Goldey’s lecture, Hamlet thought Claudius was hiding behind the sheets so he stabbed the sheets; when in reality, it was Polonius. So, an accidental death of an ‘innocent’ man came from Hamlet’s desire to avenge (which is similar to Gertrude and Ophelia’s deaths). Also due to the revenge he seeks, as Joanna M. Byles says, he “thinks constantly of suicide or murderous revenge; at times, he is totally absorbed by these deathly desires”. It is apparent that nobody wants that for themselves so Shakespeare, yet again, is proving why revenge is bad.
Ultimately because of Hamlet’s attempted revenge, eight characters die, including Hamlet himself. What outcome is worse than death? None. Shakespeare is providing even more evidence of why revenge leads to nothing good. As previously explained and supported, the theme of Hamlet is negative on the subject of revenge. Revenge is found all throughout the play and each time, Shakespeare is providing examples that support why revenge is bad. Eleanor Prosser from Stanford University, who wrote Hamlet and Revenge, could not have done a better job explaining the theme of Hamlet.
She said “Revenge was a sin against God, a defiance of the State, a cancer that could destroy mind, body and soul — and that was that”. She, presumably like Shakespeare, believed revenge was abhorred as a violation of civil, religious and personal sanctions (University of California, Santa Cruz). In brevity, Prosser considered revenge to be immoral, illegal, and unhealthy. According to the theme of Hamlet, so did Shakespeare. As Mahatma Gandhi said what he said, Shakespeare would say something along the lines of “a corpse for a corpse and everyone dies. ” This is what he showed in Hamlet.
Based on the events, characters and plot of this play, it is clear that the theme was revenge is never the answer and will lead to bad situations and circumstances. Fortinbras, Laertes and Hamlet all wanted to avenge their father’s deaths along with other things; none of their attempts worked out the way they hoped. The theme Hamlet can be described by Gandhi’s quote, “an eye for an eye makes the world blind,” simply meaning revenge is never the answer. Works Cited Goldey, Michelle. “Hamlet. ” Chesapeake High School. Pasadena, MD. Dec. 2010. Lecture. Summary of the Play. Ed. Kline. UTEP, – . Web. 10 Jan. 2011. Teuber, Andreas. Tragic Balance in ‘Hamlet’. Ed. Philip Edwards. Brandeis University, – . Web. 8 Jan. 2011. ;. Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Revenge in Hamlet. Ed. Joanna M. Byles. PsyArt, -2005. Web. 8 Jan. 2011. ;. University of Buffalo (UB) English Department. Hamlet. Revision Sheet.. Ed. Andrew Stott. University of Buffalo, – . Web. 8 Jan. 2011. ;. University of California, Santa Cruz. Oh Vengeance!. University of California, Santa Cruz, – . Web. 8 Jan. 2011. ;. University of Vermont English Department. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Ed. Andrew Barnaby. University of Vermont, 22 Feb. 2008. Web. 8 Jan. 2011. ;.