Hamlet and Death WishJust for grins, let's suspend our disbelief and consider how a comparison between Hamlet and Death Wish might actually be useful, enlightening, and interesting. Both are...

Hamlet and Death Wish

Just for grins, let's suspend our disbelief and consider how a comparison between Hamlet and Death Wish might actually be useful, enlightening, and interesting. Both are revenge dramas. How do Hamlet and Paul Kersey--the sensitive, educated liberal played by Charles Bronson--resemble each other? How are they different? In Death Wish, each pent-up blast from Paul Kersey's pistol gives us the vicarious pleasure of revenge. Does Hamlet give us the same pleasure or not? Paul Kersey survives at the end of Death Wish; Hamlet dies. What moral or opinion about revenge does Shakespeare seem to be expressing?

Asked on by quentin1

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

There is one definite connection between Death Wish and Hamlet. The tool of vengence is not a perfect tool of justice. 

As pointed out above, the character of Hamlet is destroyed and consumed in his role as the the Figure of Revenge. He is not "good" or innocent. This is true of Bronson as well. However righteous his rage may be, Bronson's character chooses to cross the line and defeat evil with evil. 

We might argue that justice is done in both stories, but this justice is not carried out by a white knight but by a sullied individual who, so sullied, has nothing left to lose morally. 

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I believe it is also a conscious reaction to the gratuitous violence of Elizabethan revenge drama, which tended to portray murder graphically on stage. (Rather like Charles Bronson, perhaps.)

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I do not think Hamlet gives us the vicarious pleasure of seeing a terrible deed avenged. Claudius indeed dies at Hamlet's hands at the end of the play, but not until the chain of events he sets in motion with the murder of Hamlet's father has destroyed every major character in the play. We also see throughout the play that Hamlet's desire for revenge consumes him--in the end, it kills him both physically, and, we might argue by that point, mentally as well. So I don't think the two compare all that well, as Shakespeare delves far deeper into exploring the ambiguities and costs of revenge than does the Bronson film (as I remember it.)

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quentin1 | (Level 2) Honors

Posted on

Great stuff from everyone here! These are the kinds of in-depth answers I really look for in literary discussions, especially about those really tough works like Hamlet that don't yield their secrets easily. Thank you!!

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quentin1 | (Level 2) Honors

Posted on

One more thought and then I'll drop this topic--it is kind of silly, I guess. One aspect of the Hamlet/Death Wish contrast that intrigues me is how sophisticated and nuanced the violence and murder scenes are in Hamlet opposed to Death Wish and revenge dramas like it. To me, Shakespeare seems to be questioning how we as an audience should respond to violence and vengeance. In DWII, for example, Bronson corners a criminal and says, "Do you believe in Jesus? You're about to meet him!" Then he caps the guy. As an audience, we're supposed to feel vindication, pleasure, and maybe some mirth besides. When Hamlet knifes Polonius in Act III, he also makes jokes, but the jokes are unfunny, Hamlet's behavior is confusing, and we're left wondering what to make of the whole scene. The violence throughout is shocking, confusing, and baffling. The play's ambiguities are puzzling and frustrating at times, but I'm wondering if ambiguity, confusion, and shock are precisely the emotions Shakespeare wanted to provoke and elicit.

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quentin1 | (Level 2) Honors

Posted on

Thanks for the thoughtful answer. For me, the only useful idea that comes out of the comparison--which ends up being more of a contrast--is that Death Wish seems like the kind of revenge drama that Shakespeare was deliberately striving NOT to write. I've often wondered if Shakespeare might have been annoyed and perhaps offended by the revenge dramas of his own day and if Hamlet on one level was a response to or criticism of them.

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