Is Hamlet merely just a play about revenge? If not, what else?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is not just a play about revenge.

While it is true that Hamlet does spend most of the play seeking to avenge his father’s death at the hands of King Claudius, events intervene and get in the way of his efforts.

Hamlet even passes up a golden opportunity to kill King Claudius in Act III. This happens when King Claudius is alone, praying to God for forgiveness of his murder of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet, undetected, comes upon Claudius and hears him praying:

Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.

When Hamlet hears these words of prayer, he takes out his sword and then decides not to take this opportunity to kill Claudius:

Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

His reasoning is that, if he kills Claudius now, while he is praying, he may be sending him to heaven. But if he waits until Claudius is doing something sinful, he will go to hell.

This is a classic example of Hamlet’s indecision. Does he really even want to kill Claudius at all? The reader has to wonder, because his rationale here, that killing a praying Claudius will send him to heaven, is shaky at best.

Consider this, along with Hamlet’s timeless “To be or not to be” soliloquy, to be Shakespeare’s way of showing us that murder and revenge are not as easy to commit as one might think. The play is at least as much about the agony of making a morally ambiguous decision as it is about revenge.