One of the most hotly debated issues concerning the title character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is whether or not Hamlet’s desire for revenge is justified. Some readers have long censured Hamlet for his supposed “delay” in taking revenge, and indeed many essays and books have been written trying to explain the reasons for that delay. On the other hand, some readers have rejected altogether the idea that Hamlet should even consider taking revenge, let alone actually do so. These readers have called attention to the standard Christian injunction against revenge, noting that the Bible taught that punishment of evil should be left in God’s hands. These readers inevitably cite Romans 12:19:
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
In an ideal world, Hamlet should have let God deal with Claudius. According to readers who embrace this view, there are a number of reasons that Hamlet should have refrained from any efforts to achieve personal revenge. Those reasons include the following:
- The ghost may actually be an evil spirit, sent to tempt Hamlet into an action that might damn him to hell.
- By seeking personal vengeance, Hamlet sets in motion a series of events leading to the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, his own mother, and, ultimately, himself. None of these deaths need to have occurred if Hamlet had simply trusted God to deal with Claudius.
- In pursuing vengeance against Claudius, Hamlet seems to be less concerned with the genuine welfare of Denmark (Claudius, after all, seems a reasonably capable king) than with a personal obsession about his mother’s sexual behavior.
- By seeking personal vengeance against Claudius, Hamlet makes it possible for a foreigner – Fortinbras – to become the new ruler of Denmark.
On the other hand, some readers argue as follows:
- Hamlet has an obligation, as an honorable son, to avenge his father’s death.
- Removing a criminal such as Claudius from power can only benefit Denmark.
- Hamlet may be acting as a kind of “scourge of God,” chosen by God to inflict divine punishment on Claudius.
One aspect of the greatness of Hamlet as a play is that Shakespeare makes it so difficult – both for Hamlet and for us – to decide what Hamlet should do. It is hard not to sympathize with him in his anguish and anger about the murder of his father. Nevertheless, Renaissance Christians would, presumably, have taken God’s word very seriously. Civil authorities also discouraged private revenge, yet neither God’s word nor civil penalties prevented many people during this period from killing others in revenge, especially in duels. Shakespeare creates a moral dilemma that, for many readers, will always prove excruciating – a dilemma to which there will often seem no clear, simple answer.