What is the role of revenge in Hamlet? How is revenge represented? What is its dramatic function in the play?

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One of the best articles for understanding revenge in Hamlet is Rene Girard's "Hamlet's Dull Revenge," which appears in his book A Theater of Envy. This volume also includes a series of insightful essays on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Girard argues that through Hamlet Shakespeare critiques the...

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One of the best articles for understanding revenge in Hamlet is Rene Girard's "Hamlet's Dull Revenge," which appears in his book A Theater of Envy. This volume also includes a series of insightful essays on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Girard argues that through Hamlet Shakespeare critiques the notion of revenge. Girard says that Shakespeare was weary of "hackneyed" revenge drama but had to deliver a pile of dead bodies to satisfy his audience. Therefore, he devised a play that both met audience needs and, through the character of Hamlet, questioned the whole idea of killing in revenge.

Hamlet was right to hesitate before rushing out and killing Claudius, Girard argues. It was sensible and ethical of Hamlet to take time, deliberate, and gather evidence before murdering another human being.

Through Hamlet as a brooding prince, Shakespeare shows the conflict between a Christian worldview of faith and the afterlife, along with an emphasis on character qualities, such as mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and the "pagan" concept of revenge. Girard believes critics should study more carefully what Shakespeare is saying about the destructive and dehumanizing effects of vengeance. Shakespeare is trying to get his audiences to slow down and, like Hamlet, assess what is going on before embarking on a stampede to kill. Audiences can see what happens to a Hamlet temporarily crazed for revenge: he mistakenly murders Polonius.

Girard contends that critics reveal themselves as barbarians in berating Hamlet as "indecisive:"

Should our enormous critical literature on Hamlet someday fall into the hands of people otherwise ignorant of our mores, they could not fail to conclude that our academic tribe must have been a savage breed, indeed. After four centuries of controversies, Hamlet’s temporary reluctance to commit murder still looks so outlandish to us that more and more books are being written in an unsuccessful effort to solve the mystery. The only way to account for this curious body of literature is to suppose that back in the 20th century no more was needed than the request of some ghost, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.

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Revenge is represented as the ultimate destructive force in Hamlet. It draws out the worst traits in the characters seeking it, and has negative consequences on bystanders.

The first act of revenge occurred two months prior to the start of the play, when Claudius poisoned his older brother to be king of Denmark. We never hear the whole story from Claudius, just that he did it for "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen" (III.3). Claudius was clearly jealous of all that his brother had and plotted revenge to take it all. This revenge act plays perhaps the most important dramatic function, since none of the other revenge plots, with all their resulting tragedy, would develop without this catalyst.

Next, Hamlet vows revenge on Claudius once the ghost reveals the murder plot. Hamlet is not vengeful by nature, and so never directly seeks opportunity to murder his uncle. Yet all the convoluted ways he approaches the task do have negative effects on those around him, thereby furthering the plot. His cover of insanity turns all eyes on him and deeply disturbs Ophelia, which prompts her insanity. Hamlet's odd behavior also causes Polonius to poke his nose where it doesn't belong, which places him behind the arras in his Gertrude's room, which leads to his death. This, in turn, sets Laertes to seek vengeance.

Laertes' revenge looks quite different than Hamlet's, even though it is for the same cause: a murdered father. Laertes is willing to do whatever it takes to gain his revenge on his father's murder, even "cut his throat i' th' church" (IV.7), meaning that unlike Hamlet, Laertes is more than willing to damn his own soul to accomplish his revenge. Ultimately, he gives up his soul and his life. By joining causes with Claudius and rashly rushing to revenge, Laertes ends up being responsible for Gertrude's death in addition to Hamlet's, as he supplies the poison that she inadvertently drinks. 

In the end, no matter the motive for revenge, Shakespeare shows us revenge is never sweet, and definitely never without consequences to the avengers and those around the person seeking revenge. To prove this point further, Horatio, the only main character not caught up in the vengeance, is the only one to survive the play.

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