How does Shakespeare explore the nature of revenge in Hamlet through the differences between Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras?

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Revenge is a complex topic, and the three sons – Laertes, Hamlet and Fortinbras each deal with it in different ways. The play itself is also complex, with different characters dealing with revenge in different ways. Hamlet's internal conflict and reluctance to act as the Ghost demands illustrates how complicated the idea of revenge actually was to Shakespeare and his audiences.

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I would agree with the other answer that characterizes the three sons seeking revenge as, somewhat as in the children's story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," too brash (hard) in the case of Laertes, too thoughtful (soft) in the case of Hamlet , and "just right" in the...

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case ofFortinbras. As in Macbeth, after a period of corruption and turmoil brought on by regicide, in Hamlet, the rightful leader in the form of Fortinbras gains the throne, leaving the audience reassured that despite the pile of dead bodies on the stage, the world is a safe place in which order triumphs over chaos.

Hamlet is famous for problematizing and interiorizing the revenge play, which was normally an audience-pleasing, fast paced, violent, and bloody genre similar to an action film today. Typically, as in today's actions films, the good guys fought the bad guys. The bad guys violated moral norms, and the good guys sought revenge. Nobody thought much about the nature of revenge itself, as they typically don't in today's action movies. It would be odd, for example, to imagine a Jason Bourne or Rambo-like character stopping in the middle of the movie action to articulate a long contemplation on the nature of revenge, whether or not he is doing the right thing, and its implications for the afterlife while contemplating suicide.

Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, does, however, dwell on the nature of revenge, and uses Hamlet as his mouthpiece to explore its nuances and raise questions about its value. Hamlet really doesn't want to go around cold-bloodedly killing people and is driven almost to suicide by the inner conflict he experiences as a result of the Ghost's demands. He also, as critic Rene Girard points out, brings a Christian worldview into what we might call a pagan or pre-Christian concept of kinship-based honor killing (revenge). Revenge has no place in the supposedly Christian world of Denmark (Hamlet has clearly been raised Christian as he worries about going to Hell), and while Hamlet is not concerned with Christian forgiveness of his enemy, he is preoccupied with the Judeo-Christian concept of justice: he does not want to murder an innocent man.

Laertes, on the other hand, is a more typical revenge hero, bursting in looking for blood to avenge his father's death. Shakespeare shows this not as admirable and heroic, but foolish: because his fury compromises his ability to think straight, Laertes is easily manipulated.

We are left with Fortinbras, who seemingly combines thoughtful good sense with well-planned action. We can feel assured his revenge will bring stability, not destruction, to Denmark.

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This is a very complex task that you have been given.  In order to organize your thoughts you need to do some brainstorming about each of the three men and think about how each of them behaves in regards to his desire for revenge.  The three men are all foils of each other, and the theme of revenge is what ties them all together.

Ask yourself the following questions for each of the men:

1.  How did his father die?

2.  What actions is he taking to exact vengeance?

3.  What does he say that reveals his attitude about the need for revenge?

4.  What is the final result for each of the men?

Here are a few things to consider for each of the characters.

Laertes:  His father has been murdered by Hamlet and he storms back from France ready to kill those responsible.  He has a reckless attitude about the vengeance, claiming "grace and conscience to the profoundest pit."  He has no thought of loyalty to the throne or to Heaven.  He is willing to damn his soul in the process of revenge. 

Fortinbras:  His father was killed several years earlier in a battle against King Hamlet.  Fortinbras has waited until an opportune time to seek his vengeance.  Now that King Hamlet is dead, he sees that Denmark may be weak, so he gathers up a list of mercenaries (not the lawful army of Norway) to strike out.  He is dissuaded from attacking Denmark by his Uncle/King, but he is still on the hunt for restoring honor as evidenced by his battle with Poland.

Hamlet:  His father was killed by his uncle, and he is informed of this by the ghost of his father.  He swears to get revenge, but wants to assure himself of Claudius's guilt before he does anything.  He is concerned for his own soul.  With all of this he is slower and more thoughtful to act.  He recognizes even in himself that he might be overthinking and losing the name of action, but he can't help his nature. 

In the end, Laertes is dead because he let himself be drawn into a dangerous plot with Claudius and the whole plan backfires.  Hamlet is dead because he didn't kill Claudius when he had the chance, and that allowed him to live on and plot Hamlet's death with Laertes.

Fortinbras is the only one to survive and with "defeated joy" he claims the throne of Denmark.  In the play, Hamlet tells Horatio that he admires the man who is the best mix of "blood and judgement."  He is speaking of Horatio in the speech, but perhaps the line foreshadows the ending of the play.  Laertes has too much blood (passion, energy); Hamlet has too much judgement (thinking, philosophy).  Does Fortinbras then, in some way, have the best balance of the two in order to accomplish his goals?

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