The Correlation of Justice and Revenge in Hamlet
Revenge and justice are two central themes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The plot of the play is driven by Hamlet’s obsession with avenging his father’s murder. However, the play is not considered a tragedy for no reason. Rather than Hamlet getting revenge by killing his father’s murderer and brother Claudius, his fixation leads not only to his own madness, but also to the deaths of the majority of the characters. This poses many questions. First, was Hamlet’s revenge worth it? Second, can a family impact the way that a person views justice? And third, is there ever any excuse that could be made for murder? This paper aims to answer these questions by looking at psychological studies on revenge and explaining why many critics have justified Hamlet’s actions.
There are three revenge plots in “Hamlet”. To answer the previously mentioned questions, it is important to look at these plots individually. First, Hamlet wants revenge for his father, who was brutally murdered. Laertes seeks revenge after Hamlet kills his father and his sister commits suicide. Finally, Fortinbras, who is in Norway, is also trying to avenge his father, who was killed by King Hamlet. It can be inferred, then, that family is a huge motive for revenge/murder, especially in Hamlet. Due to the fact, this paper will also take into consideration the impact of family and the ability for it to change a person’s perspective on life, death, and justice, a phenomenon that is seen in most of the main characters developed by Shakespeare in “Hamlet”.
There are two main schools of thought on revenge. One, is the belief based on Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” philosophy. It is supported by the Bible which suggests “give life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’. In simple terms, the idea is that a person who has injured another person, is to be punished to the same degree. The contrasting opinion believes that living by this rule is harmful and if humans punish those that are cruel, they fall down to this same level. This school of thought has adopted the quote “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” to spread their idea.
Revenge is sometimes justified by the concept of emotional catharsis, a process in which it is believed that venting aggression helps relieve it from the body. However, multiple empirical research suggests that this theory is false with studies showing that those that vent their anger have higher levels of aggression than those who have not.
In literature, revenge is a common theme. Novels such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Stephen King’s Carrie involve wronged characters who set sight on revenge. What is frequent, though, in every literary piece that centers around the theme of revenge, is that they all showcase the destruction that results due to the need for revenge. This is what leads many people to believe that revenge, as a concept applied both in literature and real life, is damaging and should never be encouraged, regardless of the harm initially caused. The chain of events that end up causing a lot more harm than good is especially apparent in Hamlet.
In “Hamlet” the relationships within a family play a vital role in the development of the story. Hamlet comes from a noble, wealthy family, which allows him to surround himself with fraudulent individuals, who all have a desire for power, control, and luxury. Laertes and Fortinbras are also from similar environments, ones that are driven by the need for authority and recognition. This is what moves the main conflict of the play, it being the murder of king Hamlet, committed by his own brother for the sake of power. There don’t seem to be any positive family relationships with any of the characters, which explains the gray-area behavior that they all convey. Despite the fact that none of the characters have close relationships with their families, there is still an obligation for them to carry out revenge (by shadowing it is justice) to whoever has hurt them. Particularly striking is Laertes. In Act 2 of the play, Polonius shows how much his son truly means to him, by asking Reynaldo to smear Laertes’ reputation in order for him to gain some control. The love he should have for his children is clouded by his need to gain power. He lacks any consideration for his own son and is willing to discard him, showing none of the father-figure characteristics one would expect if the compulsion for revenge was that high. Regardless of this, Laertes still goes out of his way to avenge his father’s death after Hamlet accidentally kills him, because he feels that he is obligated to.
If one empathizes with Hamlet, then they should, essentially, empathize with Laertes too. He too had his father taken away from him and is therefore as vulnerable as Hamlet and should be given the same treatment, However, Hamlet is presented as a tragic hero, while Laertes is seen as an antagonist. This is due to the fact that he is the main character and the reader has more access to what he is feeling and is, therefore, able to empathize with him better. However, Hamlet is his own worst enemy. In definition, he should be considered as the antagonist as well, as he himself poses as an obstacle in taking his revenge. He constantly obsesses over his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal that he does not let himself carry Claudius’ murder. Rather, due to his impulsive and indecisive character, he ends up killing Polonius instead which only leads to more conflicts in his life. This also drives him to what some consider madness. In truth, Hamlet admits this himself when he says, ‘Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;/ His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy’.
It can be inferred that Hamlet is fixated on revenge as a result of his family’s standing and his exposure to the public eye. Some may use this to explain his behavior and, in turn, justify his revenge. It can be argued having your father be murdered, by another family member, is a cruel thing, one that must be avenged. The counterargument, though, is that revenge only results in tragedy. This is especially seen in Hamlet. As mentioned previously there are three revenge plots in the play. First, Hamlet’s quest for revenge results in the deaths of Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude. Laertes’ need for revenge results in the deaths of Hamlet and Laertes himself. Fortinbras probably has the biggest impact, as his anger leads him to attack Denmark and take over the country.
Although Hamlet’s only purpose was to kill Claudius, he ended being responsible for the deaths of numerous other people, including his own mother, and the suicide of the woman he loved. If we believe that it is justifiable for Hamlet to kill Claudius, then it is also justifiable for Laertes to kill Hamlet, as Hamlet killed his father. However, the idea that murder is ever justifiable, and that it should be avenged, would result in a never-ending cycle that would cost a handful of people their lives, something that we see first-hand in Hamlet.
Throughout the entire play, Hamlet and other characters justify their revenge by classifying it as justice, although it is far from it. Their understanding of justice is clouded by their own feelings with no consideration for anyone else. This is obvious in characters such as Claudius and Polonius, but Hamlet himself also exhibits this when he decides that avenging his father, who is already dead, is more important than Ophelia’s life, someone he claims to love even after her death. Moreover, he orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, showing his lack of value for human life. Hamlet’s obsession with revenge leads not only to the people around him dying, but his madness and eventual death as well.
The idea of revenge is one that interests many critics and writers. For this reason, it is a common theme in novels and plays, such as Hamlet. Different people have different views on revenge, whether these views are triggered by religion or reason. Some say that revenge, in the scale that is seen in Hamlet, can never be justified, while others argue that those that commit crimes should be punished to the same degree. Regardless of which opinion is more prominent, Hamlet’s outlook on it leads to only chaos, destruction, and death.
Hamlet’s (and other character’s) weak understanding of justice and punishment is what ultimately leads to this tragic ending. The only character who remains alive is Horatio, who is from the beginning, remains rational and intelligent. Hamlet wrongfully assumes that the only way to get revenge is by acting mad in order to torment and then murder Claudius, he uses Ophelia for his own benefits, he decides that his childhood friends deserve to die for taking orders from their king, he shows no respect for his mother (who had no knowledge of Claudius’ doings) and kills Polonius. Although his history, family, and obvious mental health issues can explain his behavior, they most certainly cannot justify it.
- Jaffe, Eric. “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge.” Association for Psychological Science – APS, 4 Oct. 2011, www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-complicated-psychology-of-revenge.
- Letourneau, Sara. “A Case Study on Revenge as a Literary Theme.” DIY MFA, 4 June 2018, diymfa.com/writing/revenge-literary-theme.
- Price, Michael. “Revenge and the People Who Seek It.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, June 2009, www.apa.org/monitor/2009/06/revenge.
- Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. The Tragedy of Hamlet , Prince of Denmark. Broadview Press, 2018.
- The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
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