“Hamlet, a revenge tragedy built around a character expected to act on a reflex he may not possess, subverts the genre and reveals the consequences of vengeance.”
The Misplaced Protagonist
In William Shakespeare’s popular tragedy play Hamlet, the character of Laertes, after having been absent for nearly three full acts, returns to Denmark in a fit of rage over his father’s, Polonius’s, death. “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged/ Most thoroughly for my father,” he announces, ready to take retribution against the slayer (4.5.135-136). Upon discovering that his father’s murderer and the presumed cause of his sister Ophelia’s descent into madness was the Prince of Denmark Hamlet, Laertes proclaims he will gruesomely “cut his throat i’ the’ church” (4.7.125). In the final scene of the play, Laertes, fueled by his anger and lust for revenge, stabs Hamlet with a poisoned sword during a duel and delivers Hamlet to one of the many finale deaths, even though it comes at the cost of Laertes’s own life. Laertes is a perfectly equipped Revenge Tragedy1 protagonist: upon learning of his father’s murder, Laertes, in the name of revenge and honor, swiftly takes an emotionally charged approach to vengeance. His story seems designed for the custom of the revenge tragedians of Shakespeare’s time. At the end of the play, the character Osric calls Laertes an “absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences” (5.2.92-93).
In spite of this, though, Laertes is not the main character of this particular Revenge Tragedy, but rather a supporting character to juxtapose against the titular protagonist, Hamlet. It is Hamlet’s quest for revenge that serves as the centerpiece of the dramaturgical structure and whose story is told through the drama. Unlike Laertes, Hamlet’s journey is not one of a great retaliation, but rather one of cyclical and deeply intellectual internal debates over whether or not to actually murder his uncle so in order to avenge his father. By building his revenge tragedy around a character that is expected to act based on an intellectual reflex that he may not possess, Shakespeare subverts expectations of the genre and reveals the dark human consequences of vengeance by murder.
Shakespeare dramaturgically structures his play to open Hamlet’s private thoughts for the audience’s consumption through various soliloquies, allowing insight into the psychological conflict of the character as he tries to intellectually process the idea of revenge; or rather, as he tries to rationalize an action that exists as a complicated, unsolvable paradox. There is indeed an established honor to the act of revenge that Shakespeare provides to keep the vengeance expectation as a palpable pressure on Hamlet. By punishing King Claudius for his actions, Hamlet would be acting in the way the state is expected to, doling out retribution for a crime. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are often concerned with the way in which revenge is to be carried out and the people who do it, especially in plays like Measure for Measure (Shakespeare). However, if Hamlet could rationalize a condemnation of Claudius for murdering the former King, would Hamlet also deserve condemnation for murdering the current King? Justifications on the basis of lawfulness and righteousness can be thwarted with the hypothetical reactions from the rest of the state. Could someone not just as easily blame Hamlet for murder? These concerns are not unfounded. When Hamlet eventually stabs Claudius in act 5, scene 2, the first line delivered is, “Treason!” shouted by what Shakespeare denotes as “ALL,” meaning the general public who will not discern a difference between Claudius’s power-grabbing murder of King Hamlet and Hamlet’s vengeful murder of Claudius (5.2.305).
Shakespeare deconstructs the familiar theme of family honor to further complicate his discussion of revenge in a way not previously done in his prior work. Henry IV: Part 1 has a disappointing royal son rise to his post in order to nobly protect the state and his family’s image (Shakespeare). In Hamlet, though, by centering on Hamlet’s deliberations, Shakespeare centers a critique of revenge and the popular genre of Revenge Tragedy and, in so doing, presents another unsolvable argument about its nobleness. Because Claudius killed is his father, there is a family tie to the victim, yet because Claudius is also family, particularly in eyes of his mother, there is the potential that Hamlet would be further tampering with the honor of his own family’s bloodlines. In act 4, scene 4, Hamlet delivers a soliloquy in which he says that the “right to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument,/ But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/ When honor’s at the stake,” (4.4.53-56).
In Judeo-Christian tradition, one of the Ten Commandments completely disavows murder. Shakespeare shows that Hamlet’s decision-making in many matters is clearly influenced by religious teachings. When the Ghost of the former King Hamlet alerts the young Hamlet of his murder, he says from purgatory that he is “confined to fast in fires” until he is avenged (1.5.11). In act 3, Hamlet finds Claudius praying. This presents an easy opportunity to kill him, and yet he refuses because he believes it would send Claudius immediately to Heaven. “And so a goes to heaven,/ And so am I revenged,” he says (3.3.73-74). Upon hearing from his deceased father about the suffering by those who do not go immediately into Heaven, and with the understanding that murder is a sin in which, as Hamlet says about Claudius, one’s “soul may be as damned and black/ As hell, whereto it goes,” Hamlet understands that by murdering Claudius, he would subject himself to the possibility of a similar dishonorable fate (3.3.94-95).
These cyclical paradoxes of the revenge tragedy do not hinder Laertes, whose emotion drives him forward without much reflection. Laertes is propelled by the familial connections to Hamlet’s actions and the larger desire to protect the state from what he believes is an unstable threat. Shakespeare, however, positions Hamlet as an intellectual poised to question everything, but because these actions have no justifiable answer, Hamlet can never decide on a plot to pursue. He is a product of the University of Wittenberg, an educational institution associated with many revolutionary ideas and thinkers. According to James Reston in Luther’s Fortress : Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege, it is at Wittenberg that Martin Luther birthed the Protestant Reformation by nailing complaints against the Church’s Indulgences practice titled the Ninety Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Imperial Church in order to “‘elicit the truth’” (Reston 10). As someone who thrives in this Luther structure, Hamlet is not bred to be a fighter or warrior in the way Laertes was, as Horatio reminds him when he is about to duel Laertes, and his only skill comes from practice. “You will lose, my lord,” Horatio bluntly tells Hamlet in the comparison between him and Laertes (5.2.187).
When Shakespeare forces audiences to stop and think about what revenge actually entails, the complexities of the issue start to reveal that vengeance is a moral gray area rather than a noble high ground. People like Hamlet find murder to be difficult to grasp because they understand the incomprehensibility of existence. In his act 3, scene 1, soliloquy, Hamlet, even in the deepest depths of his own emotional despair, still fears the uncertainty of death. “But the dread of something after death… makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?” he asks (3.1.78-81). Life and death are not arbitrary modes of existence for Hamlet, they are large, daunting concepts, and his cognizance of the hugeness and uncertainty about the afterlife as perceived by living complicates his relationship to the expectation that he murder Claudius.
Hamlet is torn between what is expected of him in the Revenge Tragedy, and what his intellect will allow him to do. As a thinker, he must completely satisfy that part of himself that craves surety and answers. In one soliloquy, Hamlet scolds himself for his lack of action, saying, “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,/ That I, the son of a dear father murdered,/ Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/ Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,” (2.2.521-524). Yet instead of immediately acting on the emotions stirred within him by the words of someone else—as Laertes eventually does after conversing with Claudius in act 5—Hamlet concocts a plan to satisfy his intellectual side and to confirm the words of King Hamlet’s Ghost. Hamlet feels he must completely resolve his intellectual barriers in order to feel comfortable committing murder based on his emotions. Hence, he comes up with a plan: “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” he proclaims (2.2.543-544).
The expectation of rulers at the time, particularly under the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli, is distinctly different from Hamlet’s journey of vengeance. Machiavelli’s writing The Prince serves as a record of the traditional monarchial mold of Shakespeare’s time period, and thus offers a juxtaposition between what Hamlet might be expected to do as a royal figure and what Shakespeare actually has him do in the play. As Prince of Denmark and thus the royal heir, Hamlet was essentially bumped from his throne by the swift, already despised marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. Because of his royal position, however, Hamlet should be preparing to become the ideal ruler. According to Machiavelli, “in order to maintain the state,” a ruler must be able “to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion” and he must “have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it” (32). The Ghost of the former King Hamlet, in his visit to discuss the murder, says that “the whole ear of Denmark/ Is by a forged process of my death/ Rankly abused,” and because corruption in the form of treasonous murder is not in the best interest of the state, he reasons that Hamlet should be able to act in whatever means necessary to preserve the sanctity of the state (1.5.36-38). Machiavelli, too, operates under the belief that “one judges by the result” (32). Laertes acts against deviousness and corruption, just as Machiavelli would have wanted, but through his story as the equipped revenge tragedy protagonist, Shakespeare shows how acting brashly to avoid deviousness and corruption is not always the best plan. On his death bed, after already sealing Hamlet’s death, Laertes tells Hamlet, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet./ Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,/ Nor thine on me” (5.2.312). Laertes regrets acting without thinking. In rejecting the Machiavellian expectations in the stories true protagonist Hamlet, the Danish prince ultimately falls prey to them. Hamlet’s hyperawareness of the political, social, and familial consequences associated with the demands of his father serves as the crux of the internal cycle in which he is trapped. Shakespeare allows the audiences to see the dangers when people are held accountable for actions of these unsolvable paradoxes that are greater than the comprehension of their own human philosophy.
Through this intentional fish-out-of-water placement of character, Shakespeare is subverting the revenge tragedy genre and critiquing the robust Machiavellian expectation of revenge. Hamlet shows not only that such expectations end in a great death toll, but also that they can fracture a person’s ability to maintain rationality and sanity, leading instead to a despairing, achingly human standstill. Shakespeare establishes the hugeness of life, the great unknowability and uncertainty of what comes during and after one’s time on earth. By creating a character that has a clear comprehension of the value and vastness of existence, Shakespeare uses Hamlet as a vessel to consider the complicated immorality associated with the realities of revenge murder. As Hamlet struggles with whether or not to kill Claudius, split between the expectations of revenge and the moral gray area of murder, Shakespeare offers a darker twist on what happens when human beings fall under the expectations of social norms that are too large to resolve with human thought. Hamlet finds no resolution in revenge, and because of this dramaturgical structure, Shakespeare opens the possibility for audiences to find the unsettling inhumanity of vengeance as well.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Prince, The. South Bend, US: Infomotions, Inc., 2000. ProQuest ebrary. EBook. 1 February 2017.
Reston, James. Luther’s Fortress : Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege. Boulder, US:
Basic Books, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 1 February 2017.
“revenge, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 1 February 2017.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.