Shakespeare goes to great measures to convey countless tragedies in Hamlet to make it the most popular and known tragedy ever written. Not only did Hamlet have to surpass the tragedies life threw at him, but he also had to consider his conflicting views. Shakespeare also writes the play to show how Hamlet’s hesitation to get revenge on Claudius leads other characters to their death. The tragic theme of Hamlet stems from Hamlet procrastinating revenge, while Laertes and Fortinbras immediately sought revenge for their father’s death, creating a foil between the three characters. The death of Hamlet’s father and his mother remarrying two months after his father’s death are two scenarios that instill revenge into Hamlet’s brain. Throughout the play, the readers see how Hamlet’s personality and mental state evolves while revenge is still on his mind. Hamlet rationally thinks about revenge and the consequences to come by contemplating killing Claudius for a great amount of the play. Ever since Hamlet discovered that Claudius killed his father by pouring poison down his ear, Hamlet became obsessed with the idea of death and revenge.
King Hamlet encourages Prince Hamlet to take action immediately against Claudius and ultimately leaves it up to Hamlet to figure out the revenge plan (1.5.7-41). Hamlet solely focuses on getting revenge even if it is the last thing he does. Because King Hamlet left his fate up to his son, Hamlet had to make complicated decisions on his own, which altered his mental state as the play progressed.
Shakespeare tactically builds up the beginning of Hamlet, only to have Hamlet question the authenticity later in the play, which is where his paranoia begins. In the article “Revenge and Vengeance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Study of Hamlet’s Pursuit and Procrastination Regarding Revenge,” the author, Haque, states that “Hamlet was actually considered to be an indecisive person who always used to think much but act too little,” meaning that the conversation with the ghost telling him to get revenge would not be the only time Hamlet was indecisive, which delayed his revenge process. The readers see that Hamlet is eager planning the revenge on Claudius, but when the time comes, Hamlet is unable to persevere and follow through. Because Hamlet was doubtful of the ghost, he planned a fake play where he asked the actors to reenact a scene where it mimicked the story told by the ghost.
This way, Hamlet could watch Claudius’ reaction to see if he was guilty (Haque 3). The fact that Hamlet needed reassurance shows how the idea of revenge started to modify his mental state. Hamlet saw the ghost with his own eyes and confirmed it looked and dressed just like his father, but still didn’t trust him. Not only did revenge mess with Hamlet’s mind, but also the way Gertrude treated him. Hamlet’s distrust in others stems from Gertrude neglecting him and his feelings ever since she remarried to Claudius. Furthermore, another reason Hamlet desired revenge was because Claudius married his mother, Gertrude, only two months after his father’s death.
Haque exclaims that Claudius killing King Hamlet to marry Gertrude made the “greatest play Hamlet as a play of fierce motif of revenge (Haque 3).” By this quote, Haque confirms that Shakespeare adds in two controversial scenarios to build up the revenge process for Hamlet and create the ultimate revenge story. The two scenarios start to overwhelm Hamlet and he had a hard time focusing on anything other than revenge. The first time Hamlet’s conflicting views shows is when he encountered Claudius in the chapel praying.
Hamlet is unable to kill Claudius because of his paranoia of death and the afterlife. Hamlet believes if he kills Claudius while praying, Claudius would go straight to heaven and he would be doing Claudius a favor (3.3.37-97). This is the downfall of the play because if Hamlet had killed Claudius in that moment, he would have saved the all of the other characters’ lives. Hamlet seems to be ready to kill Claudius, but once he realizes that he’s on his knees begging for forgiveness, he spares his life. Hamlet believes this is the best decision because Claudius could get the fate he deserves another time and Hamlet would not commit a sin. Continuing, Hamlet tried to get revenge again when he is talking to Gertrude in the bedroom.
In the arguing, Hamlet mistakenly stabs Polonius behind the curtain thinking it was Claudius (3.4.6-25). In this scene, Shakespeare depicts Hamlet as going insane because he compulsively attacks the strange person behind the arras without even inspecting who was behind it. By this point, it is clear Hamlet just wants to get the revenge over because his mindset was quickly dwindling the more time he had to think about getting revenge. Third time is the charm, Hamlet successfully killed Claudius and the revenge for his dead father by forcing him to drink his own poison (5.2.
326-328). Although Hamlet was determined to kill Claudius immediately per his father’s request, it took him five acts because of his obsession and paranoia of death. Hamlet completed the deed so his father could finally rest peacefully. Overall, the act of revenge caused Hamlet to become determined, crazy and paranoid of everyone and everything, including death. Shakespeare incorporated another murder-revenge in the play with Laertes. Vasquez inaugurates her scholarly journal by stating, “In an effort to place Hamlet in a more positive light, Shakespeare also introduces Laertes as Hamlet’s hasty and impulsive foil (Vasquez 1).” This quote sets the stage for the rest of the journal by claiming that the two are foils and will have their similarities and differences.
Jeanette Vasquez then proceeds to explain how Shakespeare manipulated the text for the audience to perceive Hamlet as the hero although he committed far more crimes than Laertes. (Vasquez 1) Continuing, she adds that one big difference between Hamlet and Laertes’ revenge were the motives. Hamlet’s motive was simply for his father to rest easy, while Laertes motives were more for himself. Vasquez proves this statement by saying, “Laertes’ obsession with revenge is seen when he doesn’t seek a second opinion regarding his father’s death and in the selfishness behind his motives,” meaning that he didn’t just want revenge for his father, but also himself (Vasquez 4). Although Laertes specifically said that he wanted to get revenge for his father’s death, he was not excited until he discovered Hamlet was the one who killed him. Laertes believed it was the perfect moment to get back at Hamlet, not only for his father’s death, but also his sisters’ because it was shown in the text that Laertes was extremely, if not overly, protective of Ophelia. Laertes obsession with Ophelia clouds his mind and causes him to consider revenge immediately, Laertes put his plan in action by rushing back to Elsinore and threatening Claudius’ throne. Claudius calms Laertes down and explains that they will seek revenge together on the guilty party.
Hamlet’s life quickly becomes in jeopardy, a situation that could have been avoided if Hamlet would have killed Claudius when he had the chance. Claudius looks at this devastating situation to get back at Hamlet and ultimately have him killed when he arrives in England. In these two scenes, Claudius becomes more aware of Hamlet’s insanity and wishes to get rid of Hamlet immediately before he hurts someone else or himself.
Claudius and Laertes come up with another plan to kill Hamlet by preparing a fencing match between the two (4.7.139-161).
Again, once Claudius suspects Hamlet is up to something, he quickly assembles several plans to kill Hamlet, just to make sure he doesn’t come back alive. Furthermore, Laertes and Hamlet’s ultimate goals were similar, but the way it was handled reflected their own beliefs and conscience. Lastly, Fortinbras also sought revenge in honor of his father by trying to collect the land back that King Hamlet had taken years before. In the article, “Hamlet, Revenge!” Bell states that “Fortinbras, who has put aside his original desire to revenge his own father’s death and recover his property, now marches to Poland with an army of twenty thousand to gain a worthless scrap of land, finding “quarrel in a straw” while Hamlet, “a father killed, a mother stained,” still has not acted (Bell 16).” This quote provides evidence of Hamlet’s indecisiveness when it came to killing Claudius for his dead father’s sake.
Hamlet starts to compare himself with others, which only hinders his mental state even more. Moreover, Hamlet starts to call himself a coward, but is also inspired by Fortinbras to complete his promise to King Hamlet. Hamlet realizes if Fortinbras can fight for a silly piece of land with his army, he can fight for his dead father. Although Fortinbras was not mentioned in the majority of the story, his revenge played a big role throughout the story because he was another foil to Hamlet’s character. Conclusively, Fortinbras’ revenge was the only successful one, only because all of the royal family members were found dead in the court. Shakespeare strategically wrote Hamlet and its events described above to construct a powerful play and make it the most popular tragedy. Because Hamlet postpones his father’s request of killing Claudius as soon as possible, other characters such as Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up dead.
Vasquez states that “Hamlet has to carry the death of five people on his conscience while Laertes only carries one,” meaning that the person who was the most terrified of death and the afterlife now awaits his judgement because his procrastination not only affected Claudius, but also the other four characters that were dear to his heart. Overall, all three men seek revenge for their dead fathers in their preferred ways. Hamlet procrastinates getting revenge for his dead father, while Laertes and Fortinbras instantly seek revenge. The contrast between the three men shows the audience that revenge can emerge in different ways depending on the character’s disposition and temperament.