Hamlet -- Prince of Denmark -- is considered to be one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. (Meyer, 2002). It is also one of his most complex plays. It is about the evolution of a character within the context of a revenge drama -- that of Hamlet in Hamlet. In keeping with the revenge-theme of this drama, this thesis of this essay will aver that Shakespeare exalts Hamlet as a hero -- justifiably, though within reason. Indeed, Hamlet is a hero. He rights a horrible wrong. The reader of the play hopes against hope that his quest for vengeance is successful. This vengeance takes the form of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The reader of the play is taken to emotional upheavals when the failure of Hamlet's quest almost becomes a certitude but for a quirk of fate -- the exchange of swords.
One might alternatively decry Hamlet's methods. For, in his quest for vengeful justice, many innocent are killed. These include his beloved, Ophelia, her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, Hamlet's mother Gertrude, his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and of course, justifiably, Claudius. But Shakespeare does provide final resolution. This resolution is good for Denmark. The nation is now left in the hands of neither the criminal Claudius, nor the mercurial (and possibly, truly insane) Hamlet. Fortinbras rules Denmark. We hope that he does so justly.
A quick summary of the play reveals that the ghost of Hamlet's father (we assume) visits Hamlet's friends, and later, Hamlet, to inform him that his death two months prior was not due to a snake-bite as announced. It was his brother Claudius, having an adulterous affair with his wife Gertrude, who had killed the king by pouring poison in his ear. This new information rouses Hamlet from his depression or melancholia. He vows revenge. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. (1, iv). He informs his close friends that he will feign madness in his vengeful quest. In the end, Hamlet does earn his revenge. Hamlet kills Claudius. Unfortunately however, all this comes at a cost of Hamlet's own life, that of his mother Gertrude, his prospective brother-in-law Laertes, and his prospective father-in-law Polonius. In the process, his lover Ophelia becomes genuinely insane and kills herself. The only redeeming feature in this tragedy is that Hamlet assures that Denmark is left in capable hands.
In keeping with Elizabethan revenge play formulas, which themselves were borrowed from the Greeks and to some extent from the Roman playwright Seneca, Shakespeare, according to some, having borrowed liberally from Thomas Kyd's "Spanish Tragedy," (Rowse, 2000). Shakespeare and Kyd adhered to the laws of England. They ensured that neither Hamlet (avenging his father Hamlet's death) nor Hieronimo (avenging his son Andreas' death in the Kyd epic) went Scott free. The former was killed in a duel via a poison tipped sword; the latter commits suicide when the Spanish soldiers come looking to arrest him.
All of Hamlet is suffused with the notion of revenge. Laertes wants revenge against Hamlet because he has killed Polonius out of nothing but rage (though it is a case of mistaken identity) and also broken off with Ophelia, causing her to become mad. Claudius, discovering from the Hamlet's impromptu play (using traveling performers) that he knows about how the elder Hamlet was killed, finds a perfect foil in Laertes' quest for revenge, a means to kill Hamlet, thus keeping his hold on Denmark. Even Fortinbras, king of Norway sets out to eke revenge on Denmark since the elder Hamlet killed his father. Claudius manages to divert Fortinbras' attention into waging war on Poland. Fortinbras to his good fortune is not overcome by rage into irrationality and gets rewarded for it.
As with revenge plays of the time, Hamlet involves the audience in his schemes through soliloquies. The most famous one being "to be or not to be..." (III.i.). The one against whom revenge is sought certainly does not deserve to live. Claudius after all, killed his own brother and expeditiously married his sister-in-law. Gertrude possessed of a happy and carefree disposition, without hesitation marries her brother in law. The audience knows that both have committed a grievous crime and in a sense we support Hamlet. We want them dead and we are thus blinded to the fact that Hamlet's pursuit is unlawful.
We must question the evolution of Hamlet's state of mind, as he seeks revenge. Hamlet starts out being melancholy on the loss of his father. When confronted by the ghost and told of the murder, Hamlet is at first disbelieving. On producing the play "The Mousetrap" and realizing Claudius' reaction "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king (II.ii), Hamlet realizes that his father's ghost was telling the truth. We are not quite certain why Hamlet hatches the plot of feigning madness. Because it draws attention to himself. He demonstrates moments of raving lunacy. On other occasions, he is so lucid that he fools nobody. There is a school of thought of experts who believe that Hamlet was indeed insane. Though terms such as depression were not part of a psychologist's vocabulary, melancholia can be considered a depression.
Some have averred that his rage against his uncle is fueled by oedipal urges which have come to the fore. (Staub, 2004). Knowing that it is wrong to have killed his father as Oedipus did, Hamlet finds it easy to direct his rage at Claudius, vengeance of his father's death, notwithstanding.
Another aspect of the interspersing of revenge, range and insanity is his behavior towards women. His range towards his mother is understandable. Frailty, thy name is woman (1, ii), but his behavior towards Ophelia is truly bizarre. One might suppose that revenge so suffuses his being that he does not want to let Ophelia know that he is feigning madness. Thus he hurts and abandons her causing her to go mad and kill herself. Get Thee to a Nunnery. (3, i) It would have been a happier situation if he had taken her into his confidence and assuaged her fears.
Perhaps in employing dramatic license, Hamlet's revenge is delayed. He is so filled with rage for Claudius that he does not kill him when he has the chance, as Claudius is begging forgiveness from God. Hamlet believes that killing Claudius while he was praying would render his sins forgiven. Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;... A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven. (3 iii) A second delay occurs when Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and he is banished temporarily, How all occasions do inform against me, And spur my dull revenge (4, iv). Shaw has averred that it was Hamlet's depression that caused him to delay his revenge. (Shaw, 2002). It is also to increase the drama that Hamlet is stricken by the poison tipped saber. The audience believes that his quest for revenge might never be fulfilled. But then there is a turn of events by which Hamlet comes in possession of the same saber that kills him and he turns it on Laertes and Claudius.
Revenge is certainly a celebrated characteristic. Is Shakespeare wrong in raising Hamlet to hero status? Should he instead, have condemned Hamlet for being a vengeful person who caused the slaughter of Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude and his friends, garnering for himself at best a Pyrrhic victory? There is a justification for Shakespeare celebrating Hamlet. Because eventually, Hamlet saved Denmark from a licentious, evil and incestuous king who committed fratricide and regicide. Newly coronated, Claudius was the King of Denmark and there was no law above him that could have brought him to justice. As in Elizabethan revenge plays,…