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Hamlet: Revenge - A Problem play    - not wholly resolved

Revenge is an instinctual and basic impulse; not a considered Christian response.  Though set in pagan and barbaric Viking  Denmark,  the play’s audience is a Christian English one, of the 17th  century, where revenge is God’s retribution; not man’s respite.  There are opposing or dialectical views on revenge; on the one hand are the personal and punitive, while on the other the more altruistic ones of restorative justice.

Revenge or vengeance consists of retaliation against a person or group in a reaction to perceived wrongdoing. Although many aspects of revenge resemble or echo the concept of making things equal, revenge usually has a more spiteful, injurious, than constructive goal. The vengeful wish to make the other side go through what they went through or make sure they'll never be able to do what they did again. The word Revenge is always considered a word with grey shades, while the word Avenge suggests the righting of a wrong. Revenge implies going against the norms of society and committing a wrong deed for personal retribution; avenge attempts to restore norms.

While Revenge is a personal subjective, impulsive reaction; to Avenge is a considered response in pursuit of social justice.

Revenge can be a negative reaction to a perceived wrong; as a knee-jerk reaction it is natural, passionate, instinctive, impulsive, reflexive and vindictive. As Robert F. Kennedy put it,  “Don't get mad, get even”  or  Lord Byron’s “Sweet is revenge”.  

However taking revenge can sometimes become costly and self – destructive as John Milton wrote “Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.”  Later Thomas Moore added, “Those who plot the destruction of others often perish in the attempt”. Those who attempt to right the wrongs of society like Robin Hood, gunmen of the wild west, or private eyes, tend to become maverick loners rarely accepted by mainstream people. 

Common advice is to deal with the issue and move on emotionally – don’t dwell on the past. This is a favourite politician’s argument when faced with a scandal. Its adverse effect is to make us like Phil, A weatherman from  Groundhog day– condemned to repeat each day by “moving on” –everyday is a brand new day, no one ever remembers what happened the day before or the day before that, knowledge and wisdom do not accumulate, and we  repeat our mistakes without learning anything.

Juvenal, a first century Roman poet noted that, “Revenge is always the weak pleasure of a little and narrow mind” and later Winston Churchill observed that: "Nothing is more costly, nothing is more sterile, than vengeance."

Samuel Johnson claimed Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.  

Hamlet’s predicament is the rotten state of Denmark and “cursed spite that I was born to set it right”.  There are times we must act for the collective good of society as Edmund Burke put it, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”  to which Martin Luther King added, “our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter”.  But it is important to keep your cool as an old English Proverb goes  Vengeance is a dish best served cold”.
The Christian Philosophy

The old testament's legalistic code promoted the concept of retributive punitive justice:  “an eye for an eye”  but as many modern peace keepers, including Mahatma Gandhi   “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and Martin Luther King Jr. added; The time is always right to do the right thing”,  a more enlightened view has evolved.  The influences came from the teachings of Jesus Christ. 

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21   

Since God is going to take up your cause and see to it that justice is done, you can lay it down. You don’t have to carry anger and bitterness and resentment and revenge. Indeed you dare not. Jesus warned that “an unforgiving heart will destroy you in the end” (Matthew 6:15; 18:35).

This was a whole new way of thinking - a paradigm shift.  But it wasn’t only the Christian western world that made this discovery – other great thinkers espoused similar sentiments: a Chinese Proverbs quotes, He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself”

Sir Francis Bacon advises,  “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior. “   or Dick Armey,  "You cannot get ahead while you are getting even".

The concept of divine justice must be taken into account, in Hamlet's usurping of the divine prerogative over life and death, he would be considered to be committing blasphemy. Where the play breaks the revenge tragedy conventions is Hamlet's registering that he is simply a tool of Providence. His actions are no longer driven by passion and lust for vengeance and this feeling is replaced by the cause of justice to repair the revolt in Nature. Piece.  -- billy-ray jooles (brjtheking@chachacha.com),

 

The play is problematic in that it raises several Anti-Christian and barbaric practices such as revenge, suicide and deceit.

 

The problem facing Shakespeare is how can he satisfy Hamlet’s need for revenge in a satisfactorily Christian, heroic and artistic way?  Rather than portraying  Hamlet as impulsive (cf. Leartes)  he comes across as the rational considered renaissance man who acts only after ascertaining all the evidence and weighing it in a balanced way.  Shakespeare’s uses the sporting tactic of the duel as an heroic and artistic device to kill the King and solve the revenge problem.

The following extract from Literary Terms & Criticism by Pick & Coyle (Macmillan, 1984) explains the connection between historical revenge tragedy and Hamlet. 

We can see this in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587), a revenge tragedy about a man who avenges his son’s murder. The hero Hieronimo longs for revenge, but also knows that he should await heaven’s justice. Divided between conscience and passion he goes mad: in the last act he stages a play in which he runs amok, killing innocent and guilty alike. Kyd established a pattern for revenge tragedies, and many of the devices he uses— such as a ghost, a play within a play, scenes of violent murder, a mad hero, and the concluding blood bath — are found in later revenge tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600). Revenge tragedies are concerned with a specific aspect of disorder in society, that is the problem of justice. Justice, like God, should be perfect, but earthly justice is corrupt and imperfect. Moreover, to take justice into one’s own hands is to risk damnation. Drama in this period returns repeatedly to the question of how to act in the face of such contradictions. 

While Shakespeare’s audience was “Christian” in its ethos, it was well conditioned to the horror mongering of the Gothic Revenge Tradition;  Ghosts, supernatural, ghoulish skulls, graphic carnage and violence or the black humour in the death of Polonius.

Quotes in Hamlet on Revenge

The Ghost to Hamlet.

"Revenge his most foul and unnatural murder."

Hamlet.

"that I, with wings as swift

As meditation or the thoughts of love,

May sweep to my revenge." 

Hamlet says to the Ghost, 

"Speak; I am bound to hear."

He means that it is his duty to listen to the spirit of his father.

The Ghost replies that it is also his duty to take revenge:

"So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear"  (1.5.7).


Hamlet as chorus to the Play.

Come: 'the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.'

Hamlet has his chance to kill Claudius:

A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,

Laertes to King Claudius:   Laertes, a student in Paris,  hears accounts that his sister Ophelia has gone mad and his father Polonios has also been slain in the King's Court.  His impulsive response is retribution, regardless of the consequences:

To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.  
 

Claudius to Laertes.

"No place indeed should murder sanctuarize;

revenge should have no bounds."

Hamlet is finally resigned to the fact that he is merely fortune’s tool and must fulfil his duty:

HAMLET

Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

As usual, Shakespeare does not show his hand; he presents several viewpoints of an issue, but allows the responder to draw their own conclusions.

We can conclude that it all depends on your motivation; if you are spiteful and personally vindictive, you are seeking revenge, while if you are seeking to redress social injustices you are serving the greater good of society.

Other Quotes on Revenge:

 “She (Eleanor Roosevelt) got even in a way that was almost cruel;  She forgave them.”  Ralph McGill


There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.         Josh Billings


Those who plot the destruction of others often fall themselves.      Phaedrus


Revenge converts a little right into a great wrong.         German Proverb

 

One good act of vengeance deserves another.              John Jefferson

 

A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.   Francis Bacon


Little, vicious minds abound with anger and revenge, and are incapable of feeling the pleasure of forgiving their enemies.  Earl of Chesterfield

Revenge has no more quenching effect on emotions than salt water has on thirst.   Walter Weckler


Revenge is often like biting a dog because the dog bit you.       Austin O'Malley

No need for revenge, Just sit back and relax and wait for them to stuff up.  

Those who hurt you will eventually screw up themselves & if you're lucky God will let you watch. - God, I hope so!

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