Towards the close of act one, Hamlet has just concluded his conversation with his father’s spirit. As he embarks on a quest to exact retribution, surfacing complications of the task trigger his doubts about revenge, which leads him to wonder whether or not the appeasement of familial honor is truly worth the tribulations that he will experience during life and perhaps after it. In Hamlet, emphasis on the symbolic contemplations of the protagonist serves to accentuate the fundamental theme of revenge, as Shakespeare explores a “victim’s desire to get back at his victimizer” (Eisenstat 1).
In spite of his vow to carry out a swift punishment, Hamlet has revealed little if any initiative to execute the task set before him. On the contrary, he questions the very act of revenge itself. By differentiating himself from the actors and the fervor they express in their performance(s), Hamlet cannot answer for his own inability to instigate revenge. He is, in short, hesitant in performing the task set by his father’s ghost. and reprimands himself for being too indecisive and superfluously thoughtful on the subject: Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave That I, the son of a dear father murder’d
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell Must like a whore unpack my heart with words. (II ii 521-524) With constant manipulations of words throughout the play, Hamlet shows himself capable of speaking in such a way that his utterances carry out dual implications. “Prompted” is revealed in this passage to be quite evocative in its connotation within Hamlet’s speech. Despite his cue to action “by heaven and hell” (II ii 523), Hamlet does not take any initiative. Due to his continued inaction, the word “prompt” draws a further correlation and yet a distinction between Hamlet and the actors in this particular line.
Actors usually receive a “prompt” to continue their lines when they have forgotten them. Yet in Hamlet’s case, instead of abiding by his duty to obey the ghost’s command as his “prompt,” he stops to contemplate it. Although Hamlet, in the latter part of the drama, will produce and implement a scene closely resembling his father’s death in a play put on before the court, he has not yet contrived any plans for revenge. Shakespeare implies that even though Hamlet recognizes his filial duties, he also senses a strong connection to the actors preparing for their roles, instead of his own as an infuriated son over the death of his father.
The further questioning of the nature of his father’s “spirit” (II ii 537) also implies Hamlet’s lack of dedication to his superimposed role as the punisher. It seems as if he were seeking ways to further delay the inevitable in an act of cowardice by assuming that his father’s ghost was an evil spirit. On the other hand, he has just learned of his father’s perdition in purgatory. Hamlet exhibits, as a result, his confusion as to whether the ghost “may be a devil” (II ii 538) that “hath power to assume a pleasing shape” (II ii 538-539), or truly his father’s.
Because of the unexpectedness of the ghost’s visitation, Hamlet’s decision to take revenge could be perceived as hasty and unreflective due to “the seductive allure that vengeance can hold to an angry mind” (April 1). He has no time to consider the matter at that moment. However, after the visitation and time to mull over the issue, Hamlet has come to realize the tribulations of revenge by implying that the ghost may have originated from hell and has come “to damn me” (III iii 542).
Consequently, two contradictory views of Hamlet begin to emerge: one, he has taken leave of all of his senses as he has genuinely entered into a maddened state of mind resulting from his obsession with revenge; or two, Hamlet has retained some sanity at this point, by questioning the true motive of the ghost and his imposed role as an arbitrator of justice. Despite Hamlet’s seeming inertia in exacting revenge, the play provides evidence that suggests otherwise.
Hamlet has shown himself to be quite capable of killing, as revealed when he stabbs Polonius blindly behind the tapestry, as well as when he premeditates the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and thus sent them to a death originally intended for him. In retrospect, what is it, then, that causes him to be “pigeon-livered and lack gall” (II ii 516) in fulfilling the task that his father’s ghost imposed upon him? As Hamlet has demonstrated, it is within his capability to do anything he wishes except exact retribution on the man who unscrupulously seized his father’s place.
It is perhaps due to the nature of the assignment and his belief that hinders him from completing the task. To exact expiation with utmost vindictiveness, Hamlet must believe with utter certainty in the justice of his action. However, he has demonstrated that he does not believe with enough fervor in his own cause to carry out the task set upon him since he does not believe wholly in the guilt of his victim (Claudius). As a result, by distinguishing his feelings and his sense of duty, Hamlet’s faith in retribution subsides. It is the guilt that Claudius harbors that will in turn assert the innocence of his casualty (King Hamlet).
However, instead of feeling repugnance towards Claudius which was supposed to compel Hamlet, self reflections and moral conscience remind him that neither he nor his father is any better than the “Remorseless, treacherous, … kindless villain” (II ii 520) that they aimed to punish. Due to this state of vacillation, Hamlet cannot perform his sacred duty of revenge. Through his brief exchange with his father’s ghost, it was revealed to Hamlet that even his father, whom he saw as a paragon, has been subjected to terrible sufferings while in purgatory.
If Shakespeare suggests that the murdered king was himself a murderer, lends to this notion as Hamlet loses part of the initial zeal that he exhibited to avenge his father due to the ruthless carnage that King Hamlet perhaps committed during his exploits when he was alive. Shakespeare, however, could have omitted the exploits and conquests of King Hamlet to further strengthen Hamlet’s resolve in revenge. But by including these contexts of the deceased king strikingly indicates that despite how implacable Claudius may seem in reaching his ambitions, he seems but trivial in comparison to the callous slaughter produced by the king.
Thus, Hamlet’s dilemma consists of “[disentangling] himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion and to do what he must do… for the pure sake of justice” (eNotes 1). Within Hamlet’s second soliloquy, he further questions the ultimate morality of revenge. He contemplates “whether tis nobler” (III i 57) to commit suicide and cast “off this mortal coil” (III i 67) or to burden himself with “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks” (III i 62) that comes with revenge.
However, it may all be a reasoning to further rationalize his hesitation and inaction. He muses over his inaction further attributes it to the fact that he is unable to find any clear basis for purposeful human action. If life is brief and irrelevant, as he has come to see it, then how can any human actions, whether love or revenge, be worth caring about? As the drama draws to a close, Hamlet eventually carries out the revenge, however, he has lost everything as a result: his friends, his parents, his love, and perhaps most importantly, his life, as “the rest is silence” (V ii 341).
Shakespeare, through his use of the symbolic contemplations and actions of Hamlet, reveals that revenge is ultimately futile: one killing will result in another and another, repeating in a never ending cycle until all is lost and obliterated with nothing to gain. Show preview only The above preview is unformatted text This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our International Baccalaureate World Literature section.