Hamlet & Revenge

Abstract

The Ghost’s revelations make Hamlet vow to take revenge. His vow is strengthened when the play confirms Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet does not to kill him when he is praying but later succeeds in fatally stabbing Claudius with the poisoned sword just before his own death.

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Feigning madness initially to divert attention from him, Hamlet successfully fools everyone in court. His madness’ second phase, fuelled by intense rage after confirming Claudius’ guilt, finally dissipates just before his own death when he kills Claudius.

Hamlet hates women because of Gertrude’s bad example. He believes women are not worthy of marriage to right thinking men. His initial love for Ophelia and hopes to marry her vanish when she does not understand his actions.

Introduction

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is a college student in line to sit on the country’s throne and marry his sweetheart Ophelia. His life and goals totally change when his father dies. He loved King Hamlet so much that his death throws him into deep depression where he even does not feel like living any more {“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.29)} (O’Malley). When criticized for the deepness of his mourning, Hamlet replies that although he wears “the trappings and the suits of woe” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.27), his grief is genuine (Wilson). King Hamlet then appears to Hamlet as a Ghost, revealing that he did not die of snakebite but was murdered by his own brother Claudius, and urges his son to avenge his death {“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.57)}. Hamlet quickly develops an all-consuming desire to avenge the death of his father, believing that he is destined to do so {“born to set [the circumstances of King Hamlet’s death] right” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.69).

Main body

As Hamlet plots to take revenge on Claudius, his mission is complicated when his mother Gertrude hastily and incestuously marries her brother-in-law. This makes Hamlet suspicious that his mother had connived with Claudius to murder King Hamlet. He hires a group of travelling actors and stages the play ‘The Mousetrap’ to check Claudius’ reaction {“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” [Shakespeare, 1992, p.119]} (Smith). Seeing Claudius’ guilty reaction, all lingering doubts about his guilt vanish and Hamlet vows to kill Claudius, while he will not harm Gertrude {in response to the Ghost’s specific request during the second apparition} physically, but will instead attack her verbally {will “speak daggers” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.134)}. Hamlet gets a chance to kill Claudius when he comes upon him soon after the play when the latter is kneeling and praying, but chooses to procrastinate instead (O’Malley), eventually not killing him for fear that the pious activity would send consign the murderer’s soul to heaven instead of hell (Shakespeare, 1992, p.167). During a heated altercation with Gertrude in her chambers, Hamlet thinks he has stabbed Claudius who was eavesdropping behind a curtain, but the victim turns out to be Polonius (Shakespeare, 1992, p.171).

When Hamlet escapes the pirate attack on his England-bound ship and returns to Denmark, Claudius, in fear of his life, poisons Laertes’ mind against Hamlet by revealing Polonius’ death details and conspires with the dead man’s son to kill Hamlet by using a poison-tipped sword in an arranged fencing match with him, assuring him that “no wind of blame shall breathe [on Laertes]” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.227). Laertes manages to wound Hamlet with the poisoned sword in the duel, but is himself pierced by it. As he lies dying, Laertes tells Hamlet about Claudius’ plot to kill him. Even though Hamlet is himself dying, he summons a last burst of strength to stab Claudius with the poisoned sword.

Even though Hamlet is killed in the end, he dies with the satisfaction that he has taken total revenge for his father’s murder. He has not only killed King Claudius with the poisoned sword, but in addition, the death of Gertrude when she mistakenly drinks the poisoned wine a little while earlier, is, to her dying son who never stopped suspecting her of involvement in his father’s death, the completion of total revenge for King Hamlet’s death.

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Hamlet & Madness

Madness is not an absolute idea derived from specific instances, but distorts the mind as it takes place in the form of an adaptation to circumstances. In case of Prince Hamlet, madness changes in accordance to the degree he permits his emotions to lead him. The revelation of his true murderer by King Hamlet’s Ghost to Hamlet sparks off two phases of madness in the young prince. The first phase is feigned, specifically designed to divert attention from Hamlet as he goes about ascertaining if the Ghost’s message is in fact true. The second reason for his pretended madness is to specifically put Claudius off guard, so that Hamlet can buy time to marshal his thoughts properly and come up with credible evidence to confirm the Ghost’s accusations.

Hamlet carries out his pretence of madness with great accomplishment. A good example is his totally irrelevant question to Polonius: “Have you a daughter?” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.95) that is followed by a rambling dialogue wherein he mocks Ophelia’s father by saying he is like “Jephthah, judge of Israel” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.107) who famously looked upon his nation as more important than his own daughter {Hamlet, well aware that Polonius in fact accorded Ophelia top priority over everyone and everything else, hopes that this apparent exhibition of mad dialogue would convince Polonius that Hamlet was indeed deranged and that Polonius would go on to spread the news to everyone in the court}. Hamlet also convinces Ophelia that is not mentally stable, causing the poor girl {who knows nothing about King Hamlet’s Ghost or Hamlet’s knowledge of his father’s murderer, or the reason of Hamlet’s madness pretence}, to enter into a “deeply disturbed” state after a particularly distressing visit from an “apparently mad Hamlet” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.72)}. Hamlet then cleverly convinces his former friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern {who have been sent to spy on him as a way of finding out the reason for his apparent madness} by telling them displeasing truths and regaling them with atrocious wit. A good example of this is when he attributes his state of mind to being swamped by melancholy: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with me that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.101). His weird dialogues puzzle his somewhat dim-witted friends so much that they ultimately “report their failure to find the cause of Hamlet’s madness” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.122). Polonius, who was so confused by Hamlet’s words that he once exclaimed: “How pregnant sometimes his replies are!” {Shakespeare, 1992, p.97}, interprets his apparent madness as being fuelled by unrequited love, and arrives at the conclusion that Hamlet’s madness is in fact love-sickness {in reality, Ophelia has been forced by Polonius – directly or indirectly – into believing that Hamlet has become mad because of her rejection of his love}. Meanwhile Gertrude, who witnesses Hamlet conversing apparently with himself {he is in fact speaking with his father’s Ghost during the second apparition} and becomes increasingly convinced that he is mad, readily accepts Polonius’ conjecture {this is evident when she tells Ophelia: “I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness” {Shakespeare, 1992, p.125}}. After fatally stabbing Polonius, Hamlet jokes about death to keep up the illusion of his madness.

The second phase of Hamlet’s madness begins when the enactment of ‘The Mousetrap’ dispels his last lingering doubts about the truth in the Ghost’s revelations. He becomes mad with anger which blinds him to everything else but the burning necessity to avenge his father’s death. His madness is exacerbated not only by Ophelia’s death {even though he does not directly blame himself for her slide into madness culminating in undertaking several weird actions [such as when she sings about “a baker’s daughter” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.207)] to describe the way Polonius used to treat her when he was alive} but also by the fact that he cannot discount the possibility of Gertrude not being in cahoots with Claudius in King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet accepts the second phase of his madness during the time just before his fencing match with Laertes, blaming it on his overwhelming desire to avenge his father’s murder that unfortunately claimed Polonius its unintentional victim: “I here proclaim [it] was madness. Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged: his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy” [Shakespeare, 1992, p.273]}. Hamlet’s second phase of madness ends with his own death but not before he witnesses the death of the two persons who mainly caused his madness – his murderous uncle and his adulterous mother.

Hamlet & Marriage

The Elizabethan era {1558 to 1603} during which Shakespeare lived and which forms the background of ‘Hamlet’, was notorious for suppression of women. Women were supposed to be housekeepers, bear children and look after them, and do their husbands’ bidding obediently. As a result, women during those days lost their identity and meekly permitted themselves to be moulded by the men in their lives. The general male attitude towards women is well elucidated by Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2: “Frailty, thy name is woman” {Shakespeare, 1992, p.29}.

Hamlet hates women in general, convinced that they are immoral beings who will do anything to satisfy their sexual cravings. Marriage, in his view, is a foolhardy and potentially disastrous step on the part of right-thinking men. He reveals this by telling Ophelia scornfully: “If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.131). The cause of Hamlet’s hatred of women and aversion to marriage is his mother Queen Gertrude. When King Hamlet dies, Gertrude marries her brother-in-law Claudius just two months after King Hamlet’s death, well knowing that in those days a widow’s act of remarrying her husband’s brother was looked upon as incest. Already terribly enraged by Gertrude’s obscenely adulterous haste in marrying Claudius so soon his father’s death, Hamlet, who is informed by the Ghost that Claudius is his killer, suspects that his mother of being also involved in King Hamlet’s murder {Hamlet accuses Gertrude: “As kill a king and marry with his brother” {Shakespeare, 1992, p.171}). He even suspects her of having an affair with Claudius while King Hamlet was alive. He chides her for deviating from morality and urges her to mend her ways: “Go not to my Uncle’s bed. Assume a virtue, if you have it” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.181).

Although Hamlet’s anger, disgust and suspicion of Gertrude spill over into his relationship with Ophelia, he tries to make an exception in her case because he truly loves her and aspires to marry her. He hopes that she is the one person to whom he can confidentially reveal a conundrum of his nature. He tries to believe that she is different from other lust-craving women who could be an ally he could count on and get married to. Trying to justify her non-reciprocation of his loving overtures as being the result of typical female frailty, Hamlet visits Ophelia in the traditional garb and action of a mad lover, hoping that she will comprehend the hidden meaning behind his action. But when she instead responds by revealing fear, her reaction dashes all the hopes he built involving her. Introspecting within himself frankly, he realizes that she has distanced herself from him forever, so he mentally cuts off all relations with her, dismantles all the hopes of love and marriage that he built involving her and reverts to fully devoting himself to the singular task of avenging his murdered father. Having made his firm decision, Hamlet decides to put her off quickly and forcibly. He replaces his earlier loving attitude with cruelty and callousness as he frequently berates her with bawdy remarks steeped in sexual innuendo. For example, when the girl, obedient daughter that she is, lies to him about Polonius’ whereabouts, he insults her cruelly: “Get thee to a nunnery” [‘nunnery’ was a coarse translation for ‘whorehouse’ during Elizabethan times] instead of becoming a “breeder of sinners” (Shakespeare, 1992, p.131).

Conclusion

Hamlet’s derisory attitude towards women and attitude does not change until his death, and so does his plans regarding marriage, because Ophelia was the only one he loved enough to marry and when she became unworthy of that status, he firmly put off marriage from his mind forever.

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References

O’Malley J. (2006). An Analysis of Hamlet. 2008. Web.

Soon, A. (N.d). Madness in Hamlet. 2008. Web.

Shakespeare, W. (Aug. 1992). Hamlet. USA: Washington Square Press.

Smith, N. (2008). Character Analysis of Hamlet. Web.

Wilson, Alina. 2008. Literary Analysis: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Web.

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