Why does Hamlet delay his revenge so long?
Shakespeare commentators have debated this question for ages, coming up with such ingenious answers as that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex that makes him ambivalent about killing his uncle, King Claudius, who has murdered his father to get the Danish crown. Hamlet chides himself for taking so long about it, blaming his own cowardice, though he is actually prone to rash impulses as well as hesitation. Is he merely seeking pretexts for delay such as doubt of the Ghosts veracity or are his reasons sound?
Most of the critics share Hamlets view that avenging his fathers death is his duty. This is understandable but odd, because the play subtly presents an opposite view: that revenge is evil. Hamlet is actually delayed by his own conscience. Strange to say, only a few of the critics have perceived this.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay. Every Christian knew that verse, which should also settle another old debate: whether Hamlets fathers Ghost is in Purgatory or Hell. The Ghost says he is being purged of his foul crimes for a certain term, which implies he is in Purgatory, ultimately saved and not damned forever.
But the truth slips out when he complains of dying without the sacraments,
No reckoning made, but sent to my accountAnd he demands revenge: If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Hamlet, in a frenzy, vows to put the Ghosts commandment all alone above everything he has ever learned. But soon he has doubts. Was the Ghost a devil, lying to tempt Hamlet to his own damnation? He stages a play to test Claudius by reenacting the alleged murder.
Hamlet reflects the religious turmoil of its time. Christians were furiously debating everything ghosts, Purgatory, sacraments, and other matters the play is exquisitely ambiguous about. But all agreed that revenge was sinful, and a ghost urging sin could come only from Hell.
So whether this Ghost was honest about the fact of murder is beside the point. Claudiuss guilt doesnt justify revenge. And after that guilt is proved, the ugly nature of revenge becomes clear.
First Hamlet finds Claudius trying to pray, and decides against killing him then lest he go to Heaven! Full revenge for his father, he tells himself, requires killing Claudius when he is sinning, so he will be damned. Samuel Johnson called Hamlets speech to this effect too horrible to be read or uttered. (It also implies that Hamlets father is indeed in Hell.)
Then Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius and kills him. Now Poloniuss son Laertes wants revenge on Hamlet! And Laertes is not one to hesitate:
To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!Ill be revenged, he insists, even if it means going to Hell.
Laertes is a dark mirror of Hamlet, vividly exposing the evil of Hamlets supposed duty. He plots with Claudius to poison the unsuspecting Hamlet. And yet, he says at the crucial moment, it is almost against my conscience. So even Laertes knows better.
Violence, the play says, brings unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences; our devices still are overthrown. / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. In this mysterious world, we never fully know what we are doing. Our intentions are one thing; results are another.
So every plan misfires, and everyone dies. The Ghost finally gets the revenge he sought, when his son kills his murderer; but his son and wife die too, and the kingdom of Denmark falls to his old enemy, Norway. Though Laertes also gets his revenge, he joins the mounting casualty toll.
This tremendous play, a symphony of cross purposes, might have been written to illustrate Francis Bacons maxim that revenge is a kind of wild justice. If it punishes the guilty, it also claims the innocent. As Shakespeare says elsewhere, Thou shalt have justice more than thou desirest. Or as Hamlet puts it almost flippantly, Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?
The Ghost, then, is a voice not of justice, but of evil. He belongs among Shakespeares fatal seducers, with Cassius, Iago, and the Weird Sisters who mislead Macbeth.
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