Hamlet: The Nature of Revenge–A Quagmire

Hamlet is a revenge play (though as I noted yesterday, somewhat different from the ones his audience were accustomed). But what, exactly, is revenge? (you know where I’m going to go with this, right?)

a. The action of hurting, harming, or otherwise obtaining satisfaction from someone in return for an injury or wrong suffered at his or her hands; satisfaction obtained by repaying an injury or wrong.
b. The desire to repay or obtain satisfaction for an injury or wrong; vengefulness.
c. Vengeance personified.
2. With possessive adjective.
a. A person’s desire for vengeance; the action of gratifying this.
b. The avenging of a person. Obs.
3. An act of repaying a wrong or injury suffered. Formerly also of the person inflicting the original wrong.
4. Repayment of an injury or wrong by the infliction of hurt or harm. Also: an instance of this.
5. Punishment of a wrongdoer; chastisement.
  • “revenge, n.”
    Oxford English Dictionary Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    March 2015.
    Web. 27 April 2015.

These were the definitions known to Shakespeare and his audience. (I find it interesting than the next variation of the meaning–which comes just after Shakespeare dies–would have fit Fortinbras perfectly: “an opportunity for retaliation; a chance to win after an earlier defeat” [“revenge; n. 6.” OED Online]).

Absent from all of these (save, possibly, #5), however, is the concept of justice, or the “Administration of law or equity” (“justice; n. I.” OED Online)

Revenge is without any inkling of a systematic meting out of this societal law. Revenge is personal.

Francis Bacon, English author and philosopher (and contemporary of Shakespeare), wrote in his “Essays, Civil and Moral”:

Of Revenge

REVENGE is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous the party should know whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be not so much in doing the hurt as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Cæsar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.

In Bacon’s view, if true justice is civil and moral (to use the overarching title of the essay collection), then revenge is uncivilized, “wild,” low, and base. Even if “man’s nature” gravitates toward revenge, society’s “law (ought) to weed it out” (think back on Hamlet’s vision of the world as an “unweeded garden” [I.ii.135]). Yes, the original wrong may be against the law, but revenge, Bacon writes, “put(s) the law out of office.” In a sense, revenge kills all laws, all justice, all society.

To forgo revenge is righteous, as “it is the prince’s part to pardon.” As we read THIS play, that royal title is interesting. Though the first edition of Bacon’s essays was published in 1597, this revenge piece didn’t appear until after Elizabeth’s death. Why not use “king”? Or “sovereign”? Given the reading of the last two months, I cannot help but see “prince” in bold print, emphasized.

Regardless, Bacon writes that “the most tolerable sort of revenge is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy.” But that’s not the case here in Hamlet. No “friends” come to “defend” (both V.ii.307) Claudius when he is revealed to society at large to be the one “to blame” (V.ii.303). “Public revenges,” like this, “are for the most part fortunate.” Claudius is punished, and rightfully so. But as there are “private revenges” as well, the body count balloons: Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Act Five alone; Ophelia and her father in the previous two acts.

This cycle of private revenges begins and ends with Hamlet. Not the son, but the father. It is the Ghost of the father who sets these events in motion, who calls for revenge. Then it is the son who obsesses on the task, to the point where one might rightly describe the prince as studying revenge, not carrying it out. This obsession, this study, Bacon writes, “keeps (Hamlet’s) own wounds green.” What a wonderfully evocative description: Hamlet’s wounds are ever-young, never dying. This is Hamlet’s modus operendi, as we see from the “impious stubborn” (I.ii.94) mourning Hamlet continues to pursue as the play opens. These, neither the acts of the father nor the son, are the “superior” acts of a good prince.

Maybe the election of Fortinbras is the only positive result of this quagmire of revenge and the Hamlet bloodline it sucks to death.