A mysterious ghost drives Hamlet to grudgingly avenge the death of his father. The senseless slaying of Laertes’ father causes him to resolutely take vengeance on his father’s murderer. The wartime assassination of Fortinbras’ father creates a need for retribution. William Shakespeare utilizes the reactions of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras to explore the theme of revenge in Hamlet.
Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s death exemplifies the theme of revenge. Hamlet’s father, murdered by Claudius, appears to him and asks for revenge. Hamlet never totally accepts his father’s challenge to seek revenge on Claudius. Shakespeare creates a situation in which Hamlet has an obligation to seek revenge as a final duty to his father, but Hamlet does not have a strong desire to seek revenge. Hamlet’s vacillation between self-pity and determined rage exemplifies his situation. Hamlet, expressing his own desires, does not want to take revenge on Claudius, but has to comply as a duty: “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.215-216). In contrast, Hamlet angrily emphasizes that he must seek revenge: “Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to loot on” (III.iii.397-399). Hamlet’s wavering desire for retribution reinforces the theme of revenge.
Laertes’ reaction to his father’s death also explores the theme of revenge. Shakespeare designs a situation in which Laertes’ need for revenge is driven by illogical anger and grief. Laertes enthusiastically seeks revenge on Hamlet for killing Polonius. Laertes is determined to seek retribution caused by anger: “I am satisfied in nature, / Whose motive in this case should stir me most / To my revenge” (V.ii.246-248). Laertes’ need for revenge is also caused by his need for closure of his father’s death. Laertes desires reconciliation of his father’s death and inner peace. Laertes believes that the solace he desires will come through revenge: “But in my terms of honor / I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement / Till by some elder masters of known honor / I have a voice and precedent of peace” (V.ii.248-251). Laertes’ reaction to his father’s death exposes revenge as a means to bring closure to Polonius’ death. Shakespeare uses Laertes’ reactions in Hamlet to explore the theme of revenge.
Fortinbras’ reaction to his father’s death elucidates the theme of revenge. Shakespeare composes conditions in which Fortinbras’ revenge is driven by honor. Fortinbras wishes to recover the territory that was lost when his father died: “Now, sir, young Fortinbras, / Of unimproved mettle hot and full, / … But to recover of us, by strong hand / And terms compulsatory, those forsaid lands / So by his father lost” (I.i.109-117). Fortinbras’ need for reprisal is based on honor. Fortinbras feels that his father’s death and loss of Norwegian land brings dishonor upon his father and upon himself. Therefore, he needs to recover the lands in order to regain his family’s honor and the honor of the nation. Fortinbras is also humbled by his father’s death. Fortinbras believes that regaining the territory lost during the war will restore the honorable conditions in Norway that existed before the war. Fortinbras’ honorable vengeance demonstrates another aspect of revenge. Fortinbras’ behavior is employed by Shakespeare to probe the topic of revenge.
The reactions of Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras allow William Shakespeare to delve deeply into the theme of revenge in Hamlet. Shakespeare demonstrates how rage emerges in many different forms. Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras bring the theme of revenge to life, revealing the complexity and richness of human feelings.