Hamlet is a play of sad misfortune and determination that is all caused by the affects of revenge. Revenge like sin is a malfunction of the mind that grows like an uncontrolled cancer and once it has consumed the mind there is little one can do to focus its aim. Hamlet encapsulates all of humanity in this single feeling of revenge. Through his character the reader is allowed to explore the dangers of revenge and why one should avoid it. Revenge has consequences and in addition the reader is also able to embrace this vice by entering Shakespeare’s world without feeling the actual repercussions. Hamlet is a model that reinforces what the Bible teaches about when revenge is taken in the hands of sinful human beings. Hamlet is so intimately connected with posterity that one can see that revenge left uncontrolled can lead to madness, uncertainty followed by inaction and finally the destruction of the self.
Hamlet’s conflict begins in Act II when he meets the ghost of Denmark, who is in the appearance of his father. Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus saw this ghost in the beginning of Act I. They tell Hamlet that they believe it was his father. Hamlet is a little unsettled yet he is interested in meeting this ghost. Consequently, Hamlet desires to know and decides to meet up with his three friends that night to see if the ghost is really his father. When night come almost suddenly the ghost does reappear and it demands Hamlets private attention. The ghost entices Hamlet by waving him three times to follow him. His friends attempt to not let him go but the ghost is successful by isolating Hamlet. This shows metaphorically that Hamlet would choose to reason with the dead rather then the living. During their encounter, Hamlet and his father begin discoursing. His father reveals to Hamlet the actual events that resulted in his death. He further discloses to Hamlet who killed him and to Hamlets surprise, the ghost tells him that it is his Uncle. His uncle apparently snook into the garden where Hamlet’s father was asleep and then poured poison in his ear. His father who is apparently upset, although he is dead, he wants to get even and tells Hamlet to avenge his death. The scene ends with some uncertainty on Hamlet’s part but when the next scene begins it is obvious that Hamlet starts to search out for the truth. Though there is little to no good reason for Hamlet to do this. Arguably speaking it is a way for Hamlet to get closure on his fathers death. He is terribly distressed that he has died, he is upset that his mother married his uncle, thus affecting his right to the throne, and Hamlet does not know what to do. He stated himself upon seeing the ghost, “let me not burst in ignorance” and yet, he decides against his wisdom for his hunger of adventure, a sense of duty, and primarily revenge to listen to the ghost. It is as if now the ghost has entwined its spirit to Hamlet. He becomes the metaphorical puppet that the ghost can control to finally accomplish the desire of his dead father.
Evidence from a biblical perspective reveals other reasons why Hamlet should not have listened to this ghost. Four reasons that indicate that this was not a spirit from God but a demon. The first reason is that the ghost tells Hamlet to avenge his death. God never tells an individual to seek out vengeance. Matthew 5:39 states, “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In Deuteronomy 32:35 and many others references it reads that God is the one who takes vengeance. Secondly, a divine spirit from God will not seek ways to fascinate one in a world that does not exist. Ephesians 2:2 states that Satan is, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” If one relinquishes themselves to the temptations of Satan then it is within his power to do to that person what he wills. It is his intention to isolate people and place them in a fantasy world where rationality, the law, and gravity do not exist. Thus, he successfully removes one from reality, the actual world that God has created for man to have dominion over and work in, to a world that has no God and no existence. An imaginative world that has no God to keep one morally accountable can cause devastating results. This is the world that Hamlet has now entered. The third reason is that the ghost tells Hamlet himself that, “My hour is almost come, / When I to sulf’rous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself. The Bible portrays hell as a place of pain and torment (Rev. 14:10). Another reason is that Hamlet himself concludes that the ghost was a demon!
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, /Abuses me to damn me.
It seems obvious that Hamlet knows with certainty that it is a demon telling him to do this work. 2 Corinthians 11:14 says that, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Hamlet has surrendered himself to the will of Satan. Although the answer from where the ghost actually comes from is never decisively known it seems explicit that the ghost is not good.
The ghost is evil but it also seems to have done little to spur Hamlet’s madness though. The ghost simply gave Hamlet a purpose, a design for his madness to take hold of. Some of Hamlets most horrific lines begin when he is alone contemplating over his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to his uncle. Hamlet reflects on his own life and wishes to commit suicide if God did not prohibit it (1.2.129-35). He is deeply depressed, wishing that his skin would melt off and further states that all the things in this world are to him like nothing and “stale.” It is in this state that the ghost strategically appears to Hamlet. individuals are most vulnerable to mental illnesses. During a time of deep despair the ghost gives Hamlet one last reason to live before he takes his life. Nothing can bring him satisfaction and completion in his life then murderous revenge because he no longer begins to moan over the death of his father. This purpose is enough to distract Hamlets minds from his former misery but what he does not know is that his new aim is only going to lead him into more misery.
The rest of the book unfolds the events on how Hamlet is going to accomplish this purpose. Hamlets inevitable future is foreshadowed by the words of Horatio, “What if it (the ghost) tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff . . . Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness.”
Another example of Hamlet’s madness is seen when he spontaneously kills Polonius. Hamlet is told to meet up with his mother and he angrily agrees and begins lecturing to his mother about what a terrible person she is. Hamlet does not know whether or not his mother conspired in the death of his father but he assumes the worst. He demands her to look at herself in light of marrying Claudius just months after the death of Hamlets father. She cannot stand the conviction and begins to cry out for help. Polonius, who is hiding behind the curtains begins crying out for help too. Hamlet is surprised, and thinking it was Claudius, he thrust his sword into the curtain killing Polonius. This is strange. Hamlet is certainly willing to take a life and is not afraid to do it even if he is not certain of whom the life it maybe. But what is surprising is that his uncertainty did not cause him to hesitate when he drove his sword into uncertainty. This occurred only moments before Hamlet, who is still uncertain about Claudius, he hesitates to take action while he his praying. Hamlet’s character is certainly a conflicted one that is seeking for something else. Continuing however, back in the same scene with his mother the ghost reappears in Gertrude’s bedroom. The ghost comes to him to tell Hamlet that he has lost focus of his purpose and that he needs to stop procrastinating. Unlike before however, Gertrude cannot see the ghost. Before Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus all witnessed the ghost in Act I scene I. The ghost really did appear to these three in the beginning but in Gertrude’s bedroom however, the ghost is just a figment of Hamlets imagination. It is never made explicit if this conclusion is correct because perhaps the former King of Denmark did not want to reveal himself to his wife in the form of a ghost. But, accepting the scene as it is, Gertrude opinion does seem rational, “Alas, he’s mad.”
After this encounter Hamlet has no problem then to drag out Polonius’ body and hid it somewhere in the castle. These are not normal events for one who is mentally sane. Death is not something that Hamlet is afraid of as further indicated by Hamlet’s character development when considering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were indirect targets of Hamlets insanity. Before, when Hamlet was in the room of Claudius he hesitated and decided not to kill him. If there is one person who honestly deserves to die it is Claudius. However, when Hamlet switches the letters that result in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern death he moves with impressive speed and a significant amount of wit. Hamlet is not completely foolish but his mind is obviously divided. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were doing the Kings will, yet despite their manipulation that would have lead Hamlet’s own death they did not deserve to die. Hamlet does not even seem to care that these two innocents died.
Most of what we know about Hamlet is by his words and not his actions. Hamlets revenge has not only driven him to madness but his revenge has also led to a divided mind. His mind is divided. Hamlet contemplates life or death in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be (3.1.56).” His division leads to his downfall. In Mark 3:23 it says that, “a house divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” Consequently, Hamlet never is able to decide whether or not he is certain of anything. Hamlets love with Ophelia displays symptoms like bipolar disease. One day he loves her and would give anything for her, and the other day he tells her to join a nunnery and then when she dies, Hamlet appears to be in love with her again. His mind is divided he tells the queen that he has been feigning madness but Hamlet treats Ophelia like she is less then human. No one would risk the possibility of losing the one true lover by mistreating the other person. Hamlet has no leash and is like a wild dog that cannot be controlled. Only one time out of the three encounters Hamlet has with Ophelia he shows his love for her. As a result it can be argued that Hamlet indirectly caused the death of Ophelia. His attitudes were certainly detrimental toward Ophelia and when she contemplated whether it was better to live or die, she chooses to die. This all supports possible neuroses that Hamlet suffered under as well. These mental illnesses unlike psychoses, which last continually, only occur spontaneously. It is, “manifested by disturbances of though, emotion and behavior which is irrational, unrealistic and inappropriate.” Hamlet shows signs of all three of these characteristics.
Other example’s of his madness that is produced by his revenge leading to inaction is the time when he fails to act upon perfect opportunity to complete his purpose. Hamlet, who is uncertain whether the ghost is really telling him the truth decides to put on a play. The play is a reenactment of how Claudius killed Hamlet’s father. When the actor poor’s the poison in the other actors ear Claudius is frightened. He recognizes the scene and thinks that someone may know that he actually was responsible for the death of the former king. He leaves and demands everyone else to leave as well. Hamlet is convinced now but still uncertain whether or not Claudius really killed his father. His revenge has blinded him and he is incapable of judging correctly Claudius’s reasoning. Claudius the King goes into a private room and begins praying seeking a way to find forgiveness and freedom from his guilt. He admits to killing his brother and he is unable to find forgiveness because he does not want to give up his Kingdom and the Queen. Hamlet walks in behind seeking to kill Claudius but decides against to because he does not want Claudius to go to heaven. He concludes that it would not be revenge but a favor, and deliverance, an answer to Claudius’ prayer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge agrees and adds:
The determination to allow the guilty King to escape at such a moment is only part of the indecision and irresoluteness of the hero. Hamlet seizes hold of a pretext for not acting, when he might have acted so instantly and effectually: therefore, he again defers the revenge he was bound to seek, and declares his determination to accomplish it at some time, ‘When he is drunk asleep or in his rage, / Or in Th.’ incestuous pleasures of his bed.’
His opportunity is there however to take the life of Claudius, to satisfy his purpose in this life but he refuses to. His madness has blinded him of his purpose and even though he has better reason now to believe that ghost was actually telling him the truth he chooses act by not acting. The ghost gave him one task and it has lead to inaction. Hamlet has lost the opportunity. It appears though, that his madness desires more then just to see the death of Claudius but for Claudius to suffer in excruciating pain.
Hamlet entertains hundreds of ideas but fails to execute on any of them. What he does successfully is done spontaneously and unplanned. It might be because Hamlet does not actually want to kill king Claudius. The greatest fear in most people are accomplishing what they think is their pinnacle achievement and once it is accomplished they see no meaning in their life. Perhaps, like all those who aspire to achieve their dreams they wish to see it done in the most perfect way and Hamlet cannot decide what way that should be. There are many unexplained interpretations to why he decides not to choose life and pursue the ghost’ commands.
One early example in the 20th century that illustrates Hamlet’s conflict is in the life of Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes was a billionaire who lived life much like a prince. He was a director and had a deep love for aviation. After a terrible plane crash that happened in 1946 he retreated from the world. For some unexplained reason he no longer enjoyed the public life and he locked himself up in a hotel room in Las Vegas and lived in different hotels to avoid paying taxes. While he was there, there was little to no interaction with the outside world. (Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness) He only made contact with his second wife, Jean Peters through phone, which eventually lead to a divorce. He was diagnosed with OCD and as a result of avoiding public appearances his business was indirectly affected. His uncertainty to participate in worldly affairs, due to his OCD, lead to his insignificant death because of his becoming reclusiveness.
Hamlet’s revenge has not only leaded him to madness, uncertainty and inaction but also the destruction of himself. This is most clearly seen by his own death due to the inevitable consequences of revenge. When Hamlet is in the graveyard he begins to speak to the gravediggers and acting irregular around the corpses as the diggers through up the skulls. What normally gives people repulsion he sees fascination. He picks up one of the skulls and begins talking to it. It is as if he is willing to accept the consequences of his sins by looking into the skulls eyes and seeing the vanity of his own life. This behavior is certainly abnormal for a Prince. Presumably, he would have been brought up under the best treatments of being the Son of a King, he may have seen, and he shows a strong connection with death. He is even speaking to the skull, which implies that the body has rotten and already released a fowl odor and he acts completely indifferent to it, as if he was talking to a live human being.
At the end Hamlet chooses to take the challenge against Laertes the son of Polonius. Laertes is also motivated by revenge and wants to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet accepts but even in this decision it indicates that Hamlet has lost sight of his purpose. He is supposed to avenge his father by killing Claudius. Once Laertes strikes Hamlet he discovers it is with a poisoned tipped sword, that lead to Laertes death when Hamlet strikes Laertes. At this point the queen has already drank from the poison in the cup and she dies. Hamlet then understands the cynical plan that Claudius and Laertes had planned to kill him. Thus, Hamlet strikes the king, and makes him drink the poison. When Hamlet dies, Fortinbras who came to visit Claudius assumes control of the Kingdom and everything is lost. Revenge has consequences and it should never be pursued no matter how small it is. Benjamin Franklin’s poem illustrates this well: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the Enemy, all for the want of care about a horse-shoe nail” Hamlet’s father had already died. There was nothing Hamlet could do to bring him back to life. He chooses revenge rather then to morn. His revenge caused him to loose focus of his purpose that directly affected all the people around him. As a result of his revenge losing focus Hamlet loses his life. This was all in want to take justice in his own hands by trying to avenge his father.
Hamlet made his choice to take matters into his own hands. A sinner himself he would not deny but seems to think he can take justice into his own hands. God does not give human beings the power to avenge because of our sinfulness. Sin is a malfunction of the brain and it negatively affects the ability to discern what is true justice. God does however establish human judges in Roman 13. However, God is the ultimate avenger who will determine ones eternity because he is the only morally objective anchor that does not look at mans outside but mans heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The gospel’s never explicitly tell believers why one should not take vengeance in their own hands but it is obvious what the Bible does tell believers to do. For example, believers are to be forgiving (Matt. 18:22) and not let the sun go down on their anger (Eph. 4:26). In James he writes, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (1:20).” The parable of the merciful King teaches individuals that one is “never more like God than when he forgives.” Therefore, the opposite is true, never is one more unlike Christ when we do not forgive. Metaphorically speaking, humanity is swimming in an ocean of God’s grace and forgiveness that is demanded of them to show unto others.
Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Howard Hughes His Life & Madness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
MacArthur, John. Matthew 16-23. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Milt, Harry. Basic Handbook on Mental Illness. New York: Scientific Aids Publications, 1965.
Penn, Robert, and Benjamin Franklin. The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin : For Satb Chorus, Unaccompanied. Macomb, Ill.: Roger Dean Pub. Co., 1975.
Robert Ornstein, “From the Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York, Ny Penguin Group 1998.
Samuel Taylor, Coleridge, “From The Lectures of 1811-1812, Lecture XII,” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York, Ny, Penguin Group 1998.
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barent. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York, Ny: Penguin Group, 1998.
Sylvan Breach, “Introduction,” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet New York, Ny, Penguin Group, 1998
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barent. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York, Ny: Penguin Group. (1.4.46).
I have used the ESV translation throughout this paper, unless otherwise noted.
Lev. 19:18; Duet 32:35; 1 Sam. 26:10, 11; Ps. 94:1; Prov. 20:22; Rom. 12:17; Eph. 4:27; 1 Thess. 4:6; 2 Tim. 4:14
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barent. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York, Ny: Penguin Group.(1.5.4).
For additional textual reason refer to: Sylvan Breach, “Introduction,” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet New York, Ny, Penguin Group, 1998.lxix.
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barent. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York, Ny: Penguin Group. (1.2.129-35).
Harry Milt, Basic Handbook on Mental Illness (New York: Scientific Aids Publications, 1965), 15.
Samuel Taylor, Coleridge, “From The Lectures of 1811-1812, Lecture XII,” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York, Ny, Penguin Group. 175
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barent. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. New York, Ny: Penguin Group. Lxxxi.
Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Howard Hughes : His Life & Madness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 226-250.
Robert Ornstein, “From the Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy” in The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York, Ny Penguin Group. 220
I have personally talked with two gentlemen who are not only ethnically Malagasy but they were born and raised in Madagascar for the most part of their lives. They have told me that in Madagascar they practice a ritual called Famadihana or “turning of the bones.” This ritual occurs every year and they dig up all the remains of their ancestors to rewrap them. This is not a time of morning though. Apparently, they are celebrating and drinking in honor of their ancestors. My friends tell me that the stink is horrendous and they are not allowed to say anything about it because it would be disrespectful.
Robert Penn and Benjamin Franklin, The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin : For Satb Chorus, Unaccompanied (Macomb, Ill.: Roger Dean Pub. Co., 1975), 86.
John MacArthur, Matthew 16-23 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988). Ch. 15