In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses revenge as a major theme present throughout the work. Revenge plays a crucial role in the development of Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Laertes, son of Polonius. All three men seek revenge for the murder of their fathers. Revenge can be interpreted as a separate character in Hamlet. Revenge is set to overcome anyone who seeks it. Initially, after each of the murders, every son had a definite course of action to obtain vengeance. Or in Hamlet’s case the choice was to seek no vengeance. As the play unfolds, each young man approaches the desire for revenge and chooses a different path towards gaining it based on the guidance of another character in the play. Fortinbras’ good decisions and self-control, as well as, Hamlet and Laertes’ bad decisions can be attributed to the outside guidance they receive.
Fortinbras, son of the slain King of Norway, is the first to seek revenge. Although King Hamlet, the now deceased King of Denmark, held sole responsibility for the death of King Fortinbras, young Prince Fortinbras seeks vengeance toward the entire country of Denmark. Horatio, a friend of Hamlet’s, said, “As it doth well appear unto our state, but to recover of us by strong hand and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost…” (I.i.101-104). By this, Horatio is saying Fortinbras plans to forcefully regain the land King Hamlet took from King Fortinbras. Fortunately, King Claudius, the new King of Denmark, intervenes and sends two courtiers, Cornelius and Voltemand, to Norway in hopes of convincing the new King of Norway, Fortinbras’ uncle, to prevent the attack. Upon hearing the message, Fortinbras’ uncle vetoes Fortinbras’ plan to wage war on Denmark. However, he encourages Fortinbras “to employ his anger, against the Polack” in order to vent his rage (II.ii.74-75). After taking the advice of his uncle, Fortinbras additionally “makes vow before his uncle never more to have th’ assay of arms against your majesty,” (II.ii.70-71). This intervention could be what saves Fortinbras’ life. With the counseling of his uncle, Fortinbras is able to put aside his longing to settle the score for his father’s murder. In the end, he is greatly rewarded.
Because of his persistent doubt of whether Claudius did, in fact, kill his father Hamlet defers making plans to act out his revenge. Hamlet is the hardest of the three sons to be influenced to act vengefully. Although deeply sorrowed by his father’s death, he did not consider payback as an option until he meets with the ghost of his father. The ghost tells Hamlet King Claudius, his own brother, murdered him. The ghost then tells Hamlet “to revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25). Although murder was an acceptable form of revenge in Hamlet’s time he is uncertain about killing Claudius. However, upon his father’s command, Hamlet reluctantly swears to retaliate against Claudius. Hamlet does this not because he wants to, but because his father makes it clear that it is his duty as a son. Hamlet promises to prove his love and duty by killing Claudius.
Hamlet, unlike Fortinbras and Laertes, did not follow what his advisor told him without questioning why he should take the advice. As time passes, Hamlet still has not acted out the revenge he promised his father. Out of disgust for his irreverence for his father he says, “why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father murdered, prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must like a whore, unpack my heart with words and fall a-cursing like a very drab” (II.ii.594-598). This statement prompts one to believe Hamlet has been convinced by his father’s words to act, but does not want to do so hastily. Hamlet questions the validity of his revenge by devising a plan to provide evidence of King Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet took advantage of his position at the local theater by instructing his actors to perform a play, which reenacts a murder similar to his father’s. Then based on Claudius’ response to the play, Hamlet could conclude his guilt or innocence. Hamlet says, “I’ll have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks, I’ll tent him to the quick” (II.ii.607-609). After seeing Claudius’ response to the play, Hamlet affirms the King’s guilt and proceeds with his plan to kill him.
Hamlet had a stronger conscience than Fortinbras or Laertes, therefore, he gave the most thought to his strategy of revenge. Even after Hamlet decides to kill Claudius, he continues to question how his revenge will affect himself, as well as, the King. In Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, he says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III.i.83). By conscience, Hamlet is referring to looking into his mind and feelings. Hamlet is saying his conscience is in turmoil; his world is falling apart. Although he fears the consequences of murdering Claudius it seems like he feels obligated by guilt to continue with his plan.
Because of the responsibility his father placed upon him, Hamlet is overcome with rage. Now, he not only wants to kill Claudius, but he wants to ensure that Claudius will go to hell when he is killed. In a vain attempt to slay King Claudius Hamlet inadvertently kills Polonius. Even after all the careful consideration Hamlet gave to planning his revenge he makes that deadly mistake.
Laertes puts the least amount of thought into his revenge and is the most easily influenced of the three sons. He confronts Claudius at once after hearing about his father, Polonius’, death. Claudius tells Laertes Hamlet slew his father. Laertes vows to kill Hamlet by saying, “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father,” (IV.v.135-136). When King Claudius inquires how Laertes plans to kill Hamlet, Laertes replies, “to cut his throat I’ the’ church!” (IV.vii.127). The king advises Laertes to wait until Hamlet returns home to kill him. Claudius wants to invite Frenchmen to bet on the duel between Hamlet and Claudius. King Claudius claims Hamlet will not want to fight and assures Laertes victory. The king’s plan was to kill Hamlet was supposedly foolproof. Laertes would fight with a poison-tipped sword and Hamlet would be served poisoned wine to ensure his death.
When Laertes confronts Hamlet he is so blinded by rage he refuses to consider Hamlet’s apology. Laertes proceeds to fight Hamlet with his poisoned sword. During the swordfight both men are wounded. Laertes’ plan to seek revenge on Hamlet was successful, but it cost him his own life. Laertes was firm in his desire for revenge. It is definite that he would have sought revenge regardless of advice from anyone. However, he may not have died if it had not been for King Claudius’ advice. In Hamlet’s dying moment he attacks Claudius and forces him to drink the poison, which Claudius had intended to kill Hamlet. Thus, Hamlet avenged his father’s death. Unfortunately, he was dying of the wound inflicted by Laertes. As Hamlet is dying he wills his father’s land and crown to Fortinbras. Due to the guidance of King Claudius, young Fortinbras regained his father’s land without the use of violence, or death to himself.
The chain of events leading to the success of Fortinbras and the failure of Hamlet and Laertes was initiated by a command from someone close to them. King Claudius had an ulterior motive of saving his land, yet by telling Fortinbras’ uncle of Fortinbras’ plan to attack Denmark his uncle was able to deter his nephew’s anger. By choosing not to attack Denmark Fortinbras was able to avoid harm’s way. The ghost of Hamlet’s father caused Hamlet’s death by advising Hamlet to seek revenge. Before his encounter with his father Hamlet did not want any part in the act of revenge. In attempt to pursue his father’s wishes Hamlet kills Polonius, which causes his death. When Laertes listens to King Claudius he brings death upon both of them. Laertes did not think his sword would be used against him. In the end, the men’s fate was determined not only by their own feelings, but by the actions taken under the command of another person. For Hamlet and Laertes successful revenge led them to death. The guidance he received, as well as, inner strength surmounted Fortinbras’ need for revenge and led him to happiness.