Hamlet Quotes About Revenge

Hamlet Quotes About Revenge
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  • 0:02 An Odd Avenger
  • 1:11 Murder Most Foul
  • 2:37 The Play's the Thing
  • 3:45 Now I Might Do It
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The play Hamlet belongs to the genre of revenge tragedy. However, Hamlet is an unusual revenging hero, and the discussions of revenge in the play highlight a conflicted view on vengeance.

An Odd Avenger

Shakespeare's Hamlet is often described as a revenge tragedy. A revenge tragedy is a play in which a character is wronged by someone and finds the only recourse is to take revenge, often through murder. In Shakespeare's time, the revenge tragedy was one of the most popular genres of drama, as seen in such plays as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, and John Webster's The White Devil.

Hamlet shares the basic outline of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet's father is murdered by his uncle Claudius, and the play centers on Hamlet's quest for vengeance. But Hamlet treats the subject differently than revenge plays like those mentioned above. The heroes of those plays are men of action, and the plays are full of ever-increasing violence as they take their revenge. Hamlet, on the other hand, famously passes up an opportunity to kill Claudius early in the play and spends a lot of time reflecting on whether revenge is the proper path. This more thoughtful, introspective approach to revenge is highlighted in many of the famous passages from the play in which Hamlet contemplates taking his revenge.

Murder Most Foul

Hamlet is, of course, set on his path of revenge by the ghost of his father. His father appears in Act I, Scene 5 and tells of how his brother Claudius murdered him to steal his throne and his wife. He then instructs Hamlet he needs to take revenge:

Ghost: If thou didst ever thy dear father love---

Hamlet: O God!

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

Hamlet: Murder!

Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is,

But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

Hamlet: Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift

As meditation or the thoughts of love,

May sweep to my revenge. (I.v.24-31)

This at first seems like a familiar scene from a revenge tragedy, as Hamlet finds out about the horrible thing done to his father and vows to 'sweep to my revenge' as quickly as possible. However, the passage also contains the seeds of Hamlet's doubt, as the ghost calls murder 'most foul' even at its best. This highlights a contradiction at the heart of all revenge tales. Revenge is seen as justice, but it is also a crime and possibly a sin as Christians like Hamlet are told to 'turn the other cheek' and not seek revenge. Hamlet, an intellectual and scholar, starts to ponder this concept and realizes that, even if he avenges his father, he will still be committing 'murder most foul.'

The Play's the Thing

With the doubts about revenge in his head, Hamlet does everything but 'sweep' to his revenge, instead dragging his feet at every opportunity. He starts to question if the Ghost is actually his father or a demon who is trying to trick him. This is what leads him to use a play to catch Claudius and make sure he is guilty before killing him:

'The spirit that I have seen

May be the 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. I'll have grounds

More relative than this. The play's the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' (II.ii.561-567)

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