The Destructive Force of Revenge in Hamlet


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A Spanish proverb aptly declared, “No revenge is more honorable than the one not taken.” Hamlet, however, would beg to differ. Although Hamlet exacts revenge by finally killing his father’s murderer, revenge ultimately proves a destructive force in the play, as Hamlet’s indecision and inability to take action results in the deaths of the play’s foremost players. To illustrate, Hamlet’s ambivalence breaks Ophelia’s heart and compels her to take her life. Ophelia is not the only victim in the family, as Hamlet kills her father Polonius in error. Perhaps worst of all is Hamlet feels no reward or honor in his failure which leads him on the path to madness.

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Ophelia’s Death

Though Ophelia’s father plays a significant role in her misery, no one is more guilty than Hamlet. Ophelia is devastated by Hamlet’s noncommittal behavior; however, Hamlet murdering her father Polonius pushes her to the brink, “Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (IV.vii.206-8). In this scene, Ophelia drowns in a brook, much like drowning in her sorrow. Her dress is “heavy” like her heart, and seemingly cares less to meet her “muddy death” because her life was already full of anguish. Hamlet does attempt to act virtuously when he pushes Ophelia away, declaring, “You should not have believed me, for virtue / cannot so (inoculate) our old stock but we shall / relish of it. I loved you not” (III.i.127-9). Hamlet attempts to protect Ophelia, but his actions demonstrate his inability to act. Rather than avenge his father’s death, he wavers, and in turn contributes to the death of an innocent woman.

Although falling on deaf ears, Polonius does warn Ophelia of Hamlet’s lack of intentions, asserting, “This is the very ecstasy of love, Whose violent property fordoes itself / And leads the will to desperate undertakings / As oft as any passion under heaven” (II.i.114-7). Here, Polonius acknowledges the intoxication of love, but warns that unrequited love does not lead to any good. Polonius sees through Hamlet’s madness, yet despite warnings, Ophelia is blind. Hamlet’s failure to follow through, whether with revenge or loving Ophelia, leads her to suicide.

The Death of Polonius

Another victim of Hamlet’s revenge plan is Polonius, who Hamlet kills accidentally. After Hamlet discovers that he kills Polonius instead of Claudius, he shows no remorse, asserting “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room…This counselor / is…most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave, — / Come, sir to draw toward an end with you” (III.iv.235-9). Hamlet’s desire for revenge proves destructive because he not only kills the wrong person, but also could care less. In fact, Hamlet coincidentally eliminates another one that hampers his master plan; yet, shows that his plot for revenge is doomed from the beginning due to his obsession and inability to follow through in a timely manner. What is even more problematic is while waiting behind the tapestry and ready to kill Claudius, Hamlet believes that he is doing Claudius a favor by waiting to slay him since he thinks that he is praying: “Now might I do it now he is a-praying, / And now I’ll do ‘t / And so he goes to heaven, / And so am I ” (III.iii.77-80).

Hopelessness of the Revenge

Hamlet’s revenge is doomed once more because he cannot make a clear decision and stick with it. Furthermore, Hamlet’s thoughts and actions cannot be reconciled because his thoughts poison his actions, which is why they fail every time. Hence, Hamlet shows that he is unclear in his actions, as we wavers from empathy to indifference. Hamlet’s indifference shows that his goal of revenge has driven him to madness. Hamlet’s descent into insanity begins when he is visited by a ghost that claims to be his father’s spirit, urging “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.31). The ghost plants the seed in Hamlet’s mind for revenge, as the alleged ghost of his father describes his death as a crime against nature. The ghost’s words echo Hamlet’s pain and confusion, and manifests in Hamlet’s mind as a way for him to cope.

Hamlet’s treatment of the women in his life further demonstrates his madness because he is cruelest to Ophelia and his mother, despite them never hurting him in anyway. For example, he calls out his mother’s sexual activity with Claudius, cruelly declaring, “Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” (III.iv.105-6). Hamlet’s plot for revenge is replaced by cruelty when in the presence of the innocent women closest to him. Furthermore, the ghost in his mind cautions him not to hurt his mother in his pursuit for revenge; yet, Hamlet does so nevertheless. Thus, hallucinations coupled with Hamlet’s angst toward those closest to him reveal his downward spiral into insanity.


Hamlet’s quest for revenge proves destructive because unintended, innocent people like Ophelia and Polonius die unnecessarily, Hamlet loses his sanity, and all for nothing in the end. Although Hamlet does exact his revenge through an epic battle with his greatest enemy, he dies before he can celebrate his victory. In the end, Hamlet’s ultimate failure is losing himself to a selfish pursuit that can never end well. Murder and destruction are clearly evil forces; however, revenge is just as wicked and leaves far too much destruction in its path.

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