Hamlet is a distinctive tragedy which segregates from the conventions of Shakespearean dramaturgy, continually exploring in an enduring manner the ineffectuality of vengeance through the inaction of the protagonist. The play communicates the futility of revenge through Hamlet’s philosophical reasoning and paralysis, and through the impulsive consequences of Laertes and Fortinbras’ own avenger destinies. Through his antithetical use of character foils, Shakespeare demonstrates the renaissance values of humanism and individual choice, which in turn critiques the traditional role played by wrath and vengeance in Elizabethan tragedies. As such, the audience witnesses that it is this examination of inaction and the inadequacy of revenge which subverts the tradition of tragedy, arousing interest and universality, thus making Hamlet a key tenant for future study.
Initially, Shakespeare demonstrates that Hamlet assents the duty enforced upon him by the ‘world of the supernatural’. The cost of revenge is articulated through the assertion within his soliloquy “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records… thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain,” enunciating that he must transform himself into a tool of revenge through purging his human emotions. Thus through the extended metaphor of dehumanizing himself into a ‘book’ where memories can be wiped implies that vengeance can diminish our humanity. Shakespeare demonstrates several raison d’être which drives Hamlet onward. Through the mythical allusion “Hyperion to a satyr,” Hamlet unveils reverence for his father, by paralleling Old Hamlet to a Greek sun god. Through the superlative within the dramatic technique of the letter which reads “the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,” Hamlet demonstrates his love for Ophelia. Nevertheless, the vengeance to which Hamlet takes oath seems without appropriate reason as it will not bring back his father, nor give him his love. Unable to take decisive decisions, Hamlet is incapable of proceeding with his undertaking vengeance. As such, Hamlet attempts to legitimize his inaction through the biblical allusion “What a piece of work is a man… in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god,” elevating man’s rationality over his ability to take action, through juxtaposition of superior godlike thinking power to inferior angel-like action. Thusly, it is evident that even though Hamlet fathoms the need for immediate action, he cannot take action.
Nevertheless, Hamlet feels encapsulated between his charge of revenge and his own conscience, and thus contemplates ‘self-slaughter’ which in his melancholic and depressed state seems like a desirable option, demonstrating that imposed vengeance can have adverse outcomes. Through his rhetorical question “For who would bear/ the oppressors wrong/ the pangs of despised love,” Hamlet becomes a relatable protagonist, humanized by his indecision, as his state of mind is parallel to that of an ‘everyman’ placed in a similar situation. Hamlet’s defiance of fate is admirable, as reiterated by Hamlet’s acknowledgement that “A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward,” as we the audience witness an examination of revenge and tragedy that challenges Elizabethan conventions of traditional Aristotelian revenge drama, while generating anxiety and tension through the anticipation of action, the irony of Hamlet’s continued inaction.
The drama further explores the feebleness of retribution and fury through Hamlet’s acting as a foil to Fortinbras, illustrating the inimicality of action without thought. Fortinbras is depicted as a typical warrior commander and the ideal Shakespearean avenger. Hamlet describes Fortinbras, within his soliloquy as a “delicate and tender prince,” illustrating his parallel to Hamlet, and yet he is so courageous and quick to take action. Shakespeare employs verbal irony here through Hamlet’s envious praising of Fortinbras, whilst simultaneously pointing out the folly of thoughtless action. The metaphor within the line “to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at the stake,” enunciates Fortinbras’ brash capacity for violence unlike Hamlet. What the audience is thus able to perceive is a Hamlet who is elevated by his capacity for critical thinking, whilst the warrior commander Fortinbras is ridiculed for his impetuous actions. The “immanent death of twenty thousand men for a fantasy of trick or fame,” reveals that to achieve successful political and personal revenge, one must compromise their rationality and morality, thus as his foil, Fortinbras communicates the foolishness of brash action.
Lastly, unlike Hamlet who constantly adjourns his retaliation through philosophical moralization, when his father is killed, Laertes speaks little and dies in an attempted revenge, emphasizing that requite without contemplation can be fatal and thus is futile. Hamlet and Laertes are also foils. Such is evident through Laertes’ rage accreted declaration “To cut his throat I’ th’ church,” indicating that he is willing to risk eternal damnation in order to achieve his revenge, whilst Hamlet, the protagonist, who by tradition should be the avenger, refuses to murder Claudius in the Chapel “when he is fit and seasoned for passage”. This demonstrates that revenge is a destructive emotion worthy of perdition. Hamlet, at the end of the play succeeds in his revenge. This is a dramatic irony as it is Laertes’s actions and confession that “the king is to blame,” that catalyzes Hamlet actions, thus enabling the completion of the impending tragedy. Yet even in his death, Hamlet wants nothing to do with revenge as agreed upon by critic Millicent Bell who states “Hamlet’s concern with revenge is nowhere to be seen when he is dying, noting that, rather thancrying out for revenge, Hamlet asks only to be remembered.”
Henceforth, the universal assessment of indecisiveness in Hamlet is the individual’s choice to fall into the pitfalls of vengeance and wrath. Hamlet demonstrates the imprudence and idiocy of this act, as well as elevating the need for thought over action. This in turn leaves the audience pondering upon the futility of reprisal, consequently allowing the play to be a continued medium of interest and critical study.