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Revenge in Shakespeare

William ShakespeareThroughout his work, William Shakespeare presents aspects of the human condition which are so undeniably universal that anyone could at least understand them if not relate to them. The masterful manner in which Shakespeare puts forth countless concepts common to all people is one of the greatest reasons his work as survived over the centuries and has continued to be popular. One of the most prominently occurring and important aspects of human nature that appears in Shakespeare’s work is the concept of revenge. Shakespeare proves through his plays that revenge is wrong.

Others agree that revenge is a universal trait, if not a desirable one. "A play about revenge is definitely easy to equate with contemporary society," Jason Spitzer and Zach Marion say of Othello in an online editorial commentary. They continue:

Vengeance is a powerful force, one that many people succumb to. Every day, in this country, crimes are committed against citizens in the name of revenge, and the same things happen in other countries as well. This is true, not only throughout the twentieth century, but throughout all time as well. Revenge is an integral part of human nature. Therefore, a play that deals with that particular concept is extremely viable in popular culture because it shows the immorality of the subject. Vengeance never triumphs. Iago is proof of that. (Spitzer, Jason and Zach Marion)

Of course Iago in Othello is foiled at least in that he does not escape punishment for carrying out his evil revenge. But what of Hamlet? The same reader or viewer who may condemn Iago for his vengeance can often be more forgiving of Hamlet’s revenge. The article "Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet" points out, "That no revenger, no matter how just, ever wholly escapes the penalty for shedding blood, even in error" ("Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet"). Hamlet’s demise may bring about a sense of sympathy for his spiteful cause, but neither his downfall nor his motives can truly justify his vengeful actions. One must not look at Hamlet alone to grasp the tone of Shakespeare concerning revenge, but all of his plays that deal with the subject. Looking at Hamlet by itself, one might mistake the playwright’s attitude toward revenge, but keeping the play in context with the rest of his work, one sees much more accurately the view of Shakespeare.

The ghost of his father appears to HamletAuthor Ben Kimpel points out that "Revenge in its cruelest forms is an element in every category of the plays [written by Shakespeare] except the ‘happy’ comedies" (120). How could anyone hope to understand the playwright’s view on the subject then with just Hamlet? Kimpel continues to address the unsurpassed vengeance found in Titus Andronicus, in which the Queen of the Goths seeks revenge on a Roman general for killing her son by murdering all of his sons. The Queen of the Goths exacts revenge upon her enemy according to a version of the ancient mentality of an eye for an eye (124).

Another dark example of revenge that remains even truer to the latter philosophy is that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Here revenge shows an uglier face than in Titus Andronicus or Hamlet partly because the motive of the revenge Shylock seeks is belittling persecution he has received at the hand of Antonio. Although an injustice, this is not nearly as justifiable grounds as the murder of one’s father or son as in the other plays. Iago in Othello also fails to seize the reader or audience’s sympathy because his motive for revenge, Othello sleeping with his wife, is just a suspicion of which he has no proof. Indeed, one of the only reasons Hamlet’s murders could be viewed as justified in any way is that Hamlet finds himself caught between two moral codes, one urging him to honor his father by avenging him and the other requiring him to forgive. Romeo similarly finds himself caught avenging the death of Mercutio in a rage even though it sets up the tragic downfall of his love with Juliet. Fortinbras and Laertes find no such bind with moral dilemma when they seek revenge for the death of their fathers only because they are consumed by vengeance. They serve as foil characters to Hamlet.  Although the degree and severity of guilt varies in all these instances, Shakespeare never portrays vengeance as a noble cause. Even Hamlet eventually resolves that what will be will be. "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.217-218).

Furthermore, the Elizabethan Christian morals of Shakespeare’s time condemned revenge. Alfred Harbage reminds Shakespearean students, "Few moral notions were an unfamiliar notion to Elizabethans. A warning against vengeance, at least as directed at kings, appears in the Belleforest version of the Hamlet story itself, and all moralists of the time fulminated against it" (98). Although Elizabethans may have liked to see revenge carried out on the stage much the way modern society may take pleasure with seeing it in movies, they were as a society morally set against revenge. Shakespeare undoubtedly was well aware of this and through his plays conveys a similar view. The article "Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet" supports these facts:

It should not be assumed that revenge plays parallel the moral expectations of the Elizabethan audience. Church, State and the regular morals of people in that age did not accept revenge, instead they thought that revenge would simply not under any circumstances be tolerated no matter what the original deed was. It is repugnant on theological grounds, since Christian orthodoxy posits a world ordered by Divine Providence, in which revenge is a sin and a blasphemy, endangering the soul of the revenger. ("Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet")

In his online notes on The Tempest, Adam Pitman states that one can instantly recognize who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist in the play because the use of Latin roots in the characters’ name, respectively, Prospero and Antonio. However, Prospero is not made the noble hero of this play simply because of his name, but rather because he manages to do what no other character does. He overcomes the human instinct to take revenge on his enemies and forgives them. Shakespeare critic Walter Clyde Curry supports this. "Prospero has used his powers benevolently in the righting of the wrongs, and in the process his soul is cleansed of its baser passions. His nobler reason taking part now against his fury, he finds that the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance" (196).

Shakespeare shows through Prospero the perfect example of choosing to forgive rather than to take revenge. Having had years to think over the issue, Prospero has gained wisdom enough to leave the past in the past so that, among other things, his daughter will have a bright future and he his dukedom restored. In contrast, such characters as Romeo and Hamlet are shoved into the middle of crisis with little chance to let rash passion die down and to consult wisdom. Prospero is also the only one to talk with his enemy of his injustice. Prospero addresses Antonio and Sebastian of their wrong doings, but Iago never bothers to ask Othello to confirm or deny his suspicion, nor does Hamlet straightly confront Claudius until the play’s end. Prospero even has complete control over his enemies, yet forebears, choosing the higher path of forgiveness. Finally, The Tempest was one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote, showing forth a message of the wisdom of experience, whereas other revenge filled plays such as Richard III and Titus Andronicus were among his earlier works.

Francis Bacon says of revenge; "Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office" (Bacon). Clearly Shakespeare agrees with Bacon that it is better to forgive than to take revenge. Shakespeare reminds the audience through Prospero of the Christian moral that one must forgive to be forgiven.

And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free. (5.Epilogue.15-20)

Sources Cited

Bacon, Francis. Of Revenge 7 Oct. 1999 <>.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns Louisiana: Louisiana State UP, 1937.

"Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet." 7 Oct. 1999 <>.

Harbage, Alfred. As They Liked It New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.

Kimpel, Ben. Moral Philosophies in Shakespeare’s Plays Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1987.

Pitman, Adam. Opinions: Shakespeare 18 Jan. 1999. 7 Oct. 1999 <>.

Spitzer, Jason and Zach Marion. Relevance to the 20th Century 7 Oct. 1999 <>.


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