Vengeance forbidden

Vengeance, or revenge — the taking of retribution for a perceived injustice or harmful act — is directly opposed to ideas of mercy, forgiveness and grace. Consequently in Christian theology it is seen as entirely the wrong response to an injury. Although the phrase from the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' is well-known, by contrast in many places in the New Testament the followers of Christ are told to forgive and not to seek revenge:

  • In Luke 6:27-29 Jesus says:

    ‘Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you ... pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other.'
  • In Chapter 12 of a letter written by Paul to the Romans, he tells them:

    ‘Recompense no man evil for evil … Avenge not yourselves ... for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine; I will repay' saith the Lord.' (Romans 12:17-19)

Hamlet's dilemma

Consequently, Hamlet poses a very real problem:

  • Shakespeare chooses to set it in a Christian universe (see Themes and significant ideas: Setting 'Hamlet' within a Christian world view) where the Ghost claims to be suffering under the judgement of God
  • However in Act I scene v the Ghost calls upon Hamlet to act against the Christian view of the will of God, and to seek vengeance:

    ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love …
    Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder …
    If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.'

  • Hamlet's immediate reaction is:

    ‘Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift
    As meditation or the thoughts of love
    May sweep to my revenge.'
 The fact that Hamlet does not, in fact, ‘sweep', or even move slowly, to his revenge is one of the great and widely-discussed problems of the play (see Characterisation: Hamlet):
  • It is clear that Hamlet's suspicions of the nature of the Ghost have much to do with his reluctance
  • His concern that the Ghost may be a devil tempting him to sin could be seen as well-founded in view of this call to vengeance.

Difficult questions

There is even an immediately obvious paradox in the words of the Ghost when seeking revenge. After exhorting Hamlet, ‘If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not,' the Ghost commands him: 

‘Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.'
  • If leaving Gertrude to guilt and an awareness of the judgement of God is the right course of action in his mother's case, should Hamlet act very differently towards his uncle?
  • Is the act of murder unforgivable?
  • Clearly we are given a totally contrasting view of the power of forgiveness by Claudius himself when he tries to pray in Act III scene iii.
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