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 Wild Justice 

September 12, 2006 
 Hamlet & revengeWhy does Hamlet delay his revenge so long?

 Hamlet & 
revengeShakespeare commentators have debated this question for ages, coming up with such ingenious answers as that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex that makes him ambivalent about killing his uncle, King Claudius, who has murdered his father to get the Danish crown. Hamlet chides himself for taking so long about it, blaming his own cowardice, though he is actually prone to rash impulses as well as hesitation. Today's column is "Wild Justice" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Is he merely seeking pretexts for delay — such as doubt of the Ghost’s veracity — or are his reasons sound?

 Hamlet & revengeMost of the critics share Hamlet’s view that avenging his father’s death is his duty. This is understandable but odd, because the play subtly presents an opposite view: that revenge is evil. Hamlet is actually delayed by his own conscience. Strange to say, only a few of the critics have perceived this.

 Hamlet & 
revenge“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.” Every Christian knew that verse, which should also settle another old debate: whether Hamlet’s father’s Ghost is in Purgatory or Hell. The Ghost says he is being “purged” of his “foul crimes” for “a certain term,” which implies he is in Purgatory, ultimately saved and not damned forever.

 Hamlet & revengeBut the truth slips out when he complains of dying without the sacraments,
 Hamlet & revengeNo reckoning made, but sent to my account
 Hamlet & revengeWith all my imperfections on my head.
 Hamlet & revengeO horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!
And he demands revenge: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.”

 Hamlet & revengeHamlet, in a frenzy, vows to put the Ghost’s commandment “all alone” above everything he has ever learned. But soon he has doubts. Was the Ghost a devil, lying to tempt Hamlet to his own damnation? He stages a play to test Claudius by reenacting the alleged murder.

 Hamlet & 
revengeHamlet reflects the religious turmoil of its time. Christians were furiously debating everything — ghosts, Purgatory, sacraments, and other matters the play is exquisitely ambiguous about. But all agreed that revenge was sinful, and a ghost urging sin could come only from Hell.

[Breaker quote for Wild Justice: Hamlet and his conscience] Hamlet & revengeSo whether this Ghost was “honest” about the fact of murder is beside the point. Claudius’s guilt doesn’t justify revenge. And after that guilt is proved, the ugly nature of revenge becomes clear.

 Hamlet & revengeFirst Hamlet finds Claudius trying to pray, and decides against killing him then — lest he go to Heaven! Full revenge for his father, he tells himself, requires killing Claudius when he is sinning, so he will be “damned.” Samuel Johnson called Hamlet’s speech to this effect “too horrible to be read or uttered.” (It also implies that Hamlet’s father is indeed in Hell.)

 Hamlet & revengeThen Hamlet mistakes Polonius for Claudius and kills him. Now Polonius’s son Laertes wants revenge — on Hamlet! And Laertes is not one to hesitate:
 Hamlet & revengeTo hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
 Hamlet & 
revengeConscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
 Hamlet & revengeI dare damnation.
 Hamlet & revenge “I’ll be revenged,” he insists, even if it means going to Hell.

 Hamlet & revengeLaertes is a dark mirror of Hamlet, vividly exposing the evil of Hamlet’s supposed duty. He plots with Claudius to poison the unsuspecting Hamlet. “And yet,” he says at the crucial moment, “it is almost against my conscience.” So even Laertes knows better.

 Hamlet & revengeViolence, the play says, brings unforeseeable and uncontrollable consequences; “our devices still are overthrown. / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” In this mysterious world, we never fully know what we are doing. Our intentions are one thing; results are another.

 Hamlet & revengeSo every plan misfires, and everyone dies. The Ghost finally gets the revenge he sought, when his son kills his murderer; but his son and wife die too, and the kingdom of Denmark falls to his old enemy, Norway. Though Laertes also gets his revenge, he joins the mounting casualty toll.

 Hamlet & revengeThis tremendous play, a symphony of cross purposes, might have been written to illustrate Francis Bacon’s maxim that revenge is a kind of “wild justice.” If it punishes the guilty, it also claims the innocent. As Shakespeare says elsewhere, “Thou shalt have justice — more than thou desirest.” Or as Hamlet puts it almost flippantly, “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?”

 Hamlet & revengeThe Ghost, then, is a voice not of justice, but of evil. He belongs among Shakespeare’s fatal seducers, with Cassius, Iago, and the Weird Sisters who mislead Macbeth.

Joseph Sobran

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