In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an incredible story of multiple accounts of revenge, and perhaps Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the plot thrives on young Hamlet’s quest for revenge for the wrongful murder of his father, old King Hamlet. Murdered by his own brother, Hamlet discovers the truth of this death, and seeks revenge, no matter what the cost. Circling around this central revenge story are two other revenge stories. The first is the vague outlier revenge of young Fortinbras, whose father King Hamlet killed before the story begins. The second is the revenge sidestory of Laertes, whose father Polonius is killed by Hamlet in Act III, and whose pursuit of revenge mirrors Hamlet’s in Acts IV and V, consisting of almost half of that part of the narrative. Hamlet’s particular rash and reckless behavior becomes a catalyst for his own downfall in Act V, a fate which he himself has already accepted when he sets on the path for revenge in Act I. The act of rashly killing Polonius has effects that ripple throughout the proceeding acts of the play, causing Hamlet great grief, anguish and pain which he had already assumed was inevitable, but could actually have been avoided had he been more careful.
Hamlet’s insistence on his own demise in taking the path of revenge comes in Act I, Scene 5. In this Act, Hamlet meets with his father’s ghost, who reveals his murder. His acceptance comes forth in his own ruminations: “For every man hath business and desire, / Such as it is – and for my own poor part, / I pray.” (1.5.136-8). Hamlet finds his situation one of great despair, and while feels resigned to the “part” he must play as the bearer of King Hamlet’s legacy and revenge, he accepts that this must be the case, and there truly is no way out. It is here where Hamlet’s first instances of recklessness come to play. In accepting his fate, Hamlet limits himself to a box, a misguided way of thinking, and this channeled thought becomes his own demise.
When Hamlet reaches his mother, the Queen, in her chambers, he mistakes a figure behind arras to be the King, and lunges his sword at him in hopes of revenge, only to find out that he has slain Polonius. This act of murder is Hamlet’s point of no return, though he does not understand the significance at the time. In fact, Hamlet downplays the death, and claims his mother is the worse of the two: “A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother.” (3.4.27-8). Hamlet’s rash behavior here is in full force, at this point seeking only revenge, not caring who is cut down in the way of this revenge.
The killing of Polonius first results in a break in the mental state of Ophelia, whose ambiguous death may or may not have been a suicide. In syllogistic terms, Hamlet can be construed as responsible for the death of Ophelia. The death of her father pains her, with her singing in a mad trance: “He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone, / At his head a green-grass turf, / At his heels a stone.” (4.5.29-32). After her exit, she drowns, and while many characters see it as an accident, others interpret the death as suicide. With the death of Ophelia comes the loss of Hamlet’s hope at a normal life, as he declares he loved Ophelia at her funeral: “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum.” (5.2.269-271). While Hamlet has resigned himself to his fate already, the material world around him slowly crumbles at his insistence that there is no other way, and this one-track destiny becomes a reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The culmination of Hamlet’s punishment for his reckless comes in the last scene of the play, when Laertes, who conspired with the King, takes revenge on Hamlet by fatally wounding him with a poisoned rapier, and Hamlet retaliates by doing the same to Laertes and the King, taking hold of Laertes’ villainous weapon: “Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric, / I am justly kill’d with mind own treachery.” (5.2.314-5). The circle of revenge is a two-edged sword, and while Hamlet does have his revenge, he pays for it dearly with his own life as a result of his hasty behavior. Hamlet, resigned to his fate, is taken by the same sense of revenge he craved so much, a poetic justice for the Prince. Hamlet, believing his death was an inevitable casualty of his pursuit of revenge, came to find that revenge would indeed be his last act as a living man.