This paper is a discussion of violence in William ShakespeareÆs Hamlet. The playÆs actions hinge on a murder and, by the end, eight more people have died violently. Yet the greatest violence is done to the living (in some cases, driving them to kill), and Shakespeare uses all these acts as a cautionary tale. In HamletÆs own words, ôI must be cruel to be kindö (III IV 1003). Through violence, he argues for clemency and empathy.
Before the play begins, HamletÆs uncle has murdered his father in order to secure the throne for himself. Claudius then claims HamletÆs mother as his queen, seducing and distracting her from questioning her fatherÆs death.
Yet the restless ghost of the murdered king demands vengeance, and his haunting appearances set the actions of the play into motion. Hamlet, traditionally seen as a man paralyzed by inaction, is forced to act. He torments those around him, especially Ophelia, whose tender feelings for him are frustrated and confused, ultimately driving her to madness and death. He forces his uncle to confront his bloody deeds by having them played out in a barely disguised pantomime, and then confronts his mother, spelling out the violence that has been done against her. He stabs Polonius, mistaking him in his rage for the king, then engages in mortal combat with OpheliaÆs brother, Laertes. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with bodies and haunted by the spirits of those who have already been killed by blind fury, jealousy, misplaced passion, revenge, rage, and savage distraction.
At the end, as HamletÆs friend Horatio takes stock of all that has gone before, he delivers the playwrightÆs caution to future audiences: ôSo shall you hear/Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,/Of accidental judgment, casual slaughters,/Of deaths put on by cunning and forcÆd cause,/And, in this upshot, purposes mistookö (V II 1018). The play is a tragedy that illustrates brilliantly ...