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Hamlet: A Study in Revenge, Duty, and Doubt
The following article was originally published in Shakespearean Studies. William Rader. Boston: The Gorham Press, 1912.

"Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."

--Romans 12:19

Armed with the passion of revenge, we go forth to avenge ourselves upon the enemy. But vengeance is not the property of man. It is a possession of God. Man is incapable of using this dangerous thing called vengeance. Our rights end with punishment, but vengeance is more than punishment. Therefore I do not believe in capital punishment--the arbitrary taking of life. There is no discipline in killing an offender. We have only followed the abrogated law of the old covenant, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." We have taken a life for a life, and thus satisfied our sense of revenge. Punishment is chastisement--making the soiled linen sweet and white and pure by soap and water, and diverse poundings. Vengeance such as the apostle writes of, does not belong to men. It is the exclusive property of God. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." A good illustration of the conflict which sometimes wages between the desire for vengeance and the higher law of honorable duty, is found in Shakespeare's delineation of the character of Hamlet, where is apparent emotional scepticism, morbid forebodings, the spirit of vengeance, the sense of duty, and altogether a miserable and unhappy state of affairs. Hamlet describes many unfortunate lives, caught in the mesh of circumstances, and incapable of solving the perplexing problems of life.

The facts involved in the tragedy are possibly, better known than those of any other of Shakespeare's tragedies. Apart from Hamlet the tragedy does not make a strong appeal. It is chiefly remembered for its brilliant bits of wisdom, its noble eloquence, and the keen psychological study Shakespeare makes of the character of Hamlet. In the analysis made of him, the great master lays bare the human heart, and the careful student attends a clinic on the heart's inmost emotions.

The Queen of Denmark, Gertrude, becomes a widow by the strangely sudden death of the king. In less than two months she marries his brother Claudius. Both the suddenness of the death and the marriage greatly disturb Hamlet. In consequence of his trouble he grew morbid and melancholy. It happens that an apparition had been seen by soldiers upon watch before the palace at midnight. It was arranged that Hamlet should see this apparition for himself and taking his stand one night with Horatio and Marcellus, where the ghost appeared, he was struck with fear, and so great was the resemblance to his father, that he followed the apparition begging for some word of recognition. To make a long story short, the ghost related to him how Clauius, his uncle, had murdered him, and appealed to Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius. Hamlet's feigned madness was explained by his ardent love for one Ophelia to whom he was in the habit of communicating messages of love.

While he was in this irresolute and disturbed state of mind, not knowing whether to avenge his father's death, and not quite sure of the testimony of the ghost he decided to put the king and queen through the "third degree," as the detectives say. A strolling band of players came along, and it was arranged for them to play a tragedy reproducing the facts of the tragedy as reported by the ghost. The king and queen were invited to be present. So real was the representation that the king excused himself on the ground of illness. This incident was followed by an interview between Hamlet and his mother, during which Hamlet observes somebody behind the curtains, and thinking it was Claudius, thrusts him with his sword. It so happens, Polonius, father of Ophelia, was there, and he was stabbed to death, for which act Hamlet was sent out of the country, but owing to a strange series of circumstances returned in time to attend Ophelia's funeral, and to engage in a general slaughter of about everybody of importance in the play.

"Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss
Go, bid the soldiers shoot."

Hamlet's troubles, like those of many people, began at home. His father was murdered and his mother disgraced the family name by the indiscretion of an early marriage. There is an explosive element in domestic affairs which works ruin, once the fire reaches the powder.

Again, the advent of the ghost into Hamlet's life influenced his artistic temperament and disarranged his mind. Ghosts are poor friends. They are not safe counselors. The two worlds are closely related and influence each other, and the spiritual life is as real as the human life seen by our eyes. But keep away from ghosts. Beware of buying stocks or dealing in real estate at the advice of the spirits of your dead ancestors, and when they rise up and insist that you wreak vengeance on their enemies--beware!

The character of Hamlet is so universal in its wide range of feeling and motive, that we may profitably give it special consideration. His character is marked by irresolution and hesitancy, which stamp him as uncertain, and weak. There is an indefiniteness about him which reaches a point of fascination at times. He has laid upon him a duty which he has not the strength to execute. He is the man who is under a cross which is too heavy for him, who has standards but not power, who would do what ought to be done, but is incapable of doing it. In the seventh chapter of Romans, Paul appears, just for a moment upon the stage, as a disarranged, morbid and melancholy Hamlet, assured that whenever he would do good evil is present with him. Goethe says: "It is clear to me that Shakespeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment." Certainly we have an example of indecision, but the indecision as in most of us, is our inability to assert the resolution. It is fundamental weakness in the machinery of power behind the decision of the mind. It is easy to make resolutions, but how hard it is to execute them. Hamlet was like a man who loads his gun to the muzzle with shot, but behind the shot there is little or no powder. Every New Year's day we pour in the rattling shot of resolution--but the gun does not always go off, because there is not sufficient will power, that is, character, to expel it.

Again, this tragedy has been called "a tragedy of thought." The mind's war is uncovered. The brain's battlefield is laid bare. The torments of doubt are felt in the sublime soliloquy, and seen in the melancholic action of the Prince. "Prometheus and Hamlet are two lovers," says Hugo, "laid bare before us; blood flows from the one, doubt from the other." Hamlet's doubt is against life, and this is the most deadly species of scepticism. When you are surrounded by conditions over which you have no control, when walled in by impenetrable troubles, and made captive by unexplained sorrows and disappointments, you are in the position of Hamlet when he spoke of this weary, and unintelligible world--"

"Oh cursed spite, that I was ever sent
To set it right."

When a man's doubt is against the whole scheme of things as he sees it, when it embitters him against life itself, then is his doubt more destructive than the unanswered question raised by a book or a system or a creed.

"To be, or not to be, that is the question--
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind, to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep--
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death which dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardles bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."

"Hamlet, the tragedy of doubt," says Victor Hugo, "stands in the centre of all his works. Geniuses of the first rank have the peculiarity that each creates a specimen of humanity. Each gives to humanity its own image, one a laughing one, another a weeping one, another again a thoughtful one. The last is the grandest. Plautus laughs and gives mankind an Amphitryo, Rabelais laughs and gives a Gargantua, Cervantes laughs and gives a Don Quixote, Beaumarchais laughs and gives a Figaro; Moliere weeps and gives an Alceste; Shakespeare meditates and gives a Hamlet; Aeschylus meditates and gives a Prometheus. The former are great; Aeschylus and Shakespeare are immeasurably so."

And now a word about Hamlet's insanity. For many years this has been a subject of discussion. The preponderance of opinion favors the idea that Hamlet's insanity never reaches the point of irresponsibility, and that he feigned madness. "To pretend madness is the secret of the wise," says Oceanus to Prometheus. Gloster's son in Lear feigns madness, and when a man would assassinate an American president or European sovereign in the spirit of revenge, madness becomes a convenient excuse for the deed. Coleridge says, "If it be asked, is Hamlet really mad: or for what purpose does he assume madness? We reply that he assumes madness to conceal from himself and others his real distemper. Mad he certainly is not, in the sense that Lear and Ophelia are mad." Irresolution, doubt, hesitation, and morbidness resulted in a mistaken and hasty action--the murder of the wrong man!

Now let us take up the whole matter of revenge and discuss it on its moral merits in the light of the national and individual life. Hamlet is the nation. War for thousands of years has, with a few exceptions, been waged on the ground of vengeance. War is the chief inheritance of savagery. It is a relic of the savage, when the early barbarian gripped his club, and went forth to flay his enemy. We call it patriotism. It is not patriotism, it is savagery. The nations are still attached to the earth, sphinx-like to the lower passions, and while the head may be among the stars, the body is fastened to the sands. The great Tolstoy would have liberated the nations from the barbarism of the savage, but he died alone in the hut, surrounded with armies which were in singular contrast to Christianity.

"Yes, Germany is Hamlet, too?
Upon her ramparts every night
There stalks in silence, grim and slow,
Her buried freedom's steel-clad spirit,
Beck'ning the warders watching there,
And to the shrinking doubter saying:
They've drop't fell poison in mine ear
Draw thou the sword, no more delay."

America has been Hamlet. What was the war with Spain but a war of Vengeance? For some days after the Maine was sunk, President McKinley was the national Hamlet personified, hesitating between duty and revenge, pausing between the appeal of the ghosts of the sailors, and the dogs of war, let loose by the American newspapers, and barking through the halls of congress--solemnly paused between duty and revenge, and at length, inevitably it would seem, surrendered to the popular cry for vengeance--and stabbed Polonius behind the curtain!

What Hamlets read these words! Hamlets who have been inspired to wreak vengeance, for real or imaginary wrongs. It requires a greater man not to strike, than to strike, not to pull the trigger, than to shoot. The soft answer is harder to give than the sulphurous and fiery reply which burns and destroys. Almost any man likes to strike back. The nation does. The boy does, and sometimes in self defense, striking back is necessary. The first impulse of Hamlet is to avenge his father's murder. It is your impulse. A man has done you a wrong--do him two wrongs. A man has struck you once, strike him a dozen times. A man has committed a crime--kill him, burn him, hang him to a tree, riddle him with bullets, and then call yourselves gentlemen of honor. No--"Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."

I give then, the following advice to Hamlets: First: Be sure you are right--then act. Such is the point in the wise injunction of Davy Crockett. "Be sure you are right, then go ahead." Many of our troubles would be avoided could we courageously obey this bit of wisdom. To know what is right--the will of God, to find it, as the Indian finds and follows the trail, is to find a working doctrine of practical life, that would defend us against many tragedies. Having found the right, then follow it against all odds. The hesitant, vacillating, uncertain man never realizes his purpose because he never knows when and where to strike his blow.

Second: God punishes--

"The mills of the gods grind slowly,
But grind they exceeding fine."

The low rumble and roar of the mighty stones is the voice of history. God rules. Oh, little, furious, angered man, do not strive to pull down from above the thunderbolts of God! They do not belong to you. Shall infants play with pistols, and children with fire? You do not know how to use the awful power of vengeance. That can be used alone by God. But how we strive to break through the limitations and seize the vengeance of God. We have not the wisdom, the forebearance, the justice, nor the mercy to wreak vengeance. Do not worry, God will give every man what he deserves. The universe is framed on that unbroken law. It does not belong to us to deal out hell to people. God will do that. Ours is a different function. It does not belong to us to rule the universe. Certain sacred attributes are not for us to own. The child may play with the candy gun, but one higher, who knows the laws of warfare, points and fires the engine of steel and fire. Every man will ultimately get his deserts. There must somewhere, somehow be a clearing house of eternal justice, here or hereafter.

The apostle's advice is better than the ghost's appeal to Hamlet. Despite the fact that we have within us the spirit of revenge, the gospel of the New Testament is the doctrine for the new age. Here we have not the sword, but the hot coals, not revenge, but kindness, the soft answer which turns away wrath, as the hot sun turns away the icicles, and melts them to tears. What a fine art is the use of the hot coals, and how few there be, capable of rising up high enough in the scale of religion to use them. But put them on! Lay them on the heads of your enemies, and thus fulfil the law of God. Coals of fire are invested with a gospel which is preached but not practised. Some day the nations will use them, and Christians will reach each other's hearts by the burning, searching spirit of the Christ. How beautiful these words: "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

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