Revenge in Hamlet
There is an old saying, "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons." When the sons in question are Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras - pivotal characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet - one might wonder how each man's father affects their particular natures - their particular sins. While Hamlet could be considered a story in the vein of Cain and Abel; a jealous man who slays his brother, an allusion which Claudius himself makes during his "prayer" at the climax of the play - "O! my offense is rank, it smells to heaven,/It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't;/A brother's murder! . . ." (III, iii, 36-39) - the greatest sum of miseries in the play are caused by the paths taken by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras in their quests for revenge. Revenge is the sin visited upon them by their fathers, and revenge, not Claudius, is the chief villain of Hamlet; it drives Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras to such extremes that the costs of employing their various methods of revenge are, for Hamlet and Laertes at least, far greater than any gain.
Hamlet, if he were rewritten for a more modern venue, would be considered the stereotypical troubled youth - a rebel without a cause. Even before his spirit is incensed with the desire to avenge his father, Hamlet is world-weary and brought down with burdens of sorrow: "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (I, ii, 133-134). After Hamlet is confronted by his father's ghost, he sets about his plan for revenge. Realizing that Claudius' suspicions would be raised by actions that seemed to directly threaten the throne, Hamlet decides to disguise his intent: "How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself-/As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/To put an antic disposition on-" (I, v, 180-182).
Throughout the rest of the play Hamlet uses his "antic disposition" to both hide his schemes and make sport of those he mistrusts - Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius, and Claudius. To those he loves - his mother Gertrude and his lady Ophelia - Hamlet adopts a different tact; his belief that he must go alone and confide in no one, save his friend Horatio, results in his terrible mistreatment of his mother and Ophelia. Between "speaking daggers" to Gertrude and imparting to Ophelia that she should get "to a nunnery," Hamlet makes miserable the lives of the women who love him.
That need for detachment from love is grounded in Hamlet's self-doubt, which manifests itself throughout the play in Hamlet's various soliloquies. Even as he prepares to set a trap for Claudius by use of the play within-the-play, Hamlet finds his thoughts florid and his doubts numerous, he admires "First Player's" capacity to convincingly portray false emotions:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit (II, ii, 503-507) ...