A recurring theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that of loyalties, or obligations, and through it the question of revenge versus justice.
These ideas are constantly developed in the play. Of the nine deaths, seven are because the characters failed to honor an obligation.
As loyalties and obligations lie near to the hearts of the English, the breaking of such bonds was terrible and poetic justice demanded retribution for such heinous crimes. The two remaining deaths, those of Hamlet and Laertes, are more complicated.
They take the issue of loyalty a step further and allows Shakespeare to develop the contrast between justice and revenge. In general, the pervasiveness of the themes help create the strong emotions and fascination associated with Hamlet for years
Filial obligations are a main focus in the play. Hamlet must kill Claudius to avenge his father.
Polonius spies on Laertes and betrays Ophelia’s trust when he uses her to spy on Hamlet. Gertrude is unfaithful to her late husband in marrying Claudius. Often loyalty to one’s family is placed as a priority, an important part of life. Disregarding one’s obligations to one’s family is almost always viewed as a terrible thing; as such, each character is fated to die.
The other main type of loyalty trespassed involves friends and loved ones in general. Ophelia goes mad because her father dies, but her death was already justified when she allowed herself to be used by Polonius to spy on Hamlet. She not only betrays Hamlet’s trust but also damages her relationship with her father by allowing him to use her. Hamlet’s university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are asked to spy on Hamlet by Claudius. Though they have Hamlet’s well being on their minds, they betray him to Claudius and set up his possible death. For this, the audience feels little sympathy when Hamlet engineers their own demise. Though not generally seen as on par with filial obligations, loyalty to one’s friends/loved ones is important enough to justify these character’s eventual deaths. On a side note, the ghost, who is dead before the play begins, was also deserving of death because he stole lands from Norway in life.
Hamlet is the most enigmatic of the characters and his situation is, fittingly, the most complex. Hamlet is a university student, thoughtful and mild, that gets charged with avenging his father’s murder. He deliberates until the very end about whether to commit the deed and seems trapped by the situation, so the audience sympathizes with him. He owes the ghost not only filial piety but the obedience and fealty of commotatus. At the same time, he is unsure whether the ghost is real or deluded or some demonic force bent on capturing his soul. As for the revenge issue, Hamlet seems more an unwilling tool of poetic justice than of a victim of it. But the Scripture has some interesting concepts to add, and Hamlet eventually changes his situation. Ezekial 25:15 says “because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts.” And because of this malice, God condemned them. This is a common outcome. But in some stories, like Samson, revenge is granted. Samson prays in Judges 16:28 “God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines.” Here’s the concept: when vengeance is based on duty or honor, a noble cause, it is justified. In Act IV scene 4, Hamlet says “O, from this time forth/ my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth (lines 6768).” This malicious intent loses the sympathy of the audience; Hamlet loses his justification and therefore must die.
Though about as complex as the other characters, Laertes goes through a situation similar to Hamlet’s. His father is killed, and he feels obligated to exact revenge on Hamlet for this act. Laertes is much quicker to act on his feelings than Hamlet is, immediately preparing to kill his father’s killer. He takes no time to check if Claudius is lying, and rushes headlong into the deed. Often times it is acceptable in literature to take one’s revenge on someone; it is seen as honorable to avenge a loved one. Laertes is convicted of sin and thus deserves to die because he is hell bent on revenge. It consumes him. Following the previous concept of when justice becomes revenge, Laertes’ death makes sense. Under other circumstances (had he been more preoccupied with grief and focused on his duties to his father) his revenge would be poetically justified. Because he is focused on the malicious aspect of revenge, Laertes falls to poetic justice.