One of the overriding themes of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the futility of revenge. The most obvious insistence upon revenge in the play is that of Hamlet himself who seeks to right the wrong of the murder of his father by Claudius. In Elsinore revenge apparently comes in threes, however, as both Laertes and Fortinbras are also out to seek revenge. The manner in which the three character seek revenge differ as much as the ultimate outcome of that revenge, but whether successful or nor, the theme of the play is an assertion that revenge begets only more revenge and the cycle will continue heedlessly forever unless somebody has the courage to put an end to it.
Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are all three engaged not just in a quest for vengeance, but specifically the desire to avenge their respective fathers. Though all three men corrupt themselves through the dedication to seeking to right the wrongs inflicted against their fathers, significant differences can be found. For instance, Laertes embarks upon the simple crusade of killing the person responsible for killing Polonius. This is revenge in its purest form and, as such, contains a certain kind of nobility, perverted as that nobility may be. At first glance, Laertes may appear to be nothing more than a mirror version of Hamlet, but the revenge upon which Hamlet bases his entire being cuts deeper; Hamlet does not merely wish to kill Claudius and let it be, he wants to make certain that Claudius’ soul is eternally damned.
Hamlet’s indecision and unabiding loathing to simply confront and kill Claudius in cold blood stands in marked contrast to the white hot lust for quick and depraved violence that Laertes seeks. Laertes may be said to hearken back to the ancient traditions of an eye for an eye, while Hamlet represents a more enlightened state of mind relative to revenge. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes’ need for revenge is not tempered with thoughts of eternal retribution: ” To this point I stand, 3005 / That both the world, I give to negligence, / Let come what comes; only I’ll be reveng’d / Most throughly for my father. That both the worlds I give to negligence,” (IV, 5:132-136). Laertes represents thematic point that revenge is a cycle that never ends; somebody would certainly arise to kill Laertes if he’d succeeded in killing Hamlet and living.
Fortinbras seeks revenge for his father’s death in the manner of recapturing the lands lost by his father to Hamlet’s father. This particular act of vengeance is designed to add a political dimension to the theme of revenge. Fortinbras is, after all, merely seeking to retain “a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (IV, 4: 18-19). The larger significance of the type of revenge to which Fortinbras is dedicated is the history of land wars and other battles that existed for no other reason than to right real or perceived personal wrongs.
Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras seek retribution for the violent deaths of their fathers in different ways and for different reasons, but all three acts of revenge contribute to the theme that revenge is ultimately a pointless endeavor. Hamlet’s brooding over the morality of the act of revenge stands apart from that of the other two men because he represents the coming of a more enlightened age. Cold-blooded murder of the type that Laertes seeks is not acceptable to Hamlet; indeed he also seeks everlasting punishment. The revenge of Fortinbras is engendered by the desire to regain a lost land of little consequence, pointing to the theme of how revenge can be enacted for the most illogical of reasons. Ultimately, one of the themes that Shakespeare employs in Hamlet is how revenge serves to create an endless and unceasing cycle of vengeance.