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Sarah King

Dr. Rahimzadeh

ENG 474

April 19th, 2018

Hamlet as an Agent of Revenge

In Act III, Scene II of Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the title character works as an

undercover agent of revenge to investigate his uncle’s role in Hamlet Senior’s death and whether

or not Claudius deserves punishment for his sin. Hamlet’s setup to trick his uncle into admitting

guilt is a play-within-a-play structure that illustrates his father’s murder. Jason P. Rosenblatt

explores Hamlet’s motive for investigating his uncle, detailing the difficulty Hamlet has to

merely exist when his mother’s sin of marrying Claudius is directly involved with his birth (362-

3). Furthermore, Eleanor Prodder examines Hamlet’s cover and persona he uses to throw off

suspicion when discussing how Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia in this scene is not just

inappropriate and oversexualizing, “it too clearly reveals Hamlet’s obsession, the “taint” that has

affected him” (179). To explain Hamlet’s reasoning for the set-up as a play-within-a-play,

philosopher Simon Critchley and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster argue that the performance of

fiction is the only means where the truth may be found (112). Victor Hugo analyzes Hamlet’s

decision to investigate by asserting that this hesitation is a product of Hamlet’s relentless self-

doubt (27). On the other hand, Sigmund Freud argues that Hamlet’s struggle to complete the

revenge is due to his uncle representing Hamlet’s own wishes and therefore his own sins (40-41).

Understanding how Hamlet works as an agent of revenge within this scene is essential in

analyzing the overall play as through his motive for action, insanity persona, and his

investigation, Hamlet demonstrates his inner struggle to justify revenge.


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This scene is very important in understanding the play as to understand Hamlet’s struggle

for revenge, one must first understand Hamlet’s motives for wanting to avenge his father. If his

motive was singularly that Claudius murdered his father, Hamlet’s investigation would have

proceeded much differently; instead, Hamlet is fixated on the marriage between his uncle and

mother and the effect it has on defiling the memory of his father. Hamlet’s feelings are shown

when after saying how she will never remarry, the Queen Player explains that she re-kills the

memory of her first husband when she is romantic with her new husband (v. 184-5). This is

significant to understanding Hamlet as an agent of revenge as it demonstrates how Hamlet

believes their marriage is a continuing weapon against the life of his father, which would fuel his

anger and heighten his bias when determining Claudius’ guilt. Later in the scene, Hamlet tells

the audience about his struggle between his rage at his mother and want for appropriate justice in

the lines, “Let me be cruel, not unnatural: / I will speak daggers to her, but use none; / My tongue

and soul in this be hypocrites” (v. 395-7). These lines clearly show the struggle Hamlet has in

separating his own feelings toward his mother and the actual murder of his father. Hamlet has

been acting as the namesake and sole living memory of Hamlet Senior, so his mother’s quick

remarriage would feel like a personal insult to Hamlet himself and would tempt him to punish

not just Claudius but her as well. This motive is parallel to Rosenblatt’s belief that he is

motivated by a sense of self-hate due to his mother and uncle’s arguably incestuous marriage.

Both ideas conceptualize the passionate fury Hamlet would have for the disrespect the marriage

did to his father’s memory and would undeniably be enough for Hamlet to justify taking revenge

on his uncle.

Furthermore, in this scene Hamlet demonstrates the next key concept in his struggle of

acting as an agent of revenge by using double-entendres to advance his insanity persona. Earlier
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in the play, Hamlet explains that before being able to investigate he will have to feign madness in

order to deter suspicion; however, in these moments Hamlet unveils important details that show

he actually has a keen awareness of the situation. Hamlet first demonstrates this cover in his

greeting with the King when after Claudius asks how he is, Hamlet responds, “Excellent, i' faith;

of the chameleon's dish: / I eat the air, promise-crammed” (v. 93-4). In one sense, Hamlet

switches the King’s words into asking how his food tastes rather than his state of being,

furthering his insanity persona. However, Hamlet produces another meaning, interpreting the

chameleon changing colors to disguise his sins as Claudius who eats the “heir,” a play on the

word “air” and referring to Hamlet. He continues this thought by saying that the heir is

“promised-crammed,” implying that the King believes he has feed Hamlet enough lies to be able

to manipulate him. Understanding Hamlet’s double meanings in these lines is significant to the

overall play as they show how Hamlet understands the risk factor of investigating the king and

that to do so, he has already committed crimes that would ensue severe punishments; however,

Hamlet, fueled by his own rage and need for vengeance, will take any level of measure to

investigate his uncle and determine the appropriateness for revenge.

Another important double-entendre within this scene that serves to further Hamlet’s

insanity persona as a cover for his being an agent of revenge is during his conversation with

Guildenstern about the piccolo players. As the musicians enter, Hamlet implores his friend to try

his hand at playing one but when Guildenstern refuses, Hamlet responds, “do you think I am /

easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what / instrument you will, though you can fret me,

yet you / cannot play upon me” (v. 369-372). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would interpret

these lines as more evidence of Hamlet’s madness but in fact Hamlet demonstrates here that he is

suspicious of his friends and is aware that they will try to trick him later for their own
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advancement. Hamlet’s use of double-meanings here is very important to understanding the

overall play as well as his role as an agent of revenge since it shows how Hamlet, unlike the

other characters, is aware of all the deceptive undertones at work and will use these small

fragments to investigate and pass judgement on those he finds guilty.

However, the major consequence and source of struggle for Hamlet’s insanity persona is

demonstrated through his conversations with Ophelia. Ophelia was his lover before he decided to

avenge his father but having an all-inclusive insanity persona meant that he would have to act

mad and hide his feelings. This is the trouble in his first conversation with Ophelia as Hamlet

immediately begins to oversexualize his former lady, denying to sit beside his mother to instead

sit beside Ophelia, saying, “Here’s metal more attractive,” and having a conversation filled with

innuendos about “nothing,” or female genitalia (v. 109-122). While Ophelia feigns innocence in

not understanding Hamlet’s innuendos, this conversation would have been rightly humiliating for

the girl as the entire Danish court, including her father Polonius, was privy to his remarks. This is

where Prodder’s belief that Hamlet’s obsession with female sexuality has taken control over him

converges with the idea of Hamlet as an agent of revenge. While Hamlet’s motive might be

separate from just female sexuality, his need for revenge and justice against Claudius certainly

has collateral damage to those around him, with Ophelia perhaps being the closest of all.

Hamlet’s true struggle as an agent of revenge begins when he starts his scheme to

investigate whether or not Claudius murdered Hamlet Senior, creating a play about the murder of

a king to gauge his uncle’s reaction. Having the revenger as the playwright is a convention of the

revenge play genre, but Hamlet uses this strategy as the setup to trick Claudius into admitting

guilt. This joining of Hamlet’s role of director and agent of revenge is seen when he discusses his

plans with Horatio, telling him to, “Observe mine uncle. If his occulted guilt / Do not itself
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unkennel in one speech, / It is a damnèd ghost that we have seen” (v. 80-2). Hamlet plans to use

the King’s reaction to this section in the play as proof of his guilt. If Claudius had no

responsibility in his brother’s death, he would not respond to the performance of the murder as

theatre is a fictitious construct. Since Claudius reacted to the play by leaving, Hamlet would use

this as evidence to attest his behavior constitutes guilt for the murder. However, just as Prodder

asserted about Hamlet’s overbearing obsession, Hamlet’s absolute need to avenge his father

clouds his social perspective, forcing him to neglect awareness that this play is inhumane in its

great humiliation and dishonor to both the King and Queen in front of the entire Danish court. By

accepting Claudius’ reaction as proof, Hamlet fails in his struggle to balance justice with

revenge. This play-within-a-play is the most significant idea of the scene in understanding the

overall play in that it demonstrates that Hamlet, when committed to acting as an agent of

revenge, will disregard the truth in order to force Claudius into the damning narrative he has

already written.

Through his motive for murder, insanity persona, and investigation of his uncle’s sins,

Hamlet demonstrates that while acting as an agent of revenge, he is willing to take any

justification for killing his uncle. This scene is very important in that it illustrates the reasons

behind Hamlet’s want for revenge, demonstrates Hamlet’s ability to avenge his father’s death,

and also expresses the extremes of Hamlet’s psychomachia. Hugo’s and Freud’s theories on why

Hamlet took so long to complete his revenge revolve around the idea that his abilities and hatred

for his mother and uncle’s marriage reflect his own self-doubt and sins. However, when looking

at Hamlet as an agent of revenge, his inner struggle on the validity and usefulness of revenge

become apparent, showing that Hamlet’s need to rationalize the necessity of killing his uncle will

always fall prey to his need to quench the thirst of his internal rage and bloodlust.
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Works Cited

Critchley, Simon, and Jamieson Webster. Stay, Illusion!: the Hamlet Doctrine. Vintage Books,

2014.

Freud, Sigmund. Hamlet, edited by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, pp. 27–32.

Hugo, Victor. Hamlet, edited by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, pp. 40-41.

Prosser, Eleanor, and William Shakespeare. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford, Calif.; Oxford

University Press: London, 1967.

Rosenblatt, Jason P. “Aspects of the Incest Problem In Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 29,

no. 3, 1978, pp. 349–364. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2869145.

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