(This post contains some Hamlet spoilers. But come on now, the play has been out since the dissolve of the Tutor Dynasty. And if you’ve seen the Lion King (and who hasn’t) you’ve seen Hamlet… minus the swordplay and incest of course).
I love revenge movies. They’re a guilty pleasure. They make great entertainment. Kill Bill, Mad Max, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I Spit on your Grave (I’ve haven’t seen this yet, it’s next in my Netflix queue, but I love the title and I think the title offers a meaty jist regarding the premise of this film).
The revenge story is old art. The genre premiered in the open-aired Greek theater and is currently playing at your air- conditioned AMC.
Sure we have advanced– with our denim and deodorant– from the ancient Greeks but just like the days of antiquity, revenge tales are still box office gold. We love characters who have the audacity to rise above the limitations of the law, trash their morality, wield badass weaponry and do what avengers do…kicks ass.
By definition, Hamlet, is a revenge play. But unlike our Hollywood revenge films Hamlet runs almost four and a half hours long and it takes three hours for our sulking protagonist to take action. And that action– mistakenly murdering the wrong man.
Imagine if you paid $13.50 to watch The Rock contemplate and mope and speak in iambic pentameter for 3 hours and then, when he finally musters up the will to act, he accidentally kills the innocent pizza delivery man.
Modern revenge films are brisk and decisive. The hero speaks declaratively (often in a snarling whisper) and carries a big stick or sword or machete or bazooka.
But we should be intelligent enough to understand that modern revenge tales are not realistic. They are visceral fantasies. However Hamlet, written over 400 years ago, is incredibly realistic and modern.
Once the opportunity for revenge presents itself, Hamlet wrestles with his own morality. He knows revenge is wrong and the act will lead to earthly repercussions and corrupt his eternal soul.
Like you and I dear reader, Hamlet is a decent person trapped in an indecent world.
However, like any good director, Shakespeare knew his audience. He knew they would burn the Globe Theater if after four and a half hours Hamlet was like, “you know mom, you’re a bit whorish but I love you anyway.” Boom forgiven. “And Uncle Claudius, the cat hair sweater you gave me for Christmas sucked, and you killed my dad, which sucked even more, but I’m going to be the bigger man and move on.” Boom forgiven. The end.
So for the safety of himself and his theater, Shakespeare had to turn Hamlet into a murderer. Yet what sets the play apart from other revenge tales is that Hamlet concludes with the dying Hamlet exchanging forgiveness with his rival Laertes ( who is also dying).
Look I’m no holy roller. I don’t go to church. I don’t pray– except on 4th and long. But I’d like to consider myself a moral person who, at 35, understands the difference between right and wrong. Who navigates life with a moral compass. And like Hamlet I’m trying to be a decent man in an indecent world.
From what I remember from my Catholic schooling, forgiveness is divine– Heaven’s Fast Pass– the best way to secure a meet and greet with the great animator in the sky.
I think the act of forgiveness blurs religious and secular boundaries. You don’t need to devout to feel the pangs of guilt and remorse. You just need to be human.
Unfortunately, hardness has always been celebrated. Forgiveness never sold tickets. Shakespeare knew this. Tarantino knows this.
But in the dying moments of the Hamlet, after he’s mortally wounded Hamlet exchanges forgiveness with Laertes. He then lies in Horatio’s lap and instructs his friend to “tell my story”. A story that is messy– one ripe with murder, madness, incest and revenge and but one that ends with forgiveness.
Hamlet still matters because it’s a revenge story with heart. The play exploits what we feel when we have been wronged and examines our perpetual wrestling match with morality. Strip down the play and you will find that it’s a play about forgiveness and how forgiveness initiates healing, and healing allows us to get on with the art of living. Something all of us– from the ancient Greeks to Simba– are trying to do.