Topic: Revenge and Forgiveness in Hamlet and other Shakespeare’s Revenge Plays

Date & Time: 4:00 – 5:30 p.m., 18 October 2013 (Friday)

Venue: D303

Guest speaker: Dr. Louis Lo

Language: English



This paper examines the notions of revenge and forgiveness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet through establishing a dialogue with his other plays related to revenge, including Othello, The Tempest, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night. The revenge that Hamlet delays to take (killing Claudius when he is praying ‘is hire and salary, not revenge’) results, directly or indirectly, in the death of many more people in the end (Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet himself). Wilson Knight argues that Hamlet ‘takes a devilish joy in cruelty towards the end of the play’ and compares him with Iago, who for Knight is ‘cynicism incarnate.’ Informed by Knight’s view on these characters, this paper examines how revenge is complicated by such figures as Polonius and Iago, who Walter Benjamin calls ‘figures of the intriguer[s],’ whose ‘cruel jokes’ belong to ‘the old model of the demonic fool.’

Though the play is driven by contemplation of taking revenge, the ending of Hamlet shows a moment of forgiveness when Laertes says, ‘exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.’ We may see forgiveness, instead of revenge, as the key to understand Measure for Measure, a title evoking the principle of revenge, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ in the Old Testaments (e.g. Exodus 21:24) as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation, but is subverted in the New Testaments (e.g. Matthew 5:38-39). Derrida argues that ‘true’ forgiveness is not possible without establishing a hierarchy between the victim and the condemned. This paper examines Derrida’s idea and what Nietzsche says about revenge, ‘the will’s ill will against time and its “it was” ’ which is originated from ressentiment, an emotion which makes possible the emergence of modern subjectivity, arguing that forgiveness is possible when personhood is understood differently in Shakespeare’s time. 


Guest Speaker Information:

Dr. Louis Lo is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the National Taipei University of Technology. He attained his MA in Literary and Cultural Studies and PhD in Comparative Literature at The University of Hong Kong. He is the author of monographs including Male Jealousy: Literature and Film (Continuum, 2008) and Walking Macao, Reading the Baroque (HKU Press, 2009) (co-written with J. Tambling). He contributes articles on literature and the city in Dickens and Italy (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010) and Macau – Cultural Interaction and Literary Representation (Routledge, 2013). His other articles appear in Textual Practice and Modern Language Review. He is currently working on an interdisciplinary book project examining the culture of revenge in literature and films.