Revenge is a dish best served cold.   No–I’m not going to claim this delicious little aphorism comes from Shakespeare. Historians and linguists can’t agree. However, the idea behind such a kind of revenge does come from Shakespeare, namely in Hamlet’s great soliloquy from Act III of the play.

Hamlet espies his murderous step father Claudius praying–Hamlet’s uncle King who murdered his father, stole his father’s crown and then bedded his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is so, so tempted to murder the bastard right where he kneels and prays. But then Hamlet thinks better of it:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene iii

The logic that stays Hamlet’s sword here is unusual in the Shakespeare canon: it’s a direct reference to Christian ethics and beliefs, and typically any topics or reference of a religiously Christian nature Shakespeare wisely avoided. Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant reformation wasn’t that far removed from the days of Queen Bloody Mary, who executed thousands of Protestants. Which meant smart playwrights steered clear. But for this scene, Hamlet’s beliefs serve the plot so well Shakespeare used it.

Hamlet realizes that if he kills Claudius while Claudius is praying, it will send the murderous King to heaven, since he’ll die while asking forgiveness of his sins. Hamlet reasons that if he’s going to send this bastard to hell, he needs to kill him while he’s committing sins: ‘When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, At game, a-swearing…”

It’s a crazy kind of logic. But when it’s couched within the luscious and lyrical language of this soliloquy, and issues from Hamlet’s mad lips, the audience buys it. It appears the Bard was as good at selling Christian myths as the Elizabethan preachers of the day.

The image comes from the cover of a Holy Bible printed in 1569, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.  

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