I’m getting near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban in my re-read, which means I’m in the middle of the Marauders’ story and thinking about how tragic the Harry Potter books are from their point of view. I mean, all of them die young, one betrays his friends, another is framed for that betrayal and murder, and the fourth is ostracized from most of society for something that’s no fault of his own. There’s a little flicker of hope with James and Lily’s son and his destiny as the Chosen One, but none of them live long enough to see that happen. In preparation to write about that, I went back to look at those old posts I wrote last winter when I was reading Shakespeare. I was shocked to find that I’d never said anything about Hamlet, because I knew I’d written something comparing the themes of revenge and murder there to things that happen in the final few Harry Potter books. So, I dug this out of my unpublished drafts. Better late than never, right?
Revenge is not as central a theme in Harry Potter as in Hamlet, but the fact that it’s not is noteworthy. After all, the central character is a young man fighting his parents’ murderer, and many of the other heroes have suffered and lost loved ones at the hands of the villains. Neville’s parents, for instance, were tortured to insanity by the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Junior. In the Order of the Phoenix movie, when Neville first meets Bellatrix Lestrange, he responds to her mocking question about his parents by saying they are “about to be avenged”. However, vengeance is never his main motive, and he doesn’t kill any of the people involved in his parents’ torture. In fact, as far as we know, he doesn’t kill any people at all. Instead, his big moment of heroism consists of defying Voldemort in front of both assembled armies and destroying his last horcrux, making him mortal again. It’s the conclusion of an entirely different character arc, one about an awkward young boy learning to believe in himself and fighting for what he knows is right. Neville is, in a way, the opposite of Hamlet; instead of hesitating out of doubt, he hesitates due to low self-esteem, and when he grows past it it’s to find a greater purpose than revenge.
At the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy seems eager for revenge. While his father is not dead, he has been defeated and imprisoned, and the family has fallen out of Voldemort’s favor. Being recruited by Voldemort and tasked with murder must have seemed to him like a chance to get even, which he embraces without realizing what it entails. As the year goes on, he becomes more and more hesitant, until – facing a disarmed and helpless Dumbledore – he can’t bring himself to kill him. Like Neville, Draco is something of an inverted Hamlet; while Hamlet hesitates at first but later pursues revenge, Draco becomes hesitant later and never kills anyone. Rather than a tragic flaw, this is portrayed as evidence that he still has a conscience (however deeply-buried).
Neville and Draco are both foils to Harry, so it’s no surprise that similar themes appear in Harry’s own journey. Harry never hesitates to fight against Voldemort, and it’s impossible to say that revenge isn’t at least part of his motivation. In Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore asks him how he’d feel if he had never heard the prophecy, Harry replies, “I’d want [Voldemort] dead, and I’d want to be the one to do it”. However, when he faces Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, revenge is the least of his motives. His willingness to sacrifice his life shows that much. Rather, it’s his strong ability to love that drives him: both love for the people he’s lost to Voldemort and love for the people still living who he wants to protect. He would want to be the one to kill Voldemort even without the prophecy because he has seen the worst Voldemort is capable of and will do anything in his power to protect others from him. Any personal desire to see his parents’ murderer die is secondary to this overwhelming, self-sacrificing protectiveness and love.
There are a few moments, however, when he does seem to be motivated by revenge. After Dumbledore’s death, he chases after Snape, shouting out all kinds of curses, including one that he knows from past experience could be deadly. He implies several times in Deathly Hallows that he’d like to seek revenge against Snape, but of course, he never gets the chance. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he initially longs for revenge against Sirius, but later decides to prevent Peter Pettigrew’s murder, preferring to turn him in and clear Sirius’ name instead. He also attempts twice to use the cruciatus curse, which causes its victim immense pain. The first time, he’s unable to, even though Bellatrix has just killed one of his father figures; the second time, he uses it easily, and with much less provocation. In fact, Harry using an unforgivable curse when a stunning spell would have sufficed is one of the darkest moments of Deathly Hallows. These moments stand out because they are uncharacteristic for Harry. He is not usually hesitant, much less cowardly, but he is rarely cruel or vengeful.
In fact, Harry can be described as “reluctant” in one very important way: reluctant to kill. He fights in battles while trying not to cast any lethal spells, which is admittedly much easier when one is a wizard and can stun or disarm the enemy with magic. However, even the other heroes are surprised and dismayed. Once, after Harry refuses to kill a man he suspects to be under the imperius curse, Lupin tells him that “the time for disarming is past”. Harry nevertheless continues in a fairly consistent pattern throughout Deathly Hallows, stunning, disarming, and escaping from his enemies without doing them any lasting harm. The only life he takes is Voldemort’s.
I think it all comes down to what we as a society value. Today, we are less likely to celebrate those who take pursue revenge for its own sake, so we have to find new motivations for our heroes. They instead fight out of a sense of duty, or to protect others, or to defend themselves, all reasons for violence that are viewed more positively today than revenge. This is especially the case in a series like Harry Potter, which emphasizes the importance of love, allows for second chances, and describes murder as “an act against nature” which splits the soul and spoils any innocence a person might once have had. A Harry who acted mainly for revenge would have been much harder to make into a modern-day children’s hero and would not have fit in with the series’ view of the world, while a Hamlet who behaved like Harry Potter would have been out of place in a historical revenge tragedy, even one that often transcends the genre as Hamlet does.