Hesitant Vengeance: Hamlet and Harry Potter

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 So, I dug this out of my unpublished drafts.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.

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The Unlikely Heroes of Harry Potter

One thing that I love about the Harry Potter series is how easy it is to identify with the characters. They jump off the page as if they were real people, with real personalities, problems, and quirks. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes thinks of Hermione, Ron, Neville, and the rest of them as if they were old friends instead of fictional characters. And one thing that makes them seem so lifelike is that they aren’t superheroes. They live in a magical world, perform larger-than-life heroic actions, and that’s part of the escapism of Harry Potter, but the best part is that they’re flawed humans like the rest of us. It’s easy to imagine being in their world, at Hogwarts because it’s easy to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters, or imagine standing among them.

Neville starts out as a clumsy, forgetful boy who keeps losing his pet toad and can barely keep from tripping over his own feet, let alone fly on a broom or cast complicated spells. Luna is a weird outcast with no friends, frequently bullied by her classmates. Ron and Ginny are the youngest in a big family, with hand-me-down clothes and five older brothers’ achievements to live up to. Hermione is a nerdy, bossy girl whose parents are both muggles. And Harry himself had nothing before he came to Hogwarts. He was literally sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs and barely tolerated by his family. All of them grow up to be so much more than that. All of them grow up to be heroes.

It means a lot more to me to see where they begin, see them struggle, and see them grow into the heroes they become, than it would to simply have them be amazing from the start. Part of the magic of the Harry Potter series is that it takes awkward, misfit kids who anyone can relate to and slowly transforms them into the best versions of themselves.

Right vs Easy

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It’s easy to do what’s right when what’s right is also easy, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it’s worth doing anyway. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one that certainly applies to real life just as much as it does to the world of Harry Potter. But it’s more than just a quote with a good message. It’s a theme that’s woven throughout the series in the journey of every single character. (At least, every character with enough of a conscience not to do the wrong thing just for its own sake. Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Umbridge are their own special category.)

Harry has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in every single book, and he always chooses the former. When he goes after the troll to save Hermione, when he fights a basilisk to save Ginny, and when he travels back in time to save Sirius, he is choosing the right thing over the much easier alternative of simply doing as he’s told and letting events unfold without him. Likewise, Ron and Hermione often make those choices alongside him. As the series goes on, he seems to have less of a choice – Voldemort wants him dead – but even then, he chooses to fight him. Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Aberforth encourages him, Ron, and Hermione to flee the country rather than face Voldemort, they refuse to even consider it. And, of course, running away might become even more tempting once he realizes he has to die in order for Voldemort to become mortal, but Harry is willing to lay down his life to protect his friends, just as his mother sacrificed herself to save him. That’s not an easy choice to make.

Order of the Phoenix is all about the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s what separates the Order from the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore’s Army from the Inquisitorial Squad. It’s easy for Fudge to deny that Voldemort is back; it would be much harder to admit the truth. It’s easy for the Daily Prophet to publish whatever “news” will sell and scandalize, but harder for Harry and those who support him to speak the truth when the Ministry is actively trying to silence them. It’s much harder for the Order to fight against Voldemort when they find themselves at odds with the magical government as well, and Dumbledore’s Army likewise refuses to let themselves be unprepared for the coming war. The DA’s insistence on doing the right thing even when it’s not easy becomes even more obvious in Deathly Hallows, when they spend the year fighting back against the Death Eaters who now run Hogwarts and fight on Harry’s side in the final battle.

Everyone at Hogwarts has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in the final battle: to evacuate or stay and defend the castle, to hand Harry over to Voldemort or fight on his side, and eventually, to surrender or keep fighting once Harry appears to be dead. Nothing says choosing what’s right over what’s easy like Neville telling Voldemort “I’ll join you when hell freezes over”, pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat, and chopping off the head of Voldemort’s monstrous snake, Nagini, right there in front of everyone, especially not when – as far as he knows – Harry is already dead.

I think it’s interesting that the movie-makers chose to contrast his actions with those of Draco Malfoy, a character who consistently chooses the easy path, rather than the right one or even the wrong one. He doesn’t kill Dumbledore, but nor does he accept Dumbledore’s offer to protect him. Later, in Deathly Hallows, he pretends not to recognize Harry, but he doesn’t do anything to help him escape. In both cases, he does nothing and simply allows others to act. Draco is not in the book version of the scene where Voldemort announces Harry’s “death”, and I’m not a big fan of the awkward hug, but going back over to join his parents does seem consistent with his character and emphasizes that standing up to a powerful Dark Lord who seems to have already won is not an easy thing to do.

There are many characters who make the easy choice, some more sympathetic than others. Of course, that’s largely a matter of personal opinion, but I think few people would argue that Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of Lily and James Potter was anything other than vile and cowardly, while on the other hand, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry in was very complicated due to the fact that Voldemort was holding his daughter hostage. Many more characters struggle with making the harder, better choice, like Professor Slughorn, who initially gives Dumbledore a false memory, not because he wants to protect Voldemort, but because he is ashamed of having unknowingly helped young Tom Riddle become Voldemort. The amount of nuance is surprisingly deep for a children’s series, but I love it. I think it’s important to understand that not everything is black and white, without downplaying the importance of trying to do the right thing.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it seems harder to make the right choice after having already made the wrong one; the consequences and risks become much greater. Take Regulus Black, for instance. He joined the Death Eaters as a teenager and quickly realized it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. When he found out just how far Voldemort had gone, he did the right thing, but it cost him his life. Likewise, Snape made many wrong choices as a young man, and it wasn’t until he found out he had inadvertently put Lily’s life in danger that he began trying to do the right thing. The Harry Potter books certainly don’t send a message that morality is black and white or that you can never come back from your mistakes, even very serious ones. On the contrary, many characters do, including Dumbledore himself, who made mistakes of his own in his youth. However, they do seem to say that it takes great courage to do so, and that it’s never easy.

Most people are not Voldemort. There may be some, both in fiction and reality, who care so little about right and wrong that they would hurt other people for no reason at all, but I think that most people would rather do the right thing when we can, and yet sometimes struggle with it. It’s easy to tell the truth if you have nothing to hide. It’s easy to be brave if you’re not afraid. It’s easy to stand up for what you believe in if everyone around you agrees. It’s when doing the right thing is the hardest choice to make that things get difficult, and it’s in those moments that our character is truly tested.