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Revenge in Doctorow’s Ragtime and Shakespeare’s Hamlet


The theme of vengeance is powerful and can potentially stir up strong emotions in readers. E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” deal with a vengeance. The complex reasons for seeking revenge and whether or not it is in the protagonists’ best interests are explored in these books. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” which takes place in the Big Apple, tells the story of a wealthy family whose characters’ destinies are inextricably intertwined. The protagonist, a black pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr., is out for retribution against the white authorities he holds responsible for the injustice done to him and his community. Similarly, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a tragedy about Hamlet, a Danish prince, and his search for vengeance following his father’s death. Both individuals’ stories show the risks and justifications of seeking revenge, although being motivated by entirely different situations. Coalhouse’s mission is inspired by his belief in social justice; the authorities are to blame for the horrific treatment he and his family have received, but they refuse to acknowledge this. On the other side, Hamlet’s actions are motivated by his loyalty and sense of duty to his father. Both stories feature protagonists whose actions are motivated by a desire for vengeance. However, their efforts’ efficacy and outcomes are being questioned. The retribution cycle resulting from seeking revenge is often even more destructive than the original wrongdoing. This article will analyze the characters’ motivations for revenge and how those acts benefited or hurt them. Pursuing vengeance often backfires, causing more harm to the protagonists and their allies than good.

Hamlet and Laertes’s Situations

The protagonist, Hamlet, considers taking revenge for his father’s death; however, he realizes the tragedy that would unfold and tries to change his mind. Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as uninterested in retaliation. The author places ideas into Hamlet’s head, intending to demonstrate to the reader that Hamlet thinks revenge is wrong. The play shows Hamlet thinking that taking revenge is wrong and that he should avoid it at all costs. Hamlet, as portrayed by Shakespeare, worries that taking revenge may turn him into a monster (Kastan 113). However, Hamlet views taking revenge as equivalent to not taking revenge since both adoptions could later haunt him. He worries that taking retribution will tarnish his status while remaining silent will disqualify him as a legitimate candidate for the throne of Denmark. Polonius’s son Laertes seeks revenge as well. Despite facing several challenges, the ultimately challenges Hamlet, the man responsible for his father’s death. Hamlet’s retribution is justified based on different perspectives and the events leading up to the revenge.

Justification for Revenge in Hamlet

Hamlet’s growing certainty in this matter demonstrates the validity of his retribution mission. He thinks about how hurtful it would be to his reputation and heritage if he took revenge first (Kastan 117). Nonetheless, he understands that neglecting to avenge his father is equivalent to supporting the deed of the person who murdered King Hamlet, even though revenge itself is a crime. Hamlet’s internal reflections show that if he does not exact retribution for his father’s death, it will open the door for anybody in the kingdom to kill anyone they choose without fear of retaliation. He claims he must “do this same villain send To heaven” because he is his father’s sole son (Shakespeare, Act 3, 83). His argument exposes his need to repay evil with evil. So Hamlet seeks to function as a court of law that metes out punishments to communicate that certain crimes carry severe repercussions. Skulsky states, ” From a Christian point of view, Hamlet’s goal in not severing Claudius’ neck at his prie-dieu is more grievous than Laertes’ pledge to slash the throat of the church” (Skulsky 79).

Hamlet’s quest for vengeance is justified, given his obligation to honor his father’s ghost. The spirit of Hamlet’s father orders him to avenge his “foul and most unnatural murder” (Shakespeare, Act 1, line 31). Hamlet convinces himself that vengeance might be a healing process (Kastan 112). If he does not exact his vengeance, he will lose face as the prince of Denmark in his eyes. Hamlet tells the ghost of his father that if he does not get retribution, he will end up as a “rogue and peasant slave” (Shakespeare, Act 2, 577). The accusation suggests Hamlet’s inability to forgive and forget without retaliation. He fears that his father’s killer will force him to become enslaved if he does not exact retribution. Hamlet’s terror justifies vengeance since he knows that tragedy will strike his life if he does not act. The prince has every right to follow the ghost’s orders and exact revenge on Claudius for killing King Hamlet.

Considering that Polonius did not deserve to die at the hands of Hamlet, Laertes’ desire for vengeance is warranted. Laertes returns from France determined to see that justice is served after learning of his father’s death. He knows that if he fails to exact vengeance for his father’s death, Hamlet will be emboldened to continue this bloody campaign against the established order in Denmark. Hamlet’s pretentious madness, which he employs to kill others accidentally, justifies Laertes’ goal of revenge. Shakespeare develops Laertes and Hamlet’s friendship in a way that explains Laertes’s rage over his father’s murder. After Hamlet murders Polonius, he and Laertes, who had been pals until then, become enemies. Despite seeing Claudius praying, Hamlet does not kill him, demonstrating his reluctance to carry out the revenge (Kastan 111). Laertes concludes that Hamlet may have murdered his father on purpose based on this speculation. He claims he has no choice but to renounce his loyalty to Hamlet and exact a bloody vengeance on his father. Shakespeare quotes him as saying, “I will be revenged and will not juggle with allegiance” (Act 4, 149). Those statements suggest that Laertes has good reason to defy his old buddy Hamlet because Hamlet did not prove his loyalty by killing his father.

Coalhouse Walker

Coalhouse is subjected to persistent bias and injustice in his current condition. He struggles to provide for his family despite being routinely discriminated against and given fewer chances than others. The journalists that covered him made this point clear when they wrote about him, calling him ” the ironies of a grinning negro with a tidy mustache, an entirely joyful and straightforward physiognomy…. A murderer’s grin” (Doctorow 83). Coalhouse’s racial identity is a persistent barrier to his achievement, and this phrase exemplifies the daily struggle he must wage to overcome the prejudice he encounters.

As Coalhouse’s resentment and rage intensify, he exacts vengeance on his tormentors. His decision to resort to violence to achieve justice is divisive among the novel’s protagonists and antagonists. One such instance is when he launches an assault on the firehouse where the firefighters who wrecked his car are employed. Coalhouse is out for payback here after being insulted and having his car vandalized. His declaration, “If these requirements are not met, I will keep on murdering firemen and torch fire stations until they are,” makes this abundantly evident (Doctorow 78). Coalhouse’s willingness to resort to such severe measures demonstrates how far his desire for revenge has gone.

Justification for Coalhouse’s Revenge

Although Coalhouse’s experiences with prejudice and unfairness are undoubtedly understandable, his choice to seek retaliation is not justifiable. Doctorow portrays Coalhouse’s activities as a spiral toward violence and anarchy, culminating in his demise. Coalhouse loses sight of the repercussions of his acts as he is overwhelmed by his fury and the need for revenge. As he writes in one of the letters, “I will destroy the entire city if need be” (Doctorow 78). As a result of Coalhouse’s acts, many innocent people have lost their lives. Many innocent people are killed as Coalhouse sets fire to the fire station to get the Fire Chief to agree to his demands. Of the four bodies found, the narrator claims that two were killed not by the flames or the blast but by buckshot (Doctorow 76). Coalhouse proceeded to shoot everybody who made it out of the blaze alive. Coalhouse’s actions have devastating repercussions, and they can never be justified, no matter how unfairly he was treated.

Moreover, Coalhouse’s violent actions accomplish nothing to solve the racial discrimination and social unfairness he faces. What he is doing is contributing to the ongoing cycle of violence and further dividing black and white Americans. Coalhouse’s arrogance and pride drive his destructive behavior, as evidenced by his insistence that a particular car be returned to its former condition and his refusal to accept any other car. “Would you defend this savage? Father asks. Can he really place the responsibility for Sarah’s death on anybody else? Anything to make him swallow his niggering pride” (Doctorow 78). This demonstrates that Coalhouse’s preoccupation with a symbol of prestige and power is driving his revenge rather than any actual wrongdoing. Coalhouse’s activities do not lead to the desired outcome of justice as the narrative unfolds. Instead, they have stoked tensions and fueled prejudice against black people. The narrator explains that the cops claim that the black man made a break for freedom in the brightly lit roadway. More likely, he was aware that a sudden turn of the head, a lowering of the hands, or a smile would be all it took to end his life (Doctorow 111). This demonstrates that Coalhouse’s activities have worsened the situation for himself and his community rather than improving it.

Consequences of the Revenge

The conventional expectation that a son must wreak retribution on his father at whatever cost, along with Hamlet’s deep love for his father, motivate him to murder Claudius. After his father’s death, Hamlet looks to his father for guidance and comfort in ways he never did before. Hamlet’s resolve to exact retribution imprisons him, causing him to forsake his reasoning. However, Hamlet’s interpretation of the ghost’s desire to kill Claudius is not the ghost’s genuine request. Despite his father’s admonition, he abuses his mother because of all this: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against you mother aught – leave her to heaven” (Shakespeare, Act 1, 90).

Coalhouse’s vengeance, on the other hand, has increased racial tensions in the city, which is a significant effect. Racism and bigotry against African Americans spiked as a direct result of the violence that followed his conduct. Father’s observation that “the newspapers began to report an increase in racial disturbances throughout the city” indicates this trend in the text. All social ills were attributed to black people. Arrests were made “at will” by police and community watch groups (Doctorow 114). Coalhouse and his loved ones will suffer directly from his revenge. His loved ones are left to grieve when he sacrifices himself in the name of justice. Sarah’s brother and those who stood by him have been scarred.


It has been argued that retribution is not justified because of the tragedies that accompany each of Hamlet’s revenge missions. For instance, when chasing after Claudius, Hamlet murders Polonius, the father of one of his friends (Kastan 119). Hamlet’s assassination attempt, headed by Laertes, ends tragically when he is murdered in a duel. However, the justifications given by vengeful people are often convincing. Hamlet’s plot for vengeance is understandable, given Claudius’s danger to his plans to become king. Besides, Laertes’ revenge expedition is warranted because of the need to end Hamlet’s killing rampage.

An opposing viewpoint in Ragtime argues that Coalhouse’s vengeance was warranted. Some readers may interpret Coalhouse’s actions as a reaction to the institutionalized racism and discrimination he faces. According to this interpretation, his vengeance is a form of defiance against his oppressors. The narrator claims, for instance, that one hundred African-Americans were lynched annually. One hundred miners were killed in the fire. A hundred kids were cut up” (Doctorow 15). One of the many injustices Coalhouse endures throughout the novel is this overt display of prejudice and contempt. It is easy to see why he would conclude that violence is the only option to achieve the recognition and redress he seeks. Coalhouse’s retaliation may not be morally or legally justifiable, but it can be understood as a reaction to the systematic racism and oppression he faces. Doctorow subtly implies this through a conversation between Coalhouse and his father: “I do not know of one, Father answered. But any lawyer who cares about doing the right thing would do” (Doctorow 66). Many underrepresented groups feel this way because they have been denied justice and equality.


In conclusion, Coalhouse Walker’s act of vengeance in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was not warranted because it only served to hasten his mortality and provoke greater bloodshed. On the other side, Shakespeare’s Hamlet allows for the possibility of justification for the vengeance sought by Laertes and Hamlet. Nonetheless, lessons about the perils and fallout of vengeance can be gleaned from both stories. Revenge as a topic emphasizes the importance of justice and the risks associated with its pursuit. This issue is significant because it reflects the nuanced character of human beings and the ethical weight of our acts. The onus is on us, the readers, to analyze the themes explored in these works and our relationship to vengeance. Seeking revenge should not be done lightly; one must weigh the benefits against the costs. The texts recommend exercising prudence and clarity of intent when considering revenge because of its complexity and possible destructiveness.

Works Cited

E.L. Doctorow. Ragtime. Random House, 2010,

Kastan, David Scot. “‘His Semblable Is His Mirror’: ‘Hamlet’ and the Imitation of Revenge .” Proquest, 1987,

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 1992,

Skulsky, Harold. “Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in ‘Hamlet.’” PMLA, vol. 85, no. 1, Modern Language Association, 1970, pp. 78–87,


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