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Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy:

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complex and multifaceted play bringing

together many themes. It is evident that in writing Hamlet,
Shakespeare, to some extent, adopted the dramatic conventions of
revenge tragedy. Revenge proved to be popular theme for Elizabethan
dramatists and the audience. Although it was a wild justice, Elizabethan
audience considered vengeance to be a pious duty laid upon the next of
kin. The old law claimed an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth;
vengeance demanded both the eyes, a jaw full of teeth, and above all
the victim should go direct to hell there to live in everlasting torment. A
perfect revenge therefore needed great artistry.

Hamlet is a play that very closely follows the dramatic conventions of

revenge tragedy. All revenge tragedies originally stemmed from the
Greeks, who wrote and performed the first plays. After the Greeks came
Seneca who was particularly influential to all Elizabethan playwrights
including William Shakespeare. The two most famous English revenge
tragedies written in the Elizabethan era were Hamlet, written by
William Shakespeare and The Spanish Tragedy, written by Thomas Kyd.
These two plays used almost all of the conventions for revenge
tragedies in one way or the other. Hamlet especially incorporated all
revenge conventions which truly made Hamlet a typical revenge play.

During Elizabethan era revenge plays were well acclaimed. Most of

them were a typical revenge tragedy, a melodrama with so many turns
and twists to keep the audience spell-bound. “Hamlet” as well as “The
Spanish Tragedy” tackled almost all those areas that were essential for
the consummation of a great revenge tragedy.

Shakespeare in Hamlet employs the framework of Senecan Tragedy to

convey the revenge theme. But underneath the outer framework of
Senecan Revenge Tragedy, lie key Shakespearean themes of human
condition, social indoctrination, the morality of the ghost’s injunction,
and the ethics of revenge.

The opening scene sets the tone of the play – a play shrouded in
mystery and horror. The ghost appears to the night guards, a shadowy
figure resembling much in the dress and the armour of the late king.
The appearance of dead king’s ghost has a profound effect upon the
night guards as Marcellus remarks: “Something is rotten in the state of
Denmark”. Although Horatio will not believe in the ghost until witness
of his eyes; it appearance “harrows him with fear and wonder”. It is not
made to speak rather “stalks away majestically”. The ghost appears
twice in the opening scene but does not vouchsafe a reply to Horatio’s
questions. Hamlet is amazed at the idea of his father’s apparition:

“My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well/ I doubt some foul play.”

Hamlet himself is dumbfounded at the sight the ghost. The ghost makes
the shocking revelation of its murder to Hamlet. It further enjoins on
Hamlet the sacred duty of avenging his “foul and the most un-natural
murder”. The ghost’s injunctions are very clear:

“Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch for luxury and damned
The awful revelation of the ghost forms the soul of the tragedy and
drives the entire action.

Verity points out:

“Without the ghost’s initial revelation of truth to Hamlet, there would

be no occasion for revenge; in other words no tragedy of Hamlet.”

Hamlet’s mind is assailed with doubt whether or not this apparition is a

demon sent from hell, or if it is truly his father’s spirit which has come
from purgatory, to divulge the horrors of his murder, in the hope of

“The spirit that I have seen/ May be the devil and the devil hath
power/To assume a pleasing shape.”

To verify the truth of the ghost’s statement, Hamlet first feigns

madness, and then gets enacted mousetrap play to “catch the
conscience of the king”. During the play Hamlet closely watches
Claudius’ reaction when the actors perform the murder scene. Hamlet's
plan works and his uncle in a fit of discomfort runs out the room, where
Hamlet goes after him. Now, Hamlet knows that Claudius is guilty.

Afterwards Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer, confessing his sins:

“O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven/It hath primal eldest curse

upon it/A brother’s murder.”

He pulls out his sword and gets ready to kill Claudius. But suddenly
Hamlet changes his mind because if he kills his uncle while he is praying
he will go to heaven, and Hamlet wants him to go to hell. So Hamlet
postpones the execution of his uncle at this point in the play.
The next confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius does not happen
till the end of the book. Claudius hatches a plan according to which
Hamlet and Laertes will have a mock sword fight, but Laertes will be
using a real poisoned sword. Laertes stabs him with the poisoned sword
then Hamlet takes hold of the poisoned sword, and stabs Laertes with
it. Meanwhile Queen Gertrude dies from the poisoned drink intended
for Hamlet. As Laertes lays down dying he reveals to Hamlet that his
uncle King Claudius was behind it all. Hamlet then in a fit of rage runs
his uncle through with the poisoned sword. Hamlet has now finally
revenged his father but too late and at the cost of so many lives.

Hamlet fulfills all the conventions of typical revenge tragedy: there is

murder, adultery, insanity, incestuous marriage and faithfulness.
Besides these, there is a melodramatic element also – violence and
bloodshed, terrible and blood-chilling scenes – which is in line with the
revenge tragedy conventions.

Hamlet is not a simple revenge tragedy. Shakespeare has woven

complex threads of the contrasting characters. Shakespeare has
introduced characters like Laertes and Fortinbras that are obviously
foils to Hamlet. Fortinbras, the son of the slain king of Norway, is all hot
for action. He finds “quarrel in a straw” and intends to risk his life even
for an “egg-shell”. He travels many miles to take his revenge and
ultimately succeeds in conquering Denmark. When Hamlet murders
Polonius, another revenge is ready to begin. Laertes is a typical
revenger who is capable of direct and headstrong revenge even at the
cost of damnation.

“To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil.” , he declares.

If Hamlet feels “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”, Laertes

consigns conscience to the devil, and will “cut his throat in the church”.
Hamlet, on the other hand, has to convert the external action of
revenge into one that is internal, free and truly moral.

Summing up, to say Hamlet merely a revenge tragedy would be to do a

great injustice. It would ignore play’s artistic superiority over other plays
of this genre. It is only befitting that its hero falls to the beautiful
heavenly benediction of Horatio:

“And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”