The genre of revenge tragedy is evident in Hamlet, as it explores the theme of seeking retribution for perceived harm or injustice. This genre gained popularity during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and involves a strong urge to seek revenge.
The main character in Hamlet, Hamlet himself, is motivated by a longing for retribution against his uncle Claudius. Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, the king, to seize control of the throne. Throughout the play, Hamlet consistently delays seeking revenge until he is confident in his strategy. The concept of vengeance extends beyond just Hamlet; it also pertains to Fortinbras and Laertes, who both seek retaliation for their fathers’ murders. Furthermore, aspects of Revenge tragedy are connected to the Roman Senecan model that originated from L., a stoic philosopher and politician.
Annaeus Senecan is the author of 8 out of the 10 dramas. These plays typically revolve around the topic of a hidden murder. The common narrative thread involves seeking revenge for the killing of a high-ranking individual, often a member of the royal family, by an antagonist character. Additionally, the plot commonly features a supernatural occurrence where the spirit of the victim visits a younger family member, typically a son.
A number of other factors, such as periods of madness of a main character, general violence resulting in many deaths, and ultimately the avengers through many long soliloquies and bad deeds, are also part of the Senecan model. “Hamlet is certainly not much like any play of Seneca’s one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet. Hamlet without Seneca is inconceivable.” Revenge tragedy during the times of Elizabethan theatre became increasingly popular, and the theme was one of the most common at the times.
The main focus of revenge tragedy is the punishment of a secondary character for committing a sinful act. Regardless of laws and conflict, the main character must seek revenge against the wrongdoer through solitary attempts, either by causing their death or imposing an equivalent suffering. This theme dominates the play, as seen in Hamlet where the protagonist is driven to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle Claudius. Haunted by his father’s ghostly visitation, Hamlet hesitates and starts doubting his own sanity and the accusation of murder. To confirm his suspicions, he devises a scheme to re-enact the murder through a theatrical performance, aiming to observe Claudius’ reaction.
This eliminates all doubt from Hamlet’s mind as he takes action to murder Claudius. Another element in revenge tragedy is the protagonist’s isolation from other characters and their place in society. Like Hamlet himself, his strange actions and frequent soliloquies make it seem as though he is going insane, according to both the other characters and the audience. The theme of madness is another significant aspect throughout Hamlet. Ultimately, many characters meet their demise as a result of seeking revenge, which raises the question of how this could have been avoided if Hamlet had acted impulsively and killed Claudius when he had the chance initially.
Thus, the play as a whole concludes in a tragic manner, following the theme of revenge. This theme is prominently depicted in Act I scenes iv and v, where the ghostly manifestation of Hamlet’s father appears in the castle grounds. This encounter marks the true commencement of Hamlet’s quest for vengeance, as the ghost convinces him that his death was not accidental but a deliberate murder committed by his own brother, Claudius. Claudius, who is now the king of Denmark and has pursued a relationship with Hamlet’s mother.
In Hamlet, both Claudius and Gertrude’s actions appall Hamlet, pushing him to pursue the truth. Act III, scene ii and scene iii prominently explore the theme of revenge. To uncover the truth, Hamlet invites a group of actors to the palace and requests them to perform The Murder of Gonzago, depicting the king’s murder. This performance greatly angers Claudius, causing him to leave abruptly.
This establishes Claudius’ guilt in Hamlet’s eyes, which is crucial for Hamlet to proceed with his revenge. Claudius’ outburst proves his guilt and marks the beginning of Hamlet’s actual attempt at revenge. This scene is essential to the main plot because Claudius angrily leaves, and in scene iii, Hamlet witnesses him praying, leading to a confession that confirms the audience’s suspicion of Claudius’ guilt. This situation challenges Hamlet’s morals.
In Elizabethan times, the belief in ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ was strong. If someone died without God’s forgiveness, they would be condemned to eternal damnation. Old Hamlet finds himself trapped in a similar fate during the play Hamlet. In one of his soliloquies, Hamlet contemplates the consequences of his actions and worries that killing his opponent might inadvertently send him to heaven instead of hell. This outcome would leave him unsatisfied with his revenge. The saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold” suggests that vengeance is more satisfying when it is delayed.
Although Hamlet’s choice to delay killing Claudius leads to multiple deaths, it prompts speculation about the number of lives that could have been saved if he had taken the opportunity. These scenes create tension as viewers observe Hamlet enacting his revenge plot after a long wait. However, this series of events subsequently leaves the audience frustrated when Hamlet once again postpones his desired vengeance. Despite being the central character with a main storyline focused on seeking retribution for his father’s death, Hamlet is not alone in his pursuit of justice in honor of his father.
Following act III, scene iv, occurs the ‘closet scene’ in which Gertrude and her son Hamlet engage in a conversation. Unbeknownst to them, Polonius eavesdrops from behind a tapestry, a fact that Gertrude eventually becomes aware of. When Hamlet’s intensity during the conversation frightens Gertrude, she cries out for help. In response, Polonius exclaims ‘How now! A rat?’ as Hamlet impetuously stabs Polonius through the tapestry. This impulsive and violent act exemplifies Hamlet’s inability to align his thoughts and actions. Surprisingly, Hamlet acts swiftly without physically seeing the eavesdropper, a sharp contrast to his inability to immediately kill the actual murderer. His actions can be deemed foolish and serve as a catalyst for Laertes, Polonius’ son, to embark on his own journey of revenge.
In the final scene of Act V, scene II, Revenge is executed in the typical fashion of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet and Laertes engage in a fencing match as a means to avenge Hamlet’s father’s death. Claudius devises a plan to use Laertes as a tool to kill Hamlet – by poisoning Laertes’s sword. The intent is for Hamlet to be fatally wounded, but inadvertently, Laertes also becomes infected.
Claudius devises a backup plan by poisoning a goblet intended for the winner of the match. His intention is for Hamlet to drink from it and be poisoned. However, Gertrude unknowingly drinks from the goblet, causing her to be poisoned as well. As Gertrude begins to die, Laertes accuses Claudius of being responsible. In retaliation, Hamlet forces Claudius to drink from the same poisoned chalice. This action leads to Hamlet and Laertes reconciling their differences. Recognizing his impending death, Hamlet implores Horatio to recount his story. Horatio fulfills this request by narrating it to Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, who is seeking vengeance for his father’s death. In the end, Fortinbras becomes the new King of Denmark and honors Hamlet with a soldier’s funeral.
Young Fortinbras is the sole successor of revenge without resorting to violence or self-sacrifice, regaining his lost lands. Consequently, we can assert that out of the three sons, two were unable to achieve revenge by sacrificing themselves, while one prevailed. We can argue that Hamlet and Laertes did manage to exact revenge, albeit at the cost of their own lives. Echoing this sentiment, the 2003 film adaptation of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ aptly states: ‘the man who seeks revenge should dig two graves’.
The play’s final ending had a powerful buildup, evoking strong emotions from the audience who feel a sense of sadness towards Hamlet and are immersed in the violence and tragic conclusion. The original Elizabethan audience had different perspectives compared to modern society; they enjoyed revengeful plays, despite their sinful and unlawful nature, for their entertainment value, making them highly popular at the time. Hamlet is an excellent example of a revenge tragedy, with its multiple plotlines and sinful actions, encompassing the essential elements of the genre. The moral expectations of seeking revenge went against the teachings of the church and other religious aspects, yet these plays still greatly pleased the Elizabethan audience.
During the Elizabethan era, certain themes in Hamlet, such as incest, were considered acceptable. However, in the present day, these themes would not be deemed acceptable by society. Additionally, the language used in the play can be difficult for modern audiences to understand. To fully grasp its meaning, they would need to delve deeper into the text. As a result, contemporary society may overlook the emotional depth and underlying messages within Hamlet. This hinders their ability to relate to or comprehend the play effectively. That is why Shakespearean texts are often taught in English literature courses. They help students understand the language and highlight challenges faced by individuals today when interpreting the play.
The play utilizes personification, similes, and mediators to generate vivid imagery that enables readers to envision the scenes. An instance of this is seen in the ghost’s description of poison as “Like eagle droppings into milk, the thin and wholesome blood.” Hamlet includes various images portraying disease and corruption. Francisco is depicted as being “sick at heart,” while a feeling persists that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” These somber and foreboding images effectively communicate the theme of revenge, as they mirror the imminent act of violence that will be carried out.
Hamlet has garnered significant attention and controversy due to its various themes, including madness, incest, and revenge. Numerous critics have discussed why Hamlet delays killing Claudius, with some suggesting that his fear and cowardice stem from the possibility of becoming just as morally reprehensible as Claudius himself. Hamlet experiences guilt and refuses to be a murderer like Claudius, seeing parallels between them. In my view, Hamlet’s propensity for complex thinking leads him to analyze situations and complicate plots, carefully considering every action, or else he becomes a killer.
Despite his determination for revenge, Hamlet continuously delays his plans, ultimately leading to his own downfall. The play Hamlet, in my opinion, is a challenging and emotionally engaging journey that falls into the genre of revenge tragedy. As Shakespeare’s longest play, it offers numerous messages and entertainment for its audiences. The intriguing complexity of Hamlet’s character adds to the enjoyment of the play, leaving us wondering about his motivations.
The play has provoked both audiences and myself to question it in multiple ways concerning its characters and complex plotlines. The language, imagery, and characters have all contributed to the progression of the revenge tragedy theme and the development of the main plot. My comprehension of the play’s text has provided me with a new perspective and an understanding of the conflict between seeking truth and seeking revenge within the revenge tragedy genre.