Revenge and Vengeance in Shakespeare's Hamlet - Going Beyond Revenge

analytical Essay
1838 words
1838 words

Going Beyond Revenge in Hamlet

The simplest and superficially the most appealing way to understand Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to see it as a revenge tragedy. This genre was well established and quite popular in Shakespeare’s time, but it was precisely part of his genius that he could take old forms and renew them by a creative violation of their standards. As this essay will explore, Hamlet stands the conventional revenge tragedy on its head, and uses the tensions created by this reversal of type to add depth to its characters and story.

The revenge tragedy of Shakespeare’s age, as exemplified in such productions as The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd and The Tragedy of Hoffman by Henry Chettle was gruesome to a degree. In the latter work, for instance, the hero displays on stage the skeleton of his father, who has been tortured to death for piracy, and later on takes part of his revenge by killing one of his enemies with precisely the same tortures, and hanging him in chains beside the skeleton of his father. In the process, the original religious symbolism of death imagery, in particular the skeleton and the skull, is perverted into little more than eye-catching tokens of revenge (Jacobs 1993).

The classic revenge tragedy is thus quite a simple affair: there is an offence, and it is followed in a fairly mechanical manner by revenge, preferably bloody and protracted. However, as Delville and Michel (1998) point out, this structure is undermined by Shakespeare in the person of Hamlet. Unlike even Shakespeare’s own creations, Brutus, Macbeth, and Othello, Hamlet is unpredictable. In an earlier version of the play, referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, and attributed to Thomas Kyd, the only reason for...

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...rd and poisoned cup. In the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, and indeed in his own, he learns that means cannot be separated from ends, and that the consequences of his own choice of means – his madness – will come back to haunt him. It is in this sense that Hamlet may be read as a journey of self-discovery, even though the journey ends only in the grave.

Works Cited

Delville, Michel and Pierre Michel. “Introduction to Hamlet.” Tr. Eriks Uskalis. University of Liege, 1998. 20 April 2001. <http:/ />

Jacobs, Henry E. “Shakespeare, revenge tragedy, and the ideology of Memento Mori.” Shakespeare Studies 21, 1993: 96-108. Electronic. EBSCO MasterFILE Premier, 14 June 2001.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London: Spring Books, n.d.: 945-980.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how shakespeare's hamlet stands the conventional revenge tragedy on its head and uses the tensions created by this reversal of type to add depth to its characters and story.
  • Analyzes the gruesome revenge tragedy of shakespeare's age, exemplified in productions like the spanish tragedy by thomas kyd and the tragey of hoffman by henry chettle. the original religious symbolism of death imagery is perverted into little more than eye-catching tokens
  • Analyzes how the classic revenge tragedy is a simple affair followed by bloody and protracted revenge, but shakespeare in the person of hamlet undermines this structure.
  • Argues that hamlet is a drama on self-discovery and the consequences of deception.
  • Analyzes how hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who commands him to kill his uncle and stepfather, but not to harm his mother.
  • Analyzes how hamlet pretends madness to gain the time and freedom that he needs to form a plan. it is also his original sin, in that it attracts to him more attention than before.
  • Analyzes how hamlet consciously gives up a direct chance at revenge, and then rationalizes his restraint, showing he is already past the mechanical tit-for-tat of the standard revenge tragedy.
  • Analyzes how hamlet stabs and kills polonius, the father of ophelia and laertes, in the next scene.
  • Analyzes how the ghost of hamlet's father appears to him during the exchange with his mother, to repeat the message it had given before: revenge on the king but mercy for the queen.
  • Analyzes how laertes arrives at the danish court, only to discover his father polonius murdered and his sister ophelia insane, both seemingly due to his malice.
  • Analyzes how hamlet's mature reflections on life and death show how much progress he has made since beginning the play.
  • Analyzes the special providence in the fall of a sparrow. the readiness is all, since no man has aught of what he leaves, what isn't to leave early?
  • Analyzes how hamlet has moved from a frustrated desire to anticipate fate, the suicidal mood in which he opened the play, to an acceptance of whatever fate might bring.
  • Analyzes how the final duel, and the deaths of nearly all concerned, has often been criticized as a bit of directorial tidying-up on the part of shakespeare.
  • Analyzes how hamlet stands the conventional revenge melodrama on its head to achieve something deeper. instead of glorying in the torture of his enemies, he attempts to evade the final attempt to kill them.
  • Describes the works of william shakespeare, including the introduction to hamlet, and the ideology of memento mori.
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