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.
Delville, Michel and Pierre Michel. “Introduction to Hamlet.” Tr. Eriks Uskalis. University of Liege, 1998. 20 April 2001. <http:/ /www.ulg.ac.be/libnet/germa/hamleteng.htm>
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.