In Elizabethan drama, it was accepted that the villains of the piece would, because of their evil methods and aims, be revealed and punished - in other words, justice would be served. The problem, however, arises when the "heroes" of the piece use the same methods as the villains. I use the term hero warily, as the traditional hero of a revenge tragedy is one who would at first seem completely unsuited to a revenging role; Heironimo is portrayed as being too old, while Hamlet is seen as being too young. It can be generalised that the revenger starts off as being dissatisfied with the events have happened prior to the play, and it is an event within the play that catalyses his transformation from being merely a malcontent into a revenger. In Hamlet, it is the appearance of old Hamlet that convinces the young Hamlet that his suspicions about his uncle are correct:
Ghost ... but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
Ham. O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Hamlet 1 v 37-40
In The Spanish Tragedy, it is the letter from Bel Imperia that galvanises Heironimo into action:
Me hath my hapless brother hid from thee:
Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him,
For these were they that murderéd thy son.
Heironimo, revenge Horatio's death,
And better fare than Bel Imperia doth.
What means this unexpected miracle?
The Spanish Tragedy 3 II 27-32
The difference between the two revengers is their willingness; Hamlet realised that there was "something rotten in the state of Denmark", and even had his suspicions about who it might be, however he could not act as he lacked evidence. The evide...
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...es the villain from the hero. The villain decides to act in a machiavellian way to gain personal benefit, but the hero turns to this as a last resort to fulfil a promise that he or she has made to revenge someone. The difference therefore is a matter of honour. The hero becomes compromised, though is simultaneously redeemed by the decision to interact with a corrupt and vile society. The hero is confronted with the choice to act and be damned or to remain idle and be damned. The more difficult, and therefore more heroic option is to take revenge, as suicide is very much seen as taking the "soft" way out.
Kyd, Thomas. The Spanish Tragedy. J.R. Mulryne, ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html
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