Revenge and Vengeance in Shakespeare's Hamlet - Typical Revenge Tragedy
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Shakespeare’s Hamlet very closely follows the dramatic conventions of revenge in Elizabethan theater. All revenge tragedies originally stemmed from the Greeks, who wrote and performed the first plays. After the Greeks came Seneca who was very influential to all Elizabethan tragedy writers. Seneca who was Roman, basically set all of the ideas and the norms for all revenge play writers in the Renaissance era including William Shakespeare. The two most famous English revenge tragedies written in the Elizabethan era were Hamlet, written by Shakespeare and The Spanish Tragedy, written by Thomas Kyd. These two plays used mostly all of the Elizabethan conventions for revenge tragedies in their plays. Hamlet especially incorporated all revenge conventions in one way or another, which truly made Hamlet a typical revenge play. "Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of many heroes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage who finds himself grievously wronged by a powerful figure, with no recourse to the law, and with a crime against his family to avenge."
Seneca was among the greatest authors of classical tragedies and there was not one educated Elizabethan who was unaware of him or his plays. There were certain stylistic and different strategically thought out devices that Elizabethan playwrights including Shakespeare learned and used from Seneca's great tragedies. The five act structure, the appearance of some kind of ghost, the one line exchanges known as stichomythia, and Seneca's use of long rhetorical speeches were all later used in tragedies by Elizabethan playwrights. Some of Seneca's ideas were originally taken from the Greeks when the Romans conquered Greece, and with it they took home many Greek theatrical ideas. Some of Seneca's stories that originated from the Greeks like Agamemnon and Thyestes which dealt with bloody family histories and revenge captivated the Elizabethans. Seneca's stories weren't really written for performance purposes, so if English playwrights liked his ideas, they had to figure out a way to make the story theatrically workable, relevant and exciting to the Elizabethan audience who were very demanding. Seneca's influence formed part of a developing tradition of tragedies whose plots hinge on political power, forbidden sexuality, family honor and private revenge. "There was no author who exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca." For the dramatists of Renaissance Italy, France and England, classical tragedy meant only the ten Latin plays of Seneca and not Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles.
"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."
During the time of Elizabethan theater, plays about tragedy and revenge were very common and a regular convention seemed to be formed on what aspects should be put into a typical revenge tragedy. In all revenge tragedies first and foremost, a crime is committed and for various reasons laws and justice cannot punish the crime so the individual who is the main character, goes through with the revenge in spite of everything. The main character then usually had a period of doubt , where he tries to decide whether or not to go through with the revenge, which usually involves tough and complex planning. Other features that were typical were the appearance of a ghost, to get the revenger to go through with the deed. The revenger also usually had a very close relationship with the audience through soliloquies and asides. The original crime that will eventually be avenged is nearly always sexual or violent or both. The crime has been committed against a family member of the revenger. " The revenger places himself outside the normal moral order of things, and often becomes more isolated as the play progresses-an isolation which at its most extreme becomes madness." The revenge must be the cause of a catastrophe and the beginning of the revenge must start immediately after the crisis. After the ghost persuades the revenger to commit his deed, a hesitation first occurs and then a delay by the avenger before killing the murderer, and his actual or acted out madness. The revenge must be taken out by the revenger or his trusted accomplices. The revenger and his accomplices may also die at the moment of success or even during the course of revenge.
It should not be assumed that revenge plays parallel the moral expectations of the Elizabethan audience. Church, State and the regular morals of people in that age did not accept revenge, instead they thought that revenge would simply not under any circumstances be tolerated no matter what the original deed was. " It is repugnant on theological grounds, since Christian orthodoxy posits a world ordered by Divine Providence, in which revenge is a sin and a blasphemy, endangering the soul of the revenger." The revenger by taking law into his own hands was in turn completely going against the total political authority of the state. People should therefore never think that revenge was expected by Elizabethan society. Although they loved to see it in plays, it was considered sinful and it was utterly condemned.
The Spanish Tragedy written by Thomas Kyd was an excellent example of a revenge tragedy. With this play, Elizabethan theater received its first great revenge tragedy, and because of the success of this play, the dramatic form had to be imitated. The play was performed from 1587 to 1589 and it gave people an everlasting remembrance of the story of a father who avenges the murder of his son. In this story, a man named Andrea is killed by Balthazar in the heat of battle. The death was considered by Elizabethan people as a fair one, therefore a problem occurred when Andrea's ghost appeared to seek vengeance on its killer. Kyd seemed to have used this to parallel a ghost named Achilles in Seneca's play Troades. Andrea's ghost comes and tells his father, Hieronimo that he must seek revenge. Hieronimo does not know who killed his son but he goes to find out. During his investigation, he receives a letter saying that Lorenzo killed his son, but he doubts this so he runs to the king for justice. Hieronimo importantly secures his legal rights before taking justice into his own hands. The madness scene comes into effect when Hieronimo's wife, Usable goes mad, and Hieronimo is so stunned that his mind becomes once again unsettled. Finally Hieronimo decides to go through with the revenge, so he seeks out to murder Balthazar and Lorenzo, which he successfully does. Hieronimo becomes a blood thirsty maniac and when the king calls for his arrest, he commits suicide.
As well as the fact that Elizabethan theater had its rules about how a revenge tragedy had to be, so did Thomas Kyd. He came up with the Kydian Formula to distinguish revenge tragedies from other plays. His first point was that the fundamental motive was revenge, and the revenge is aided by an accomplice who both commit suicide after the revenge is achieved. The ghost of the slain watches the revenge on the person who killed him. The revenger goes through justifiable hesitation before committing to revenge as a solution. Madness occurs due to the grieve of a loss. Intrigue is used against and by the revenger. There is bloody action and many deaths that occur throughout the entire play. The accomplices on both sides are killed. The villain is full of villainous devices. The revenge is accomplished terribly and fittingly. The final point that Thomas Kyd made about his play was that minor characters are left to deal with the situation at the end of the play.
The Spanish Tragedy follows these rules made by Kyd very closely, simply because Kyd developed these rules from the play. The fundamental motive was revenge because that was the central theme of the play. The ghost of Andrea sees his father kill the men who murdered Andrea originally. Hieronimo hesitates first because he goes to the king and then he is faced with Isabella's madness which is caused by Andrea's death. The play is filled with all kinds of bloody action and many people die throughout the course of the play. The accomplices in the play also all end up dead. Lorenzo who is the true villain, is full of all kinds of evil villainous devices. The revenge works out perfectly, in that both Lorenzo and Balthazar get murdered in the end by Hieronimo. The minor characters were left to clean up the mess of all of the deaths that occurred during the play. The Spanish Tragedy also follows the conventions of Elizabethan theater very closely. The murder was committed and Hieronimo had to take justice into his own hands, because true justice just simply wasn't available. Hieronimo then delays his revenge for many different reasons that occur in the play. The ghost of Andrea appeared and guided Hieronimo to the direction of his killer. Also at the end of the play, both Hieronimo and his accomplices die after they were successful in committing the revenge.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare follows regular convention for a large part of the play. In the beginning, Shakespeare sets up the scene, having a ghost on a dark night. Everyone is working and something strange is happening in Denmark. It is as if Shakespeare is saying that some kind of foul play has been committed. This sets up for the major theme in the play which is of course revenge. The ghost appears to talk to Hamlet. It is quite obvious that the play had a gruesome, violent death and the sexual aspect of the play was clearly introduced when Claudius married Hamlet's mother Gertrude. The ghost tells Hamlet that he has been given the role of the person who will take revenge upon Claudius. Hamlet must now think of how to take revenge on Claudius, although he doesn't know what to do about it. He ponders his thoughts for a long period of time, expecting to do the deed immediately, but instead he drags it on until the end of the play. Although what was important to note was that all tragic heroes of plays at that time delayed their actual revenge until the end of the play. In most revenge plays, the revenger was often anonymous and well disguised, stalking the enemy about to be killed, but Hamlet started a battle of wits with Claudius by acting mad and calling it his "antic disposition", although the whole thing was a ploy to get closer to Claudius to be able to avenge his father's death more easily. The tactic was a disadvantage in that it drew all attention upon himself. More importantly though it was an advantage that his "antic disposition", isolated him from the rest of the court because of the people not paying attention to what he thought or did because of his craziness.
One important part of all revenge plays is that after the revenge is finally decided upon, the tragic hero delays the actual revenge until the end of the play. Hamlet's delay of killing Claudius takes on three distinct stages. Firstly he had to prove that the ghost was actually telling the truth, and he did this by staging the play "The Mousetrap" at court. When Claudius stormed out in rage, Hamlet knew that he was guilty. The second stage was when Hamlet could have killed Claudius while he was confessing to god. If Hamlet had done it here then Claudius would have gone to heaven because he confessed while Hamlet's father was in purgatory because he did not get the opportunity to confess. So Hamlet therefore decided not to murder Claudius at this point in the play. The third delay was the fact that he got side tracked. He accidentally killed Polonius which created a whole new problem with the fact that Laertes now wanted Hamlet dead. After he commit this murder he was also sent off and unable to see the king for another few weeks until he could finally do the job. "What makes Hamlet stand out from many other revenge plays of the period is not that it rejects the conventions of its genre but that it both enacts and analyses them."
It can be easily understood that Hamlet very closely follows the regular conventions for all Elizabethan tragedies. First Hamlet is faced with the fact that he has to avenge the murder of his father and since there is no fair justice available, he must take the law into his own hands. The ghost of his father appears to guide Hamlet to Claudius and inform Hamlet of the evil that Claudius has committed. Then Hamlet constantly delays his revenge and always finds a way to put it off until he finally does it in Act V, Scene 2. Hamlet at the same time continues to keep a close relationship with the audience with his seven main soliloquies including the famous, "To be, or not to be..."(Act 3 Scene 1). The play also consists of a mad scene where Ophelia has gone mad because her father Polonius had been killed and because Hamlet was sent off to England. The sexual aspect of the play was brought in when Claudius married Gertrude after he had dreadfully killed Old Hamlet and taken his throne. Hamlet also follows almost every aspect of Thomas Kyd's formula for a revenge tragedy. The only point that can be argued is that the accomplices on both sides were not killed because at the end of the play, Horatio was the only one to survive, although if it wasn't for Hamlet, Horatio would have commit suicide when he said, " I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here's some liquor left."(Act V Scene 2, 346-347). If Horatio had killed himself, then Hamlet would have followed the Kydian formula as well as the regular conventions for Elizabethan revenge tragedy.
Hamlet is definitely a great example of a typical revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan theater era. It followed every convention required to classify it as a revenge play quite perfectly. Hamlet is definitely one of the greatest revenge stories ever written and it was all influenced first by Sophocles, Euripides and other Greeks, and then more importantly by Seneca. Hamlet as well as The Spanish Tragedy tackled and conquered all areas that were required for the consummation of a great revenge tragedy. Revenge although thought to be unlawful and against the Church was absolutely adored by all Elizabethan people. " The Elizabethan audience always insisted on seeing eventual justice, and one who stained his hands with blood had to pay the penalty. That no revenger, no matter how just, ever wholly escapes the penalty for shedding blood, even in error." This was also a very important point that was also dealt with brilliantly by Shakespeare in finding a way to kill Hamlet justly even though he was required to kill Claudius. Hamlet was written with the mighty pen of Shakespeare who once again shows people that he can conjure up any play and make it one of the greatest of all time. Hamlet was one of the greatest of all time.
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