How to Read Hamlet As An Unconventional Revenge Tragedy?


There is no question that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the tradition of revenge tragedy. Shakespeare has used the revenge motive of killing the killer of a dead kinsman, just as we see in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

However, Shakespeare, as a dramatic genius, transcended his own time. He used the popular elements of contemporary revenge tragedy, but his dramatic imagination lifted Hamlet much above the standard level of a humdrum revenge play.

Revenge is one of the primitive impulses of man. In a civilized society, this primitive impulse of being even with the wrongdoer is mistrusted. It is because revenge goes against the grain of the concept of law and order. 

However, a revenge motive always attracted the dramatists, right from the days of Aeschylus to those of Shakespeare. The Elizabethans had a strong predilection towards the violent and vengeful; they liked the display of passions, ranting speeches, and bloody actions on the stage. 

Hamlet As A Revenge But A Genuine Tragedy Play

Much of this popular dramatic taste was the creation of Seneca, the Roman dramatist who was frequently staged in the theatre houses of England. Hamlet is a genuine tragedy that illumines our minds with high philosophical ideas about human life and fills us with genuine tragic emotions of pity and terror. Hamlet is not a mere tragedy; it is a play easily ranked with the world’s greatest tragedies.

The Elizabethan revenge tragedy followed a set pattern:-

  • It dealt with crime, usually murder.
  • The duty of vengeance is laid on the next of kin. In The Spanish Tragedy, it is the father who takes revenge against the killer of his son. In Hamlet, it is the son who takes revenge for a dead father.
  • In many of the revenge plays, the supernatural plays an important part.
  • The avenger encounters many impediments to his task of revenge.
  • The hero delays in taking revenge because of the impediments, and as a result, things go against him. Although he succeeds finally in taking revenge, it entails his death and many innocent people around him. The end of a revenge play is exceptionally bloody.
  • Several crude elements are introduced in a revenge play in order to create the dramatic effect, along with murders, and blood-shed, violently rhetorical language is also introduced.

Verdict: Judging by the above characteristics, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge play par excellence.

Revenge Plays A Central Role in Hamlet

Shakespeare has constructed Hamlet based on the duty of avenging a father’s death by a son. The ghost of Hamlet’s father enjoins him in killing Claudius; the plot of the play is concerned with Hamlet’s continuous failure to complete the duty of revenge.

Besides this central theme of revenge concerning Hamlet and his father, there are other revenge themes. There is Fortinbras who wants to take revenge on Denmark for the loss sustained by his father. Laertes also seeks to revenge for his father’s death and the insanity of Ophelia against Hamlet. 

These different revenge motives cross paths in the play. Hamlet’s motive of revenge against Claudius and Laertes’s revenge motive against Hamlet comes face to face, giving rise to the climactic duel scene in which Hamlet dies. In this regard, Hamlet can be considered a successful revenge play.

A Touch of Supernatural in Hamlet’s Revenge Tragedy

Hamlet is a typical revenge tragedy in the use of the supernatural. The supernatural visit of Hamlet’s father is central to the design of the play. Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural is not crude as we find in other conventional revenge tragedies.

Shakespeare has portrayed the ghost as a human figure, creating it as plausible as possible. Moreover, Shakespeare has made the supernatural elements an upshot of the central theme. Hamlet’s tragedy occurs not because he has seen the ghost instead because of his internal psychological problem.

Conclusion

Hamlet is much superior to a tragedy of revenge. Hamlet is not a common avenger; he is a prototype of the individual man facing existential problems of life. His problems engage us in such a manner that we forget about his task of revenge altogether and start considering him as an enigmatic person.

Hamlet meditates upon each of his actions. This introspective nature renders him incapable of taking revenge at the appointed time. Hence, our interest in the play is not so much revenge but Hamlet’s fate. Shakespeare shows rare psychological insight into the complex mind of the hero, which is unparalleled in literature.

A H M Ohidujjaman

I'm the Founder of Hamandista Academy. I live in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I studied English Literature and ELT. Now, I'm working as a Lecturer of English at a Dhaka-based Private University.

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