RevengeTragedy is a sub-genre of Jacobean drama. The plays are characterised bygraphic violence and bloodshed. There are also elements of horror and thesupernatural entwined into them. Ashley Thorndike (1902) formally establishedthis genre in his article ‘The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary RevengePlays’. The article defines revenge tragedy as “A tragedy whose leading motiveis revenge and whose main actions deals with the progress of this revenge,leading to the death of the murderers and often the death of the avengershimself”. Revengetragedy originated from the roman tragedies of Seneca. Anthony James Boyle(1997) states “Shakespeare’s plays rewrite Senecan scenes and speechesconstantly. Lady Macbeth’s transformation of Medea’s prologue is well known.
Less often observed are Hamlet’s debts to Thyestes especially in the use of thefatal banquet motif”. This highlights how much of an influence Seneca had onShakespeare’s work. Conventions seen in Seneca’s drama included blood-revenge formurder or flagrant injury, or else a serious revenge from motives of jealousy, supernatural devices like an appearance of ghosts oftento reveal the murder or the murderer. There was an excess of violent acts. A descentinto madness which could be assumed by the audience or characterised or couldbe real. The play ending in the death of a large proportion of the cast as wellas the protagonist, because he has gone against religion by taking the power ofrevenge from God. These conventions are clearly seen in Shakespeare’s playHamlet which is what I will be discussing in this essay and giving arguments towhy is can and cannot be considered a true revenge tragedy.
Interms of murder and crime, revenge could be considered the central theme inHamlet. The play is based around the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius. Thedriving force that shapes the play is the revenge for the death of Hamletsfather, The former King of Denmark. In revenge plays the dramatist normallyintroduces physical drawbacks which get in the way of the main characteraccomplishing their revenge, but in a less traditional play, inner conflictfrom the protagonist is much more important. Hamlet can be considered a lesstraditional revenge play because Shakespeare goes way past the conventionalmethod when he created Hamlet’s character. Hamlets emotions and inner turmoil becomethe main focus of the play rather than revenge, highlighting Shakespeare’sadvanced form for revenge tragedy. Shakespeare went against what his audiencewould have expected to watch by not sticking to the normalities of a revengedrama, and showing what happens to a person psychically and mentally when goingthrough grief and sorrow.
Asupernatural being is the machinery to any revenge tragedy. The ghost ofHamlets father comes to tell him the identity of the killer. The ghost isprimarily connected with the motif of revenge. The prince is influenced verystrongly by the ghost of the dead king to take revenge upon Claudius who has risento the throne by foul means and whose guilt has gone unseen by everyone, Hamletlearns that his father’s death happened from his Uncles plan to murder him sohe can be King. The ghost tells hamlet it is his duty to take revenge uponClaudius and because law and justice cannot punish the crime, hamlets proceedsto take revenge in spite of what’s happened. “And so I am revenged? That would be scann’d: a villain kills myfather; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” (Shakespeareand Copping 2009, pp59) From this quote when can see Hamlet is taking on theduty to get revenge on his uncle for killing the King, his change of mind hasbeen influenced by his encounter with his father’s ghost and this is the firsttime in the play we see the theme of revenge appear.
However,Hamlet delay with his revenge could argue that it does not stick to traditionalrevenge tragedy so cannot be considered true. It could be considered thatHamlet has had a long-repressed desire to replace his father in his mother’slife. Claudius has beaten Hamlet to it by murdering the King and being in anincestuous relationship with his sister in law, this is what sparks Hamletsjealousy in his Uncle, therefore it delays the revenge as his uncle has donewhat he wanted to do so he can’t condemn Claudius without doing the same tohimself. Ernest Jones explains Hamlet’s behaviour using Sigmund Freud’s OedipusComplex ‘The long “repressed” desire to take his father’s place in his mother’saffection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of someoneusurping this place exactly as he himself has once longed to do. More, thissomeone was a member of the same family, so that the actual usurpation furtherresembled the imaginary one in being incestuous.’ In 1609when Hamlet was first performed, audience members viewing the play would havelikely been protestant Elizabethan and would have believed that the ghost of Hamlet’sfather was from hell, this is because the ghosts states “And for the dayconfin’d to fast fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature areburnt and purg’d away” (Shakespeare and copping 2009, pp26). This suggests hisfather is trapped inside purgatory, therefore audience members may have thoughtthe ghost to be an evil spirit who was influencing Hamlet to kill the King. Therefore,highlighting that Hamlet was distracted by many other worries rather thangetting revenge.
The use of supernatural beings is common to see in revengetragedies. For example, in The Revengers Tragedy, Vindice carried round hisdead wife’s skull could suggest her sprit was still around and the fact thatthe skull was used to kill the duke was her own revenge on him and as well as Vindice’s.The skull loomed over all the action and the fact that Vindice carried herskull around for nine years shows his obsession with revenge. Animportant element in any revenge drama is violence and it usually ending in themajority of characters dying at the end. This is clearly depicted in Hamletwhen Claudius arranges a duel between Laertes and Hamlet. At this duel, we see Hamlet’sMother drink a cup of poisoned wine that was supposed to be for Hamlet.
Laertesthen pokes Hamlet with a sword that has poison on the tip, Hamlet then plungesthe sword into Laertes. Laertes then tells Hamlet that Claudius planned allthis to kill Hamlet, “I can no more, The King, the kings to blame.” (act v page95) and Hamlet then stabs Claudius.
This ending is similar to The Revengerstragedy, where Vindice and Hippolito and two lords disguise themselves as entertainers at the masque ball and killthe duke, this ends with the Duke’s sons killing each other, Antonio is thencrowned as the new Duke and sends Hippolito and Vindici to prison and tellsthem they will be executed. From this we can see that the protagonist ends updying as the end of a revenge drama because they have made a judgement error.Francis Bacon (1901-14) believes that “revenge triumphs over death”, Vindiceexpresses in The Revengers Tragedy “when the bad bleeds, then is the tragedygood” suggesting that revenge outweighs the horror of murder. Bacon (1901-14)also wrote ‘in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passingit over, he is superior, for it is a prince’s part to pardon’. In revenge playsforgiveness is not an option, even if the revenger dies, as long and he has achievedjustice then they are satisfied.
The protagonist dying after achieving their revengecan be seen as them becoming equals to the antagonist as they have carried outa similar deed to what the antagonist did in the first place. Inconclusion, Hamlet is a successful revenge tragedy. It includes the vital componentsthat make a revenge drama so brilliant. But Shakespeare goes above and beyondand brings in themes that are so much more complex than normal revengetragedies, like Hamlets inner turmoil and the exploration of human nature whichis what makes Hamlet so relevant today. Shakespeare does not stray too far awayfrom the traditional conventions of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy and cleverlyuses the last scene with its melodramatic incidents, to show the audience that Hamletsrevenge was accomplished in the end.