Tragedy is a sub-genre of Jacobean drama. The plays are characterised by
graphic violence and bloodshed. There are also elements of horror and the
supernatural entwined into them. Ashley Thorndike (1902) formally established
this genre in his article ‘The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge
Plays’. The article defines revenge tragedy as “A tragedy whose leading motive
is 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 avengers

tragedy originated from the roman tragedies of Seneca. Anthony James Boyle
(1997) states “Shakespeare’s plays rewrite Senecan scenes and speeches
constantly. 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 the
fatal banquet motif”. This highlights how much of an influence Seneca had on
Shakespeare’s work. Conventions seen in Seneca’s drama included blood-revenge for
murder or flagrant injury, or else a serious revenge from motives of jealousy, supernatural devices like an appearance of ghosts often
to reveal the murder or the murderer. There was an excess of violent acts. A descent
into madness which could be assumed by the audience or characterised or could
be real. The play ending in the death of a large proportion of the cast as well
as the protagonist, because he has gone against religion by taking the power of
revenge from God. These conventions are clearly seen in Shakespeare’s play
Hamlet which is what I will be discussing in this essay and giving arguments to
why is can and cannot be considered a true revenge tragedy.


terms of murder and crime, revenge could be considered the central theme in
Hamlet. The play is based around the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius. The
driving force that shapes the play is the revenge for the death of Hamlets
father, The former King of Denmark. In revenge plays the dramatist normally
introduces physical drawbacks which get in the way of the main character
accomplishing their revenge, but in a less traditional play, inner conflict
from the protagonist is much more important. Hamlet can be considered a less
traditional revenge play because Shakespeare goes way past the conventional
method when he created Hamlet’s character. Hamlets emotions and inner turmoil become
the main focus of the play rather than revenge, highlighting Shakespeare’s
advanced form for revenge tragedy. Shakespeare went against what his audience
would have expected to watch by not sticking to the normalities of a revenge
drama, and showing what happens to a person psychically and mentally when going
through grief and sorrow.

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supernatural being is the machinery to any revenge tragedy. The ghost of
Hamlets father comes to tell him the identity of the killer. The ghost is
primarily connected with the motif of revenge. The prince is influenced very
strongly by the ghost of the dead king to take revenge upon Claudius who has risen
to the throne by foul means and whose guilt has gone unseen by everyone, Hamlet
learns that his father’s death happened from his Uncles plan to murder him so
he can be King. The ghost tells hamlet it is his duty to take revenge upon
Claudius and because law and justice cannot punish the crime, hamlets proceeds
to take revenge in spite of what’s happened. “And so I am revenged?  That would be scann’d: a villain kills my
father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” (Shakespeare
and Copping 2009, pp59) From this quote when can see Hamlet is taking on the
duty to get revenge on his uncle for killing the King, his change of mind has
been influenced by his encounter with his father’s ghost and this is the first
time in the play we see the theme of revenge appear.


Hamlet delay with his revenge could argue that it does not stick to traditional
revenge tragedy so cannot be considered true. It could be considered that
Hamlet has had a long-repressed desire to replace his father in his mother’s
life. Claudius has beaten Hamlet to it by murdering the King and being in an
incestuous relationship with his sister in law, this is what sparks Hamlets
jealousy in his Uncle, therefore it delays the revenge as his uncle has done
what he wanted to do so he can’t condemn Claudius without doing the same to
himself. Ernest Jones explains Hamlet’s behaviour using Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus
Complex ‘The long “repressed” desire to take his father’s place in his mother’s
affection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of someone
usurping this place exactly as he himself has once longed to do. More, this
someone was a member of the same family, so that the actual usurpation further
resembled the imaginary one in being incestuous.’


In 1609
when Hamlet was first performed, audience members viewing the play would have
likely been protestant Elizabethan and would have believed that the ghost of Hamlet’s
father was from hell, this is because the ghosts states “And for the day
confin’d to fast fires, till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are
burnt and purg’d away” (Shakespeare and copping 2009, pp26). This suggests his
father is trapped inside purgatory, therefore audience members may have thought
the 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 than
getting revenge. The use of supernatural beings is common to see in revenge
tragedies. For example, in The Revengers Tragedy, Vindice carried round his
dead wife’s skull could suggest her sprit was still around and the fact that
the 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 her
skull around for nine years shows his obsession with revenge.


important element in any revenge drama is violence and it usually ending in the
majority of characters dying at the end. This is clearly depicted in Hamlet
when Claudius arranges a duel between Laertes and Hamlet. At this duel, we see Hamlet’s
Mother drink a cup of poisoned wine that was supposed to be for Hamlet. Laertes
then pokes Hamlet with a sword that has poison on the tip, Hamlet then plunges
the sword into Laertes. Laertes then tells Hamlet that Claudius planned all
this to kill Hamlet, “I can no more, The King, the kings to blame.” (act v page
95) and Hamlet then stabs Claudius. This ending is similar to The Revengers
tragedy, where Vindice and Hippolito and two lords disguise themselves  as entertainers at the masque ball and kill
the duke, this ends with the Duke’s sons killing each other, Antonio is then
crowned as the new Duke and sends Hippolito and Vindici to prison and tells
them they will be executed. From this we can see that the protagonist ends up
dying as the end of a revenge drama because they have made a judgement error.

Francis Bacon (1901-14) believes that “revenge triumphs over death”, Vindice
expresses in The Revengers Tragedy “when the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy
good” 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 passing
it over, he is superior, for it is a prince’s part to pardon’. In revenge plays
forgiveness is not an option, even if the revenger dies, as long and he has achieved
justice then they are satisfied. The protagonist dying after achieving their revenge
can be seen as them becoming equals to the antagonist as they have carried out
a similar deed to what the antagonist did in the first place.


conclusion, Hamlet is a successful revenge tragedy. It includes the vital components
that make a revenge drama so brilliant. But Shakespeare goes above and beyond
and brings in themes that are so much more complex than normal revenge
tragedies, like Hamlets inner turmoil and the exploration of human nature which
is what makes Hamlet so relevant today. Shakespeare does not stray too far away
from the traditional conventions of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy and cleverly
uses the last scene with its melodramatic incidents, to show the audience that Hamlets
revenge was accomplished in the end.


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