Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

A Shakespearean tragedy is built upon a central conflict which runs through from the beginning to the end of the tragedy until the conflict is finally resolved.The conflict provides the exposition,suspense,climax and the catastrophe of the play.In the case of Hamlet it is not otherwise.The play is built upon the long,tragic conflict between Hamlet and Claudius and the conflict is built upon the motif of revenge.

So,the driving force that shapes the turns of the plot of the play namely exposition,gradual development of the plot,the suspense,climax and the catastrophe of the play is the revenge,especially the revenge for the death of father. It is not only Hamlet’s desire to take revenge ,but also that of Laertes’ that also acts as the driving force behind the plot. In the play Hamlet two of the character's fathers are brutishly murdered. The first murdered character is King Hamlet who is supposed to be revenged by his son prince Hamlet. The second murder is Polonius who is supposed to be revenged by his son Laertes. Both Prince Hamlet and Laertes go to seek revenge for the death of fathers, however they will each use different methods to accomplish their deeds.

But the play in which the central action springs from the revenge motif is called the revenge tragedy,which shares some other typical features.So,before going further let us see what motivated Shakespeare write such a tragedy in which revenge takes the driving wheel.At first,the writer was certainly influenced by his age.

Hamlet is a play that 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,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.”

It is said that most of the time Shakespeare wrote the dramas that his contemporary audience wanted.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.

Now let us discuss in details how the revenge motif helps to carry out the plot. Before introducing the revenge motif,the dramatist at first sets an appropriate setting .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 real tension of the play begins as soon as the ghost of the late king tells Hamlet about his murder. Hamlet learns that his father's death was no mistake, but it was Hamlet's uncle's plan to murder him. The ghost also tells Hamlet that he has been given the role of the person who will take revenge upon Claudius.So,like a typical revenge tragedy ,in Hamlet a crime (the killing of the king) is committed and for various reasons laws and justice cannot punish the crime so the individual ,Hamlet proceeds on to take revenge in spite of everything.

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. 

The conflict of the play gets further development when Hamlet feigns to be insane.Thus,the revenge motif drives him to disguise himself as a mad.

Hamlet starts 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.

After this the revenge motif also structures the middle of the play.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 does the same thing and his delay of killing Claudius takes on three distinct stages. Firstly he had to prove that the ghost was actually telling the truth,secondly his not killing of Claudius while praying and finally his accidental killing of Polonius.

Hamlet first decides to act abnormal which does not accomplish much besides warning his uncle that he might know he killed his father. Later in the play a troop of actors come to act out a play, and Hamlet has them reenact the murder of is father in front of his uncle Claudius. The actors murder scene also make Hamlet question himself about the fact that he has done nothing yet to avenge his father. Hamlet says " But am I Pigeon-livered and lack gall / To make oppression bitter, or ere this / I should ha' fatted all the region kites / With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain! ( Act II scene 2 page 84 line 577- 580 ).

During the play Hamlet watches is uncle Claudius to see his reaction when the actors perform the murder scene. Hamlet plan works his uncle throws a fit and runs out the room, where Hamlet goes after him. Now,Hamlet knows that Claudius is guilty.

Afterwards Hamlet finds his uncle as praying, and he pulls out his sword and gets ready to kill Claudius. But all the sudden Hamlet changes his mind because if he kills his uncle while he's praying he will go to heaven, and Hamlet wants him to go to hell. 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. So hamlet postpones the execution of his uncle.

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.

So,the next confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius does not happen till the end of the book when Hamlet escapes from the latter's ill murder attempt on his life.Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet is the one who killed his father and thus inspires Laertes to take revenge on Hamlet. Claudius hatchs a plan according to which Hamlet and Laertes will have a mock sword fight, but Laertes will be using a real poisoned sword. Laertes agrees with this, ready to claim Hamlets life for his father's vile murder.

Thus, Hamlet sword fences with Laertes. All the sudden Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude drinks a poison glass intended for Hamlet. When Hamlet is not looking Laertes stabs him with a poison sword then Hamlet takes hold of the poisoned sword, and stabs Laertes with it. As this happens Queen Gertrude dies from the poison drink. As Laertes lays down dying he reveals to Hamlet that his uncle King Claudius was behind it all, the poisoned sword and drink that has just killed his mother. Hamlet then in a fit of rage runs his uncle through with the poison sword. Hamlet has now finally revenged his father through much time then after his task is completed he finally collapses from the poison on the sword.

In  Hamlet these two characters Hamlet and Laertes both seek to avenge their slayed fathers. Hamlet with his passive and scheming approach manages to kill his father's murder his uncle Claudius. Laertes with his direct, and forceful dedication slays his fathers killer Prince Hamlet. Altough Laertes took a much more direct approach than Hamlet wasting no time, they both however accomplished their goal but at the ultimate price of both their lives!