Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

In the Elizabethan Jacobean period, the work of Senecan revenge drama was interwoven in the English stage, with dramatists often cleaving to the dynamics of Senecan literature, Shakespeare being no different. Hamlet has aspects of a typical Seneca drama braided into its structure, from the existence of a ghost catalysing the requisite of vengeance to the meditative soliloquies of the protagonist. The concluding spectacle of the pile of corpses at the denouement was also congenial to the English stage added with the sense of justice being done preceding the horrific spectacle, and yet Shakespeare’s work of Hamlet does stray away from a conventional revenge drama in its own spectacular way.

The theme of revenge boils with the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s dead father and the former King, who, in the first scene of the play, stalks the battlements donning his battle suit – the image itself draws a sense of ominousness and foreshadows the onset of a terrific revelation where we know that the Ghost has a part to play in. As Horatio and Marcellus, friends to Hamlet and witnesses of the appearance of the Ghost, seek to find Hamlet to tell him of what they’d seen, they find a man in complete grief through bereavement of not only losing his father, but also his mother. Hamlet is a character troubled by loss and desolation – of having lost his father through, what is later revealed, murder and the hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle – an act that is reprimanding not only in Catholicism but also by Hamlet as he finds it insulting to his father’s memory, and most importantly the inconsistency of his mother’s feelings for a newly dead husband, ‘So excellent a king; that was, to this, / Hyperion to a satyr’ ‘- married with mine uncle, / My father’s brother; but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules’. Therefore, when Hamlet is brought to the Ghost to be persuaded to enact vengeance, we find that there is already a conflict at work in Hamlet – the conflict of his mother’s quick change of heart and his bottled up hatred for her disloyalty (‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’).

Yet, what separates the play of Hamlet from any other Elizabethan revenge drama is the nature of Hamlet who is not entirely convinced of the Ghost’s accusations of regicide and fratricide done by his brother, Claudius. Hamlet is not driven by the spirit of revenge, but acts as a judiciary throughout the play, trying to gather enough evidence to incriminate and execute the opponent, which in this case is Claudius. He is the crown prince of Denmark, and well-loved by his future subjects, hence aware of his dignity and righteousness. In his initial encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet is overwhelmed and that Shakespeare presents with the repetition of one dialogue which virtualises Hamlet’s disorientation, ‘Nay, but swear’t’ ‘Consent to swear’ ‘Swear upon my sword’. Even so, Hamlet later understands that this might be the work of a malevolent spirit to entrap him as implicating the King without concrete proof is a serious offence, and thus, sets up an ‘antic disposition’ and a play-within-a-play to expose Claudius. These are also typical components of an Elizabethan revenge drama which plays on par with Hamlet.

Yet, for the most part, Hamlet does not act to avenge. In the episode taking place in the Queen’s bedchamber, Hamlet is brought to kill Polonius but this form of killing is not essentially murder. Hamlet did not know who was behind the curtains and only stabbed through it because he thought it was a spy, only assuming it to be Claudius. The position that Polonius takes to spy in the private chambers of a female, more importantly, a female ruler, is not only looked down upon by the Catholic sect but also signifies a breach of trust between Hamlet and his mother, where they are not given a moment’s solitude for Hamlet to voice his opinions and seek his mother’s help and solidarity. Thus, the accidental stabbing of Polonius comes out as a deliverance of justice and not an act of spiteful revenge.

Similarly, when Hamlet is challenged by Laertes into a duel, we find it to be completely unfair. Claudius is an embodiment of a Machiavellian villain – a necessary component of Senecan revenge tragedy – where he does things to benefit himself only. We see this play out in him trying to ally with Hamlet when he usurps the throne as Hamlet is loved by Denmark, but then turns against him when he understands that Hamlet is privy to his crime. He attempts on Hamlet’s life in a number of failed tries, one of which leads to his own demise where he coaxes Laertes of engaging into a duel with Hamlet in his father’s honour, but we understand that Laertes is deceived and is working mainly for Claudius, not his deceased father. Claudius, also knowing that Hamlet was a skilled dueller and would win the fight easily, sets up a rigged match with a poisoned cup and sword. When Hamlet understands the unfairness where Claudius becomes the man who has not only caused fratricide but attempted regicide as well by influencing and instigating him into a false battle, Hamlet strikes the final blow and deals out even-handed justice in the presence of everyone. Laertes is also killed, not out of malice, but because of his role in the attempted murder of a Prince, while the Queen becomes an unknowing accomplice in Claudius’ scheme – all of which manifests as the work of justice and only justice. Not one single move that Hamlet makes in this play is driven out of hatred or isn’t attested to a crime.

Thus, as the final point of catharsis when the single upright youth falls with those around him who have already succumbed to  a moral downfall spurs, we find Shakespeare’s play to go above and beyond a typical revenge tragedy. This play is a work of psychological assimilation and exhibition of true justice. Hamlet, throughout the play, is burdened by his father’s order, mother’s disloyalty, lover’s betrayal and friends’ treachery and these pile on him so heavily that he finds a little solace in death in his remarkable soliloquy of ‘to be or not to be’ but even that is taken away from him. Despite this utter disorientation and disillusionment, Hamlet still finds it within himself to separate truth from presumption and rises above hatred to be a true example of justice being rightfully brought down. Thus, in terms of killing and structure, Hamlet is accorded to the conventions of Elizabethan and Senecan revenge tragedy, but in motive and deliverance, Hamlet is a tragedy of human isolation.

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