Revenge in Hamlet


Intro to the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

  • Thomas Kyd established the revenge tragedy with his Spanish Tragedy (1587).
  • Shakespeare perfected the genre with Hamlet.
  • It is likely that Hamlet is based on another of Kyd's revenge plays, the Ur-Hamlet. No copies of Kyd's Ur-Hamlet exist today.

Most revenge tragedies share some basic elements:

  • The play-within-a-play
  • Mad scenes
  • A vengeful ghost
  • One (or several) gory scenes
  • A central character who has a serious grievance against a formidable opponent. This central character takes matters into his own hands and seeks revenge privately, after justice has failed him in the public arena.

It should be noted that Hamlet is the only protagonist in any Elizabethan revenge play who can be considered a hero, aware of the moral implications involved in carrying out his revenge

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Characters Involved in the Revenge Plot of Hamlet

  • Hamlet
  • The Ghost of Old Hamlet
  • Claudius
  • Gertrude
  • Polonius
  • Laertes
  • Horatio
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How Hamlet's Revenge is Delayed

3 significant ways:

1. He must establish Claudius' guilt. He does this in 3,2 via the play; he is convinced of Claudius' guilt when he storms out during the performance.

2. After considering his revenge at length (contrasting with the rash decisions of Fortinbras and Laertes), Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius in 3,3 but doesn't because he does not want him to go to heaven if killed while praying. It turns out that Hamlet's concerns were unnecessary, however, because Claudius is not sincere.

3. After killing Polonius, Hamlet is sent to England; this makes it impossible for him to gain access to Claudius and get revenge.

Even though Hamlet does ultimately kill Claudius, it is through Claudius' plan to kill Hamlet backfiring rather than any plan of Hamlet's.

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"Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5) Here, Old Hamlet is demanding that his son revenge him. Imperative.

"What would he do, had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?" (2.2) Here, Hamlet compares himself to the player. Wonders how the player would cope in his situation. This is in the "O, What a rogue and peasant slave am I!" soliloquy.

"I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall" He has no guts to enact revenge.

"Now I could drink hot blood" Violent. This is in the "Witching time of night" soliloquy. Seems like Hamlet will actually enact revenge now.

"A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven" Hamlet's morality prevents him from killing Claudius and avenging his father; he wants to kill Claudius while he is doing something bad, something that will surely send him to Hell.

"Even for an eggshell" Fortinbras will fight for meaningless things without a second thought, yet Hamlet cannot even avenge his father.

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