A revenge tragedy is a drama in which the dominant motive is revenge for a real or imagined injury; it was a favourite form of English tragedy in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and found its highest expression in William Shakespeare’s: ‘Hamlet’. It was written and performed during the first part of the seventeenth century to satisfy the middle and upper classes’ desire for violence and horror, as many of their lives lacked spontaneity and excitement.
Like many other playwrights during his time, Shakespeare borrowed ideas and plots from previous literary works for many of his own plays. The content of Hamlet is most likely to be derived from Seneca’s favourite materials of murder, revenge, ghosts, mutilation and carnage. Hamlet is based on the deplorable plot about a Prince of Denmark, whose uncle selfishly murders his father – the King, marries the Prince’s mother and claims the throne as King of Denmark.
The content within this play would completely shock an audience of the Elizabethan era as it was deemed wholly inexcusable to murder a King and for a person to marry their sister-in-law as they believed this was dishonourable and incestuous. In the context of when this was performed, it would have been socially unacceptable as though they are not blood related, it is the Royal family and there was therefore a huge importance placed on tradition and family honour.
Shakespeare went far beyond making hesitation a personal characteristic of Hamlet’s, but introduced a range of significant ambiguities into the play that even the audience cannot determine with certainty. For instance, whether Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, shares in Claudius’s guilt; whether Hamlet continues to love Ophelia even as he rejects her, in Act III; whether Ophelia’s death is suicide or accident; whether the ghost offers consistent knowledge, or seeks to deceive and tempt Hamlet; and, perhaps most importantly, whether Hamlet would be morally justified in taking revenge on his uncle.
During the Elizabethan era, it was inadmissible for a person to take revenge and kill someone – especially if they were a King, and was believed that this would almost certainly result in God punishing them by sending them to Hell – the biggest fear to an audience living in seventeenth century England, which was extremely religious. One of the scenes that Shakespeare’s theme of revenge becomes truly evident is; Act 1 scene 5, in which the Ghost of Old King Hamlet reveals that he was killed by his brother Claudius, and demands revenge.
Shakespeare uses very effective language during the Ghost’s speech and highlights the main incentive for Hamlet to seek revenge; ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown. ‘ [Line 39-40] The metaphor of Claudius as a snake reflects his sly character and deceit as it can be linked to Satan in the Garden of Eden, when he deceived Adam and Eve in the Bible [Genesis]. The Ghost uses imperative sentences and so is portrayed as commanding. He also infers that he wants this to be done quickly;
‘Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift’ The last word is associated with speed – stressing that he wants a quick revenge. Old King Hamlet’s ghost deems Claudius’ behaviour as ‘foul, strange and unnatural’, referring to his murderous and incestuous nature. This would have a significant dramatic impact as a typical Jacobean audience were mostly devout Christians.
In the Old Testament in the Bible, the Jews were instructed to seek revenge; ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life’ [Exodus, chapt.21], but in the New Testament Jesus taught Christians to love their enemies and ‘turn the other cheek’ [Luke chapt. 6]. The audience would have been compelled by this situation as an inner conflict appears in Hamlet, he is torn in two because; on one side he is angry that Gertrude, his mum, is married to Claudius so promptly and wants to avenge his father’s death. The audience’s reaction would have been especially contrasting to our 21st century reaction as they would have been shocked and disgusted by what they would have probably labelled the ‘love affair’ between Gertrude and Claudius.
In our contemporary society, the media constantly surrounds us with such stories of love within families that our culture has become almost desensitised to such things, and so would not be shocked at all. Our reaction would have also been different because as a country we have become secular, and so I don’t think we as an audience would have taken the Ghost seriously as we don’t in every respect believe in spirits. Elizabethans believed that not only did Ghosts and spirits make appearances, but that they were vital as they played the role of the messenger.
They therefore would have been gripped and it would be more credible for them. On the other side however; Hamlet is scared and indecisive about his dilemma to seek revenge. The Divine Right of Kings meant that the King was ordained by God and if you murdered a King, you would surely go to Hell. ‘O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? ‘ [Line 92] His emotion is displayed by punctuation and repetition, and his worries of seeking revenge and being punished cause the delay. Throughout this scene, we also take part in Hamlet’s internal confusion of how to exact his revenge.
This may provide an explanation for some critics, such as Samuel Johnson, who question why Hamlet is, throughout the whole play, rather an “instrument than an agent”. I agree because after he has convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and Claudius’ death is at last affected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing, but seizes the moment. On the other hand we see that Hamlet does try to kill Claudius; for example when he creeps up behind him when he is praying, ready to strike.
He then concludes not to as he decides that if he kills him while the King is praying or repenting, that he will undeniably ‘burn in Hell’. Shakespeare provides two different types of revenge heroes so that the audience is aware of the striking contrast between Prince Hamlet and Laertes; Hamlet continuously delays while Laertes seeks immediate revenge. They are an antithesis as they’re two entirely different personalities from two completely different backgrounds and upbringings, and Laertes is used to emphasize Hamlet’s flaws.
Hamlet is from a very privileged family; with Christian morals at the core whereas Laertes lacks not only the Prince’s education and morals but also the ‘mental equipment’ which Hamlet argued in his soliloquy is needed to distinguish between ‘man and beast’. He is able to behave as an uncomplicated revenge hero, because unlike Hamlet, he disregards the moral objections. Because of this, he becomes the classical stereotypical hero as he is ruled by passion and anger, whereas Hamlet is bound by his thoughts. The contrast of how Laertes deals with anger and distress very differently to Hamlet is shown in Act 5 scene 1 (Ophelia’s funeral).
Shakespeare undermines Laertes’ kind of character, as he presents him as pretentious and pompous, as at both his father and sister’s funerals, he seems more affected by the appearances than the fact that his ‘loved ones’ are dead. When he jumps into Ophelia’s grave, it is over the top and unnecessary and contrasts Hamlet’s simple statement; ‘I loved Ophelia’. We as the audience may find his actions and language comical as does Hamlet. He mocks him and asks him; ‘What is he whose grief Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes the, stand Like wonder-wounded hearers? ‘