Hamlet and Revenge Tragedy: A Reappraisal ALAN URQUHART
Literary critics were not the first to speculate on the nature of Hamlet's problems and the reasons for his delayed revenge. Their various rewritings of Hamlet generally continue processes begun in the play itself. The reflections of Coleridge, for example, begin, and largely end, by concentrating on the Hamlet of the soliloquies, privileging one of his own pet theories as to the cause of his delayed revenge: that is, what Hamlet calls his 'craven scuple/ Of thinking too precisely on th' event'.l In this commonly accepted theory, an original Hamlet is postulated who is given to inaction and philosophy, and the unwelcome role of active revenger, thrust upon him by the Ghost, is perceived as somehow extra, or supplementary, to this 'real' Hamlet, causing him angst and tragedy. Yet even the Hamlet of the soliloquies is not always so convinced of this theory. He also suggests that the 'native hue' (presumably the 'real' self) consists in 'resolution', and it is only a superimposed 'pale cast of thought' (III. i. 90-91) which gets in the way of action. From this and other evidence, such as Hamlet's gleeful relish in the dispatch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, one could argue that the 'real' or original Hamlet is a man of action, a typical stage revenger, such as Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy. Here, Hamlet the procrastinator would be regarded as the extra or supplementary personality, a tragic flaw, as suggested by Bradley, threatening the expression of his 'real' heroic virtues.
Perhaps the divide comes about as a result of generic expectations. If Hamlet is viewed as primarily a revenge
Hamlet, ed. G.A. Wilkes (The Challis Shakespeare, Sydney University Press, 1984), IV. ii. 42-3. All subsequent references are to this edition.
drama, then Hamlet the procrastinator represents the supplementary role that impedes the fulfilment of revenge. Procrastination represents not only a threat to the honour and duty of revenger, but indeed, to the action of the entire play. This perhaps can be seen by comparison to the morally correct Charlemont in Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy, where dramatic interest in the revenger is stolen by the dramatic conflict within the villain, the Atheist. Yet, as we shall see, by comparison to Vindice in Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, the sense of pity and loss aroused by the generic expectations of 'tragedy' can be subverted by those of the revenge drama. As Vindice exemplifies, the vindictiveness inherent in the idea of the stage revenger tends to bring into question the nobility essential to the character of a tragic hero, lessening the pity that can be felt for his inevitable demise. The duty of revenge must have tragic consequences for the revenger, but the audience need not sympathize. From this perspective, Hamlet's procrastination can be thought of as guilt, indeed, justifying it as a form of generalized, disillusioned...