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Problems In The Revenge Tragedy: William Shakespeare's Hamlet

3187 words - 13 pages

Shakespeare's Hamlet presents the generic elements found in Renaissance revenge tragedies ("Revenge Tragedy"). However, although Hamlet is a revenge tragedy by definition, Shakespeare complicates the basic revenge plot by creating three revenge plots out of one. By adding significant innovations, Shakespeare creates "three concentric rings of revenge" (Frye 90), depicting an indecisive protagonist who is an intellectual rather than a physical hero, an ambiguous ghost, and several problematic aspects of the play, such as the reason for Hamlet's delay, the confusion of time, and the truth behind Hamlet's apparent madness.
In a typical revenge tragedy, a hero is called upon by the ghost of a family member to avenge his death ("Revenge Tragedy"). Hamlet is the main protagonist and hero called upon by the spirit of his father to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.31). When Hamlet first hears that his father was murdered, he exclaims, "Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift...may sweep to my revenge" (1.5.35-37). He is hungry to avenge his father; however, Hamlet does nothing and at the end of Act II he scolds himself that "this player...could force his soul so to his own conceit...all for nothing...yet, [he]...can say nothing for a king upon whose property and most dear life a damned defeat was made" (2.2.578-598). Hamlet is upset that he cannot act to avenge his father, but this mere actor can build up so much emotion for nothing. Shakespeare complicates the plot because revenge plots are supposed to have an aggressive protagonist with courage to carry out his deed of revenge; instead, Shakespeare modifies the hero and portrays Hamlet as an indecisive and contemplative man.
Additionally, because of the readiness of Laertes and Fortinbras to avenge their fathers' deaths, they serve as foils to Hamlet by demonstrating their willingness to act both decisively and deceptively to achieve their goals, whereas Hamlet vacillates and contemplates his every move. By portraying them as foils, Shakespeare helps illuminate the fact that this revenge plot has a very melancholic, contemplative, and intellectual hero as opposed to the heroes usually seen who immediately act upon request or knowledge. Heroes are often depicted as being immediate in their responses for revenge as shown in the play Oresteia when Orestes hears of his father's death and immediately prays to the gods to "let [him] avenge [his] father's murder" (LB. 21). Although Hamlet first appears eager to avenge his father's death (1.5.35-37), his actions do not reflect the truth behind his words. However, Orestes immediately starts planning is vengeance (LB. 541-565), and when the opportunity arises he tells his mother that "[she] killed and it was outrage - suffer outrage now" (LB. 917). Unlike Hamlet, Orestes does not procrastinate his vengeance; instead, he plans and strikes at the most opportune moment. Likewise, in Hamlet, Young Fortinbras seeks revenge on the land...

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