Hamlet – the Revenge Tragedy?
A baffling array of considerations relevant to the revenge aspect of Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet make an essay on this topic an interesting experience.
Ruth Nevo in “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging” explains the uncertain place which revenge occupies within the hero’s most famous soliloquy:
And conversely, because self-slaughter is the ostensible subject of the whole disquisition, we cannot read the speech simply as a case of conscience in the matter of revenge – Christian revenge and the secular sanctions and motivations of honor. Whether Hamlet is talking of his revenge or of his desire for death, or of both, one substituting for the other as mask for truth (or truth for mask) therefore becomes the problem that this speech poses. (46)
Howard Felperin sees in Hamlet a return to the once-extinct revenge play (Felperin 105). Although defunct for awhile, the revenge tragedy resurrected prior to the date of Hamlet’s composition.
The prince has a possible motive for revenge from the very outset: he is dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle. Hamlet’s first soliloquy sees the expression of his negative feelings and their growth in intensity; it emphasizes the corruption of the world and the frailty of women:
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!—(1.2)
Based on the meeting of the hero and Horatio, A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy presents convincing evidence of the depth of the hero’s melancholy – is it potent enough to perform revenge?
Hamlet and Horatio are supposed to be fellow-students at Wittenberg, and to have left it for Elsinore less than two months ago. Yet Hamlet hardly recognizes Horatio at first, and speaks as if he himself lived at Elsinore (I refer to his bitter jest, ‘We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart’). Who would dream that Hamlet had himself just come from Wittenberg, if it were not for the previous words about his going back there?
How can this be explained on the usual view? Only, I presume, by supposing that Hamlet is so sunk in melancholy that he really does almost ‘forget himself’ and forgets everything else, so that he actually is in doubt who Horatio is. (370)
The ghost says that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder. Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance. Gunnar Boklund in “Judgment in Hamlet” sees the ghost as the character who introduces revenge into the play:
An equally familiar and somewhat more plausible argument may also be adduced to explain the significance of the Ghost: Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, did not personally regard blood-revenge as justified but followed the so-called revenge convention...