Revenge in Hamlet
In Elizabethan times, a type of play known as a "revenge tragedy" became popular. These plays revolved around, "... the revenge of a father for a son or vice versa, the revenge being directed by the ghost of the murdered man..." (Harmon and Holman #6). Other characteristics include real or pretend insanity, philosophic soliloquies, hesitation on the part of the protagonist, conspiracy, and the use of horror. William Shakespeare's Hamlet fully satisfies each of these traits, making it an excellent example of a revenge tragedy. Certainly, the most critical theme in the play by far is that of revenge; it fuels the plot and story of Hamlet, reveals the hamartia of the protagonist, and is used successfully to develop some of the main characters.
Anne Barton says, "As a structural and thematic center for tragedy, revenge has much to recommend it," (Barton 11) and that, "For most Elizabethan dramatists, the attraction of revenge plots lay precisely in their tragic potentiality," (Barton 14). Shakespeare would undoubtedly agree. There are three rings of revenge at the center of the story of Hamlet. The first is that of Fortinbras Jr. who seeks vengeance against Hamlet Sr. for killing Fortinbras Sr. The second is that of Hamlet Jr. who seeks revenge against Claudius for the murder of Hamlet Sr. And the third is that of Laertes who seeks to avenge the death of his father Polonius at the hand of Hamlet Jr. Without these various plans for revenge, and the need to seek justice within the characters, there would be no story. However, the plot of this tragedy would be incomplete without the protagonist's hamartia.
This characteristic flaw of tragic heroes is, "... an unwitting, even a necessary, misstep in 'doing' rather than an error in character.... It must, however, express itself through a definite action or the failure to perform a definite action," (Harmon and Holman #5). In this case, Hamlet is obsessed with yet unable to act out his revenge since he is a man of thought and reflection, not of action and impulsiveness. "Revenge, said Francis Bacon in his essay on the subject, is a kind of wild justice, and something in Hamlet is too civilized for stealthy murder," says Northrop Frye (Frye). While he knows it is his duty to avenge his father's murder, Hamlet's desire to fulfill this obligation constantly wavers. In self-pity he cries, "O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5. 188-189), and yet in rage he utters, "Now could I drink hot blood / and do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to loot on," (3.2. 397-399). Hamlet hesitates numerous times to fulfill his duty to avenge his father, and in the end he must actually convince himself to kill Claudius. "... I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do', / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't... / ... / O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (4.4. 43-46,...