In this study of revenge and revengers in two Elizabethan revenge tragedies the two plays I shall look at are Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and The Revenger's Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton. I shall look first at the playwrights' handling of the characters of the revengers, and then at the treatment of the revengers by other characters in the plays.
Although having similarities in their underlying themes, and in their adherence to conventions, these two plays present contrasting pictures of the figure of the revenger; Hamlet offering a far more complex treatment of its main character, and The Revenger's Tragedy appearing, in comparison, limited by the author's social message, and lacking in realistic characterisation.
Hamlet and Vindice, the two revengers, have in common their tasks as revengers, but they have very different methods of dealing with situations, modes of thought, and instinctual behaviour. Middleton's Vindice is largely an allegorical character; his name and the names of other characters in The Revenger's Tragedy (e.g. Spurio, Ambitioso) are derived from Medieval morality plays; names which suggest the quality of near-farcical exaggeration which is a feature of The Revenger's Tragedy from the opening scene's remarkable similarity to a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins, to Vindice's simplistic association of lust with Judas and the Devil.
Hamlet, in contrast, is an individual with depth, who suffers from insecurity, and a sense of absurdity. As we see him at the beginning of the play he is suffering from melancholy, not only from the death of his father, but also from "the moral shock of the sudden ghostly disclosure of his mother's true nature" (Bradley). Hamlet is psychologically real, and in my view while Vindice's vengeance is all expressed outwards, Hamlet, as a man and as a revenger, shifts from an external struggle for vengeance to an internal one.
Both revengers respond to, rather than initiate events, but Hamlet is much more an instrument of others than Vindice, who is full of zest. Both characters carry a burden of guilt. Hamlet's Oedipus complex, (Freud having informed us of the revenger's unconscious motives), is heavily aggravated by the absence of his father and excessive closeness of his mother, and this accounts for the refocusing of his patricidal wish onto Claudius, and shows how his need for revenge is internal, not purely a need to resolve dissatisfaction with the 'affairs of the world', as is Vindice's. Hamlet's needs are deep and complex, while for Vindice:
The smallest advantage fattens wronged men. [1.2.98]
Hamlet's 'internalisations' arise because he has identified his ego with his father - the lost 'object' - and is therefore suffering from a loss of ego. His inward suffering is further intensified by his conflicts with Ophelia and Gertrude, leading him to suicidal thoughts:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the...