Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley states that "tragedy concerns itself with one person, the hero". The second aspect of a tragedy is "death of the hero." As Bradley points out, tragedy is "essentially a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death". 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare closely follows the dramatic conventions of a revenge play in Elizabethan theatre. Plays belonging to this genre are typically centred upon a protagonist's attempt to avenge an evil deed, often including prompts from the supernatural. Mental instability of the hero, scenes of carnage and mutilation and an eruption of general violence towards the denouement are elements common to this genre. Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and William Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus' are classic examples of revenge plays, often being classified as "tragedies of blood" due to their explicit presentation of premeditated violence. Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley defines tragedy as the "death of a hero". 'Hamlet's' focus is primarily on the fall of a hero rather than on the execution of a pledge to revenge, therefore, 'Hamlet' is more a tragedy than a revenge play as Prince Hamlet just doesn't avenge his father's murder, he contemplates it before hand. In 'Hamlet', Shakespeare complicates the themes, giving the play a psychological depth whereas 'Titus Andronicus' is the straightforward narration of a pledge to revenge.
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Shakespeare employs the use of certain gothic conventions which are typical of tragedies, thus, establishing the play's genre. The curtain opens to a 'bitter cold' night, instantly creating a dark, chilling atmosphere. Consequently, it could also have been used to symbolize the political unsettlement in the state of Denmark as the King has just died. The clock has 'struck twelve', opening the play in a sinister, perilous hour usually associated with the supernatural, a 'dead hour'. We are also told that the spirit of the late King is roaming the walls of the castle, creating a sense of foreboding within the audience. Aristotle defines tragedy as "an imitation of an event that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude". Hamlet is undeniably a play that is of great enormity as we consider the scale and scope of the play, keeping in mind that the main characters of the play are in fact the rulers of Denmark in whose hands lies the fate of millions of people.
To ascertain the generic conventions of Revenge plays, we must look at some paradigmatic examples such as Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus' or Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy'. Critic S. Clarke Hulse describes 'Titus Andronicus' as a play with "14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism- an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines". The play narrates the story of a Roman general who by the end of the play has taken his revenge by murdering his enemy Tamora's sons and then cooking the deceased in the form of a pie, which he later feeds to their mother. The play is by far Shakespeare's bloodiest work and is undoubtedly classified as purely a revenge play. In 'Hamlet'; Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Gertrude, Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all die within the course of the play, which is probably why it is often wrongly categorised as merely a revenge play.
What distinguishes 'Hamlet' from most revenge plays is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed. We must keep in mind that in this play, it is Hamlet's own conscience that leads to his procrastination and acts as his hamartia. This is a highly uncommon trait amongst the protagonists of revenge plays as can be seen in the character of Titus Andronicus who seemingly has no ethical values, 'Titus Andronicus' being a play that is described as "Shakespeare's bloodiest work". Subsequently, Hamlet's hesitation to kill Claudius can also be seen as a plot device used by Shakespeare to prolong the action of the play, increasing the tension within the audience. Exposing Hamlet's tragic flaw teamed with his 'pardon' to Laertes makes him seem righteous to the audience, allowing us to empathise with the character, a feeling that is definitely not associated with most revenge heroes, the prime example being Titus Andronicus. 'Titus Andronicus' closely follows the conventions of a revenge play set in the Elizabethan era, and it's easy categorization into the genre of revenge is perhaps the reason why it sparked such contention.
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Aristotle's definition describes tragedy as "an imitation of an event that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude". 'Hamlet' is undeniably a play that is of great enormity as we consider the scale and scope of the play. We must keep in mind that the protagonists of the play are in fact the rulers of Denmark in whose hands lies the fate of millions of people. Aristotle also states that the "character has the second place in importance" meaning simply that the character should support the plot i.e. "personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear in the audience". 'Hamlet' fits into this description of tragedy as it is Hamlet's desire to avenge his father's murder that leads to the unfolding of events that form the play.
Shakespeare adds unexpected depth to the character of Claudius, which is not common for the antagonist of a revenge play. Claudius's soliloquy in Act III scene III relays his 'stronger guilt' on 'a brother's murder'. 'My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer can serve my turn?' Claudius's apparent desire retribution defers from the preconceived notion of a villain in Elizabethan theatre as it evokes sympathy within the audience. Even though Claudius's character is not developed to its full potential, Shakespeare has crafted a full rounded human being out of the 'adulterate beast'. This fact in itself defers 'Hamlet' from being merely a revenge play.
Reviewing all the points I have made during the course of this essay, I would like to conclude that to categorize 'Hamlet' as a revenge play would do the work great injustice. The plays dramatic structure and in-depth characterisation allows the play to be interpreted from many perspectives. In my opinion, 'Hamlet' is not more a tragedy than a revenge play as it contains elements of both genres, but it is a revenge tragedy. Professor Kiernan Ryan remarks on 'Hamlet' being subcategorized into a category of its own. He states that Shakespeare "problematizes the whole revenge tragedy form and the assumptions and values about life, which a revenge tragedy - which the play - would otherwise smuggle through unchallenged."