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Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley states that ‘tragedy concerns itself with one person, the hero’. The second key aspect of tragedy is the ‘death of a 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. Hamlet’s focus is primarily on the fall of a hero rather than on the execution of a pledge to revenge, therefore, it 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 theme which makes the play difficult to compartmentalise, giving the play psychological depth, whereas Titus Andronicus is the straightforward narration of a pledge to revenge.
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The play narrates how Prince Hamlet gains revenge on his uncle Claudius, who is responsible for the “foul and most unnatural murder” of the late King, Hamlet’s father. Hamlet vividly charts the course of feigned madness, overwhelming angst and seething rage; whilst exploring themes such as regicide, treachery, reprisal, incest and moral corruption- the classic conventions of an Elizabethan tragedy. The setting of the play is crucial in determining the plays genre, thus, Shakespeare uses Castle Elsinore and its environs to depict a sordid, depressing place where alleged incest and murder are a part of everyday life, where revenge is commonplace motivation, and where the feigning of madness is a normal strategy to dissemble ones feelings. As I previously said, the multiple subplots and psychological depth Shakespeare adds to characters give context to the events taking place within the play, taking it beyond the realms of a mere revenge play. In Hamlet, Shakespeare takes the theme of revenge beyond the hero of the play. He adds several sub-plots (Fortinbras of Norway is getting ready for possible “combat” with Denmark and Laertes seeks to avenge his father’s murder), making the genre of revenge consistent throughout the course of the play whilst also adding to the atmosphere of anxiety and doom already created.
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. Conversely, Shakespeare could have employed the use of this metaphor to symbolize the political unsettlement in the state of Denmark as their King has just died. The plot itself is complicated but Shakespeare adds further depth to the atmosphere of chaos and unease by employing the use of conventional aspects of Elizabethan tragedy such as the clock that 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.
I have established the conventions of Elizabethan tragedies, but 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 possibly why it is often categorised as simply 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, acting as his hamartia. S.T Coleridge states that Hamlet ‘procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve’. The audience of a revenge play expect a fast pace that gives them an adrenaline rush, thus keeping them engaged. Procrastination 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’. Instead of killing Claudius when he is in “prayer”, Hamlet delays the action further, preferring to murder him when he is “drunk” or in the “incestuous pleasures of his bed”. Although, Hamlet’s hesitation to kill Claudius can also be seen as a plot device used by Shakespeare to prolong the action of the play, hence, increasing the tension within the audience. As Aristotle said, ‘the tragic hero is a man who is a mixture of good characteristics and bad characteristics’ and by exposing Hamlet’s tragic flaw, (teamed with his “pardon” to Laertes), Shakespeare makes him seem righteous to the audience, allowing us to empathise with the character despite his ‘bad characteristics’, a feeling that is definitely not associated with most revenge heroes. Critic William Hazlitt says that ‘we can relate to Hamlet if we have had sadness in our lives as he is open with his emotions and allows the audience an insight into his feelings’.
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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. Keeping 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 simply elevates the tension created even further. 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 drives the plot forward and 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. The playwright makes Hamlet’s contempt towards his uncle apparent as he claims they are “a little more than kin and less than kind”. Claudius’s soliloquy in Act III scene III relays his “stronger guilt” on “a brother’s murder”, showing a possible ‘good characteristic’ (as said by Aristotle) of his character. “My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer can serve my turn?” Claudius’s apparent desire for retribution defers from the preconceived notion of a villain in Elizabethan theatre as it evokes sympathy within the audience. In a stage production of the play, this scene could be played with Claudius on his knees with his hands folded before him, maximising any sympathy the audience feels towards him. However, Shakespeare keeps his antagonistic manners consistent as “[Claudius’s] crown, [his] own ambition, and [his] queen” win over his guilt. Conversely, this soliloquy could be used to show that despite his villainous nature, Claudius is a character suffering from the “heavy burden” of guilt. 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”, making even his character psychologically plausible. This fact in itself defers Hamlet from being merely a revenge play.
Reviewing all the points I made during the course of this essay, I would like to conclude that to categorise Hamlet as a revenge play would do the play great injustice. The plays dramatic structure and in-depth characterisation allow 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 as it ‘problematizes the whole revenge tragedy form and the assumptions and values about life, which a revenge tragedy would smuggle through unchallenged.’
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