Hamlet is one of the most ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, to the extent that there is even argument over which genre it should be placed in. Although it contains many of the features typical of a revenge tragedy, it could be seen as a play more concerned with the ethics of revenge. Revenge tragedy was a popular genre in Elizabethan times with many famous examples written in that period, including Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’, Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’, and one by Shakespeare himself entitled ‘Titus Andronicus’.
These plays followed a standard structural format and always included certain features, such as complex plotting, a play within a play, real or feigned madness, a ghost scene, various murders, and the ultimate death of the avenger. In Hamlet, these features are prominently displayed with various plots and counter-plots, the inclusion of ‘The Mousetrap’ and the madness of both Hamlet and Ophelia. An overview of the play might directly place it in the genre of revenge tragedy, but a definitive classification is hindered by one pivotal factor: the complexity of the protagonist.
Hamlet’s character is an anomaly within the play. In a traditional revenge tragedy, the bulk of the plot would be made up of the hero laying a plan for revenge and overcoming many obstacles in order to finally reach his goal. Hesitation was an integral part of the revenge tragedy plot, but was only generally to consider forsaking ideas of personal revenge for using more legal methods to bring the perpetrator to justice.
In contrast, Hamlet procrastinates for much of the play: Shakespeare portrays him as a character that prefers thought to action.
Many of his soliloquies deal not with the method of revenge, but with whether or not he should exact it. When he encounters Fortinbras’ army, whose attitude so contrasts with his own, he muses over whether it is nobler ‘to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (3. 1. 55) or ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’ (3. 1. 58). In displaying this complete contrast in tone, Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as suffering under the direct comparison between himself and Fortinbras: he knows what the more traditionally heroic course of action would be, but feels incapable of implementing it.
It becomes evident through Hamlet’s soliloquies that his character is not meant to be perceived as a warrior or traditional avenger, but rather as a philosopher. His fatal flaw, which leads to his delay in killing Claudius, and therefore the unnecessary deaths of himself and many others, is his ‘craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th’event’ (4. 4. 39). Hamlet knows that it is his agonising thought processes that restrains him from doing his father’s bidding, and consistently berates himself – ‘conscience does make cowards’ (3. 1. 82).
This continual anger and frustration at his own cowardice, is mentioned again later with ‘a thought which when quartered hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts cowardice’ (4. 4. 41). Hamlet’s anger is further expressed with a stream of monosyllables, in which he claims ‘I have cause and will and strength and means to do’t’ (4. 4. 44). This sums up the crux of his self-anger and frustration at being incapable of becoming a typical avenger, and Shakespeare’s manipulation of language in using 26 consecutive monosyllables serves to highlight this.
Various critics have in the past attempted to unravel the enigma of the character of Hamlet and the delay which prevents the play from being a typical revenge tragedy. Goethe claims that Hamlet has ‘a lovely, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero’. It can be agreed that Hamlet is somewhat an anti-hero, but this is not only due to his baffling lack of action, but also to his cavalier slaughter of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. After stabbing Polonius, Hamlet shows little remorse, merely branding him a ‘wretched, rash and intruding fool’ (3. 4. 29).
These are not the actions of a hero, certainly, but neither can they be considered the actions of one lacking in strength of nerve. Goethe’s argument of Hamlet as a man who ‘sinks beneath a burden which [he] cannot bear and must be cast away’ is weak due to his analysis of Hamlet as a real person and not as a construct of Shakespeare, designed, we suspect, to be representative of the melancholy and philosophical Elizabethan nature. Cantor takes a differing stance, that Hamlet ‘is faced with an impossible task: to exact a barbarian pagan vengeance with the tenderness of a civilised Christian.
‘ This theory could strike closer to the truth of what Shakespeare was perhaps attempting to portray: a man torn between two obligations in a period of conflict and change. When Hamlet was written, England was in great upheaval, and in particular religious change, a period often referred to as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was the rebirth of old classical Greek and Roman culture into a more modern, Christian age, something which caused confusing and often conflicting beliefs; this is reflected in Shakespeare’s depiction of Hamlet.
The character is portrayed as both religious and moral, declaring from the start that he cannot commit suicide because the ‘Everlasting had… fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ (1. 2. 131), and calling on ‘angels and ministers of grace’ (1. 4. 39). Unfortunately, the demands made on the character of Hamlet are far from Christian, but appeal to a more Classical nature: that of the heroic bloodthirsty avenger, Achilles as opposed to Jesus. The Renaissance brought about the popularity of the revenge tragedy genre, as many of the values displayed in a typical play of this type, such as honour, were also prevalent in Greek and Roman culture.
Christian beliefs on revenge were very different to Classical ones. Jesus taught the policy of ‘turn the other cheek’: Francis Bacon’s essay on revenge upholds this principle, expressing that ‘in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior’, and even going further by claiming that ‘vindictive persons live the lives of witches. ‘ The character of the Ghost could be considered representative of the blend of cultures: he is ‘confined to fast in fires’ of Purgatory because he was killed ‘unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled, no reckoning made’ (1. 5.77), but still incites his son to ‘revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ (1. 5. 25).
This is indicative of the confusing mixture of Christian and Classical ethics: the more restrained, peaceful views of Christians blended with the vengeful ideals held in Greek and Roman times, which were resurfacing in the Elizabethan era. Through the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare portrays the difficulty of trying to satisfy both sets of values, and the moral problems that would be faced by an Elizabethan. On the other hand, Hamlet does seem to display some of the ideals that would make this play a revenge tragedy.
On his father’s first request that he avenge his death, he responds with ‘thy commandment all alone [I] shall live’ (1. 5. 102) – the words of a dutiful vengeful son. Nonetheless, he starts his plot by putting on ‘an antic disposition’ (1. 5. 170) rather than immediately laying plans to kill Claudius. In this way, Shakespeare demonstrates the duality of Hamlet’s character. Hamlet does later plan to use his Christianity against Claudius: he has an opportunity to kill the King while he is at prayer, but decides against it because Claudius murdered Old Hamlet ‘with all his crimes broad blown’ (3.3. 81) and Hamlet would not consider himself revenged if he took Claudius ‘in the purging of his soul’ (3. 3. 85).
In short, Hamlet wants Claudius to suffer the same fate in Purgatory as his father has. Bradley claims that the ‘the stirrings of [Hamlet’s] deeper conscience’ could not have manifested itself as ‘a desire to send his enemy’s soul to hell’, and dismisses the idea of Shakespeare presenting Hamlet as having inner conflicts as ‘quite ludicrous’.
However, like Goethe, Bradley consistently makes the mistake of analysing Shakespeare’s constructs as though they are real people with natural reactions, rather than representative creations of the author. In this scene, Shakespeare indicates that Hamlet’s religion asserts itself at the possibility of revenge, but the conflicting ethics lead to a confused response from the protagonist: the important thing to note is that when religion and the desire for revenge come into conflict here, Hamlet chooses religion, albeit not for a particularly moral reason, showing the ultimate supremacy of religion in his mind.
Shakespeare does not portray Hamlet as utterly moral, merely as a victim of his own confusion and his growing obsession with revenge. A point that is interesting to note is that Hamlet only has an aversion to revenge: as previously mentioned, he can show signs of the bloodthirsty Classical hero. He shows no qualms about his murders of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, saying only to justify his ‘rash and bloody deed’ (3. 4. 25) that Polonius was a ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ (3. 4.29) and that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths are ‘not near my conscience’ (5. 2. 57).
It is possible that in this Shakespeare is attempting to show the inextricable link between religion and revenge: the implications within Hamlet are related to the ethics of revenge in particular, not to murder. Furthermore, the murders are an important part of a typical revenge tragedy plot, so their inclusion emphasises the extreme oddity of Hamlet’s attitudes towards revenge in this otherwise conventional revenge tragedy.
In order to highlight this further, Shakespeare has included two examples of more typical revenge heroes. Fortinbras, previously described as being ‘of unimproved mettle, hot and full’ (1. 1. 95) is said by Hamlet to have ‘spirit with divine ambition puffed’ (4. 4. 62). The language used in these descriptions is strident and powerful, reflecting the perceived character of Fortinbras as hot-headed and impulsive – much like descriptions of traditional revenge tragedy heroes, and very unlike Hamlet.
Laertes too is portrayed as reminiscent of this. In direct contrast to Hamlet he forsakes his religion in pursuit of revenge, banishing ‘conscience and grace to the profoundest pit’ (4. 5. 151) and declaring, ‘I dare damnation’ (4. 5. 152). Although much religious language is used, it is only in relation to a new disregard for its teachings; Hamlet is shown to continually refer to his religion even whilst contemplating revenge.
Laertes even goes so far as to say he would ‘cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’ church’ (4. 7.124): this directly relates to Shakespeare’s presentation of Hamlet – who shrank from doing just that – as a character mindful of religious teaching and consequence. Shakespeare provides a stereotypical view of the revenge tragedy hero as one who will ‘greatly find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake’ (4. 4. 54). This is a description that matches perfectly both Laertes and Fortinbras, and undoubtedly both of these characters have been inserted into Hamlet as a means of accentuating the unusual behaviour of the protagonist.
The repetition of the word ‘greatly’ in Hamlet’s soliloquy of Act 4 Scene 4 implies that there is an admiration for men such as these, who follow their bloodlust: less so for those such as Hamlet, who delay through ethical dilemmas. This could perhaps explain Hamlet’s earlier references to himself as a coward – perhaps in Elizabethan England, despite religion; it was seen as more acceptable and manlier to pursue revenge. Throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare portrays this continual conflict of modern and traditional values, and in doing so exposes the weaknesses of both.
Those characters portrayed as Classical revenge heroes show strength of character but a distinct lack of morality and concern for others, and are so single-minded as to appear insane. Conversely, Hamlet is depicted as being so consumed by religion and philosophy that he becomes indecisive, and thereby prevents himself from acting. Hamlet is not a simple revenge tragedy, but a play in which Shakespeare uses a popular genre in order to set up a debate on the ethics and morality of the much explored theme of revenge. When Shakespeare wrote the famous line ‘To be, or not to be’ (3.1. 55), he was not only having his character debate the futility of life, but also capturing the essence of Hamlet; so full of quandaries and choices surrounding its central theme of revenge. [2007 words].
Bibliography Bradley, A. C. – Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) Cantor, Paul – Hamlet: A Student Guide (1989) Goethe, J. W. von – Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship Vol. XIV (1865) Websites Bacon, Francis – Essay IV: Of Revenge – provided by .
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