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Analyzing Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

By khoare06 Apr 11, 2013 2710 Words
William Shakespeare’s most notable work, Hamlet, has left play viewers and readers speculating over every aspect of the play for hundreds of years. Since the play came into existence in the early seventeenth century it has left millions of Shakespearian critics, authors, readers, and play viewers perplexed as Shakespeare fails to answer a number of questions. Some of these questions include: Is Hamlets father in the form of a ghost really trustworthy? Why does Hamlet procrastinate from getting revenge throughout the play? Is Hamlet insane, or do his melancholy ways manipulate the play viewer into thinking he’s mad? Is his mother remorseful? Does Hamlet really love Ophelia? What is Hamlet trying to say before he dies? These questions, along with many others, will remain the subject of debate for many years to come (Greenblatt 103). Despite the uncertainties that these questions arise, there is one component to this play that many critics, authors, readers, and play viewers can agreed upon. That is, just as this paper intends to address, that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. In order to analyze Hamlet as a revenge tragedy we must first understand what defines a revenge tragedy. According to M.H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms a revenge tragedies subject “is a murder and the quest for vengeance, and it includes a ghost, insanity, suicide, a play-within-a-play, sensational incidents, and a gruesomely bloody ending” (323). Abrams then goes on to state that according to this template, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the greatest revenge tragedies of all time (Abrams 323). With this template, analyzing Hamlet as a revenge tragedy becomes straight forward as I intend to provide specific examples throughout the play that pertain to each of the components that make up a revenge tragedy as defined by Abrams. With this, my goal is to support the claim that despite unanswered questions and speculation, one thing that can be universally agreed upon among Shakespearian critics is that Hamlet is indeed a revenge tragedy. I’ll begin supporting this claim by addressing the fact that Hamlet’s plot is centered around a murder and the quest for vengeance, as described in Abrams definition. We first learn about the plays murder and quest for vengeance when Hamlet’s father appears to him in the form of a ghost, explaining that he has been murdered by his brother Claudius (Hamlets uncle), and that it’s Hamlets duty to revenge his death. The spirit elaborates on the murder, telling Hamlet: 
 “Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by forged process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth, 
The serpent that did sting thy fathers life
Now wears his crown.” (1.5 35-40)

It is at this moment that Hamlet is enlightened about the truth of what’s really happened to his father. He realizes that all of Denmark is under the impression that his father was bitten by a poisonous snake while sleeping in the orchard, when that is not the case. The truth is that the real snake who has poisoned King Hamlet now sits on the throne of Denmark (King Hamlets brother, Claudius). Following the quote Hamlet cries “O my prophetic soul! Mine uncle?” (1.5 41) Only to be reassured by the ghost of his father that it was in fact Hamlets uncle and the new King of Denmark, Claudius, who has murdered his father. With this information Hamlet understands that he must seek vengeance as the spirit of his father has told him it is his duty to “revenge his foul and must unnatural murder” (1.5 25). Thus, it is clear that the play contains a murder and the quest for vengeance as Hamlet sets out to revenge the murder of his father. The next component that makes up a revenge tragedy according to Abrams is the inclusion of a ghost. Having already touched on the ghost which claims to be King Hamlet, I’d like to touch on other compelling factors about the ghosts character. According to Eleanor Prosser’s book Hamlet and Revenge, the ghost in this revenge tragedy represents a Christian spirit. Evidence throughout the play suggests that the ghost is stuck in some sort of purgatory limbo during the days, while only being allowed to come out at night (Prosser 99-100). This theory is widely accepted by critics, as the ghost provides support to the claim that it is a figure of Christianity as the ghost tells Hamlet:

“I am thy fathers spirit, 
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
And burnt and purged away.” (1.5 9-13)

Although the ghost does not use the term purgatory when describing its circumstances, it is pinpoints the same attributes. For example, The ghost describes being confined to fire during the day, only being allowed to walk the earth at night, being doomed, and having to wait until his sins have been forgiven. All attributes of purgatory. Prosser also points out that the ghost flees when Horatio commands that “by heaven” the ghost must speak to him. This term “by heaven” scares off the spirit as it’s forced to flee from Horatio who used the word heaven. These characteristics that the ghost possesses not only proves that there is a ghost throughout this revenge tragedy, but that it’s a controversial and important character. The next component that makes up a revenge tragedy according to Abrams is the inclusion of insanity. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains the component of insanity, as Hamlet himself plots to act as a madman. Some critics even argue that Hamlets act as a madman might very well be true insanity as the play progresses. To elaborate, Hamlet admits to his friends after meeting the ghost of his father that he intends to put on an act of “antic disposition” (1.5 58). This act of antic disposition has been argued over the years to have lead to true insanity, as Hamlet displays signs of madness and melancholy not only after his claim to “act” mad, but beforehand as well. Upon his return from university and arrival in Denmark, Hamlet steps aside in the play to deliver an important soliloquy in which he admits his unhappiness and disgust with the situation of losing his father, his mother marrying his uncle shortly after, and his mother and uncles desire to keep him in Denmark rather than allowing him to return to university. It is part of this soliloquy that critics use to argue that Hamlet was indeed insane, or at the very least emotionally unstable from the beginning of the play as he quotes: 

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2 129-34)

It is here that we’re exposed to Hamlets first thoughts of suicide. These thoughts make it easy to describe Hamlet as mad as he wishes that his flesh would melt into the earth, or that it wasn't a sin to take his own life according to the Bible. He also seems to think that there is nothing of worth in the world, and obviously feels that life too is meaningless, which further influences play viewers and readers into thinking he’s insane. Furthermore, the play provides a scene where Hamlets mother Gertrude cries that Hamlet has gone mad, as he lashes out at her while speaking to the ghost of his father which Gertrude cannot see. This causes Gertrude to think that Hamlets insanity has gotten so out of hand that he is beginning to hallucinate the ghost of her late husband. This scene, along with the previous examples of insanity mentioned, provide further support the claim that Shakespeare's play Hamlet is a revenge tragedy according to M.H. Abrams definition. The next component that makes up a revenge tragedy according to Abrams is the inclusion of suicide. As previously mentioned, Hamlet flirts with the thought of suicide in his early soliloquy as he curses God for making it a sin to take ones own life. It is in the same soliloquy that Hamlet wishes his body would rot into the earth and “resolve itself into a dew” (1.2 130). Although this scene already supports the idea that Hamlet contains the component of suicide, there is a highly recognized and more important scene regarding suicide that I’d like to talk about. That is, the famous quote “to be, or not to be?” This soliloquy of thirty-two lines or two hundred and sixty-two words, is one of the most famous speeches in the English language. Its suicidal nature and questioning of life has been the subject of debate among many experts. I’d like to elaborate on the soliloquies meaning with the help of one expert known as Samuel Johnson as I elaborate on his arguments from his essay titled “To Be or Not To Be” found in Joseph G. Price’s book Hamlet: Critical Essays. According to Johnson, the “to be or not to be” question means to live, or not to live? However, it’s not the simple “to be, or not to be” line that is of our only interest. What’s more compelling is what Hamlet says as he continues his speech. He asks why would one want to live in a world so cruel? A world where the powerful abuse the weak, where arrogant men insult each other, where love is not returned, where law is not just, where rudeness and mistreatment is evident, and where men suffer everyday throughout their long, meaningless lives. He asks, why not end it all? Why not kill yourself and simply sleep and dream, where none of the worlds humiliation can harm you? His answer: “ay, there’s a rub” meaning, because there is a catch. The catch is that men do not know what truly happens to them when they die. They do not know what dreams might haunt them, or what evils might posses their lives after death. He says that this fear of death makes us all cowards who refrain from ending our exhausting, dreadful lives over something we do not understand (Price 285). With this, it’s clear that suicide is a component which makes this play a revenge tragedy, as the morbid theme is prevalent throughout the play. The next component according to Abrams is the inclusion of a play-within-a-play. Again, like the components before this, Hamlet contains this theme as well, which aids in our understanding of Hamlet as a revenge tragedy. To elaborate, in order to be certain that Claudius did in fact kill his father (as we’ve learned from the ghost in act one) Hamlet has a group of traveling actors reenact the murder of his father in the play The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet renames The Mouse Trap, as the play underwent some minor changes in order to ensure it was as accurate as the murder Hamlets father had described to him as a ghost. This play, The Murder of Gonzago or The Mouse Trap, is the play within the play of Hamlet. To elaborate more on the significance od the play within the play, Hamlets states:

“I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks, 
I’ll tent him to the quick. If a but blench, 
I know my course ...
The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (2.2 571-83)

Just as Hamlet had thought, Claudius’ emotions got the best of him causing him to get up and leave in the middle of the play, as he became overwhelmed by his conscience. Claudius tried to cover up his guilt by claiming that he was in need of light, but surely enough Hamlet and Horatio were able to look past his excuses and agree that this fleeing of the theater was enough to find Claudius guilty. Thus, proving that he did indeed kill King Hamlet. This reaction to the play within a play once again strengthens my analysis of Hamlet as a revenge tragedy, as the play contains yet another theme found in Abrams definition of a revenge tragedy. The next component that makes up a revenge tragedy according to Abrams is the inclusion of sensational incidents. When addressing Hamlet and the theme of sensational incidents, it’s hard to decide where to start as Shakespeare includes a number of rather far fetched moments throughout the play. However, I will use the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a primary example. The sensational event starts when Hamlet is shipped to England after killing Polonius, where Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern along with Hamlet, to carry a letter that instructs the King of England to put Hamlet to death upon his arrival. What’s sensational is that Hamlet miraculously manages to steal the letter from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, rewrite it to say that the two of them be put to death upon their arrival instead of him, while resealing the envelope with the official stamp from the ring of the King of Denmark (having had one on his finger after receiving his fathers). Furthermore, after doing so, Hamlet manages to free himself from the captivity of pirates after they commender his ship to England, only to release him back in Denmark under the agreement that they would receive a future reward. This series of sensational incidents again provides evidence that Hamlet falls into the category of a revenge tragedy. The final component that makes up a revenge tragedy according to Abrams is the inclusion of a gruesomely bloody ending, and there is no doubt that Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides us with one. To elaborate, the play ends with a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, while Laertes sword and a glass of wine are tipped with poison. Both are intended to kill Hamlet. However, after being offered the glass of wine from Claudius for scoring two of points on Laertes, Hamlet declines the offer. Claudius then sets the glass down, only to be picked up and drank by Gertrude. Following this, Laertes finally gets a hit on Hamlet, poisoning him with the sword. Out of frustration, both Hamlet and Laertes begin to scuffle, only to switch swords in which Hamlet cuts and poisons Laertes. Gertrude then collapses and cries out that she has been poisoned, then dies. This causes Laertes to admit that both the sword and glass of wine have been poisoned, and that they too were going to die, all while blaming Claudius for the scheme. Outraged, Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and makes him drink out of the glass of wine, while calling him an “incestuous, murderous, damed Dane” (5.2 267). Claudius then dies. Then Laertes. Then Hamlet. Meaning the play most definitely ends with a gruesomely bloody ending. With this, we’ve finally arrived to the conclusion that Shakespeare's play Hamlet includes all of the criteria to be considered a revenge tragedy as defined by M.H. Abrams. As we’ve discovered, its plot revolves around a murder and the quest for vengeance, all while including a ghost, insanity, suicide, a play-within-a-play, sensational incidents, and a gruesomely bloody ending. This means that despite a number of open ended questions and speculation among critics of Hamlet, one can rest assured that there is something we can all agree on. That is, once again, that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is without a doubt, a revenge tragedy. 


Works Cited
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Boston: Thompson Learning, Inc., 1999. Print.
Price, Joseph G. Hamlet: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986. Print.
Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Vol. 2. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenbalatt. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. Print.

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