Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

William Shakespeare is one the greatest playwrights of the Elizabethan period. His most famous tragedy “Hamlet” belongs to the genre of Revenge Tragedy. The term ‘Revenge Tragedy’ takes us to Seneca who created dreadful and tragic incidents, gory actions, and yelling speeches.

The Revenge Tragedy is basically based on killing and crime with different causes. The task of revenge is placed on the succeeding kin. There is so much gross, terror, and bloodshed when the killing is retaliated, and the revenger and all others who are involved in the crime die together in one bloody and violent ending. Based on these points, “Hamlet”, without any doubt, follows the tradition of revenge tragedy.

Hamlet, at the start of the play, is in great despair because of his father’s death. Hamlet’s father was murdered by his evil brother Claudius. More than that Hamlet is also deeply saddened when he learns that his mother has married his father’s murderer i.e. Claudius. So in this way the basic plot is established for this tragedy.

The supernatural elements:

The supernatural element is a major characteristic of revenge tragedy. In most of the revenge tragedies, the dead’s ghost discloses the crime or offense carried out and the identification of the murderer and passed the responsibility of venging the murder. In the same way, Hamlet is commanded by the ghost of his father with the responsibility of revenging the murder.

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When the ghost discovers Hamlet idle it turns up again to invigorate his action and urge him to an act of prompt revenge. On the contrary, Hamlet realized the time ‘out of joint’ and decided to fix it. At last, Hamlet accomplishes the revenge for the murder of his father at the cost of his own life. Thereby, revenge is the main concern of the play “Hamlet” and the supernatural element is extensively utilized. 

Madness in Revenge Tragedies:

In a typical revenge tragedy, the avenger disguises to be insane but in reality he is not mad. The avenger does all this so that he can discover the truth. Hamlet also does the same. Hamlet stages a drama with his friends to find out the truth about his father’s murder. When Hamlet is absolutely sure that it is Claudius who murdered his father, then he spends his entire energy trying to kill him.

If we talk about the state of mind of Hamlet, it was anywhere between sanity and insanity. Hamlet definitely shows a high level of frenzy and mental illness for most part of the play but his insanity most probably too resolved and determined for us to come to an end that he is mad. His speeches are inconsistent and rough, but underneath his erratic expressions frequently lie serious observations that reveal the sensible mind functioning underneath the surface. In all probability, Hamlet’s decision to pretend insanity is a sensible one, taken to bemuse his opponents and conceal his intentions. 

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Furthermore, Hamlet finds himself in a distinctive and disturbing situation, one which casts doubt on the basic morals and ethics of his life. He can no more trust society and believe in religion. And, last but not least, Hamlet cannot go in for philosophy, which cannot define ghosts or serve his moral questions. 

All these conflicts are going on in Hamlet’s mind and besides these, he is also saddened by the death of his father, his mother’s incestuous marriage, and the duty passed on him by the ghosts of his father, Hamlet is clearly upset and shattered. He most probably is not insane but he is slowly heading towards madness which we can see during many of the exceedingly extreme and heated moments in the play like his encounter with Ophelia in Act 3 Scene 1 and his long conversation with his mother in Act 3, Scene 4. 

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The theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

The motif of revenge is outstretched beyond the protagonist. Apart from Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes are also interested in taking revenge. Fortinbras wishes to take revenge on Denmark for the troubles endured by Laertes’ father in a fight with Hamlet’s father.  Laertes also wants to take revenge against Hamlet, because Hamlet kills Laertes’ father. Thus, the motif of revenge runs throughout the play.

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Melodramatic Elements in Revenge tragedies:

Besides the aforementioned elements, we can also see melodramatic elements in Revenge tragedy. In “Hamlet”, there are aggressive and violent scenes that are portrayed keeping in mind the Revenge Tragedy convention. For example, there is Hamlet’s madness, and also Ophelia’s madness and her suicide, Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, eavesdropping scene, Claudius planning of sending Hamlet back to England with instruction to kill him on England soil, an aggravated Laertes and Hamlet fighting in the graveyard, and finally the many deaths that transpire in the closing scene of the play. 

Shakespeare and the tradition of Revenge tragedies:

Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” almost consists of all the characteristics of a Senecan revenge play, but Shakespeare has treated the revenge theme so uniquely which makes the play “Hamlet” beyond a mere Revenge Tragedy. Although “Hamlet” is a tragedy of “bloodshed and terror”, the dealing of the theme is not so gross and coarse as that of the traditional Revenge Tragedy. These characteristics have been purified to upraise “Hamlet” beyond mere melodrama. The supernatural element in Hamlet is not ‘gross’ but functions as a tool of justice to penalize the wrong-doer. Also, Shakespeare’s dealing with the motive of duty – a son’s responsibility of taking revenge against his father’s murder – is more complicated than others. In other revenge tragedies, in taking revenge against the murder, the tangible things perform as obstacles. But in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” the protagonist’s own moral sense and his ethics are the obstacles. In addition to all these, the language of the play also minimizes the tone of brutality and transforms Hamlet into a superior work of art. 


If we categorize “Hamlet” a mere “Revenge Tragedy” then it would be an injustice to the work, it would disregard its aesthetic supremacy over other plays of this category. The language of the play invokes a distinct world in keeping with great tragedy, the all-inclusive issues it takes up and aims to solve, the complicated nature of its protagonist – all these elements raise “Hamlet” beyond what is traditionally termed “Revenge Tragedy”. 

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