Revenge And Its Consequences In Hamlet

Sydney Bolt (1985): “Hamlet challenges traditional revenge tragedies, by deviating.”

The first performance of “Hamlet” in 1604 was attended by a typical Elizabethan theatregoer who had certain expectations. The conventions governing Elizabethan revenge plays were well-established. Originally based on Senacan’s revenge play, which combined bloody treachery with moralising messages, Thomas Kyd developed his ‘Kydian Formula. In the play, the victim’s ghost returns from Purgatory and commands his son to avenge him. In order to prove the guilt of his murderer, the son’s revenge pretends he is mad and performs a dumb show before the court. The play’s melodrama ends with death for almost all the characters. That includes the murderer. Shakespeare makes sure that in “Hamlet,” he follows all the key Kyd elements. Sydney Bolt’s claim that Shakespeare departs from the conventions for revenge tragedies is therefore highly contestable. Shakespeare, in fact, transcends the conventions of revenge tragedies, creating something more powerful. In fact, Shakespeare transcends these conventions and creates something far more powerful than a traditional revenge tragedy.

Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s solos to express his depression and instability. Hamlet is characterized by his indecision and self-doubt. He uses the metaphor of a “weeded yard” to symbolize Hamlet’s existence. The garden is full with worthless things which are choking Hamlet. Hamlet’s indecision is a result of his torturous self-doubt.

If it is nobler to suffer

The wild slings & arrows that fortune throws at you

Or take arms to fight a sea trouble,

What if you oppose them?

Hamlet seems to be expressing his philosophy about suicide in these lines, which are almost like rhetorical exercises. Hamlet uses the third person, but the use of infinitives, such as ‘to be’, “To die”, and “to sleep”, abstracts Hamlet’s speech. Hamlet’s apparent suicide is masked by the abstracted impression created by the infinitives ‘to be’, to die, to sleep.

Hamlet seems to have a life of little consistency. His father is dead, his mother marries the murderer shortly after the funeral. Ophelia’s father tells her to ‘deny him access’. This is why his misogyny grows stronger: “Frailty – thy name’s woman!” (I.ii). Shakespeare’s focus is on the protagonist, not revenge. As in Act 3 Scene 1, tension is evident between Hamlet and Ophelia from the start. Hamlet talks about losing faith in women. Ophelia addresses him with ‘Good My Lord’. Hamlet’s savage speech, in which he abandons poetry for prose, conveys his belief that all women, (notably, Hamlet addresses them as ‘youselves’), are treacherous liars who jig and mumble, lisp and nickname God’s creature, making their lust their ignorance. Hamlet further expands his hatred for woman when he confronts Gertrude over her sins.

You can only film and skin the ulcerous site.

While corruption is rife, it’s a mine within.

Infections that are not visible.

Hamlet uses violent imagery to describe what he believes is incest. This not only angers his mother, but by implication condemns women in general. Shakespeare has therefore added a psychological dimension to the play.

Hamlet speaks to Horatio in Act 1 Scene VI and mocks both Claudius and the Danish people for their “custom” of having grand suppers. Hamlet is not a fan of the Danes, as he feels that their celebrations are a disgrace to the nation and can ruin its reputation. Hamlet compares his idea with a natural man. He says that, if the man was born in nature, it would be a flaw which will eventually lead to his downfall. In retrospect, Hamlet describes himself as he talks about the man. Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy gives Hamlet one fatal flaw. Ironically, this flaw is his inability, as instructed by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to carry out the request. This would have surprised the Elizabethan audiences, who were expecting the revenge-seeking hero to act. Hamlet’s decision to refrain from killing Claudius is a result of his academic knowledge. Hamlet is a student who has a fatal flaw. He considers that if he kills Claudius, ‘that’s scanned’. Hamlet is probably influenced by the belief that Claudius, if killed while praying, would go directly to heaven instead of purgatory. Hamlet was not the typical revenger expected by his Elizabethan listeners. If he were, Hamlet wouldn’t take the time to think about the consequences and would have immediately killed Claudius.

Hamlet is less of a revenge hero than he would have been if he had not realized his fatal flaw. In his Act III Scene 1 soliloquy, he resolves to fix it.

‘Conscience makes us cowards’. He refers to himself as

“And all this for nothing!”) but he cannot even conjure that same emotion. He wonders:

What would you do?

Was he a man of passion?

You have what I’ve got? It would be a flood of tears.

Hamlet shows his guilt by focusing on himself through his language. His first lines are very emotional, but controlled. “Monstrous”, ‘passion” and ‘Tears” are all words that describe the character. Hamlet breaks up the structure of his speech as soon as he thinks about himself. Shakespeare, who maintains a regular heroic verse in Hamlet, punctuates it with colloquialisms, semi-colons and full stops (‘I ought to be fatted’), along with short questions and exclamations. Hamlet’s diatribe is filled with self-hatred, even though he violently curses Claudias.

Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of Hamlet’s inaction with the actions of two heroes who are seeking revenge makes Hamlet’s internal turmoil more intense. Hamlet, who is comparing himself negatively to Fortinbras, accuses him (quite accurately) of “thinking too exactly on the event”. Hamlet believes that ‘finding quarrel over a straw’ is a sign of greatness. He also realizes that his honour is more important than Fortinbras’. Fortinbras’s activity appears to be what spurs Hamlet into action. “My thoughts, be bloody! Or be worthless!” But the play does not show that Hamlet is planning to kill the king.

Laertes is the second foil Shakespeare uses to pit Hamlet against. Laertes’ rage is fueled by Claudius and his Machiavellian tactics after Hamlet murdered Polonius. Hamlet’s murder was the cause of Ophelia’s madness, which led to her death and Ophelia’s mental breakdown (the ‘desperate term’). Laertes is furious at Claudius initially when he finds out about the death of his dad. This anger prompts him, after he has heard this news, to return to Denmark and avenge his terrible insult. Shakespeare uses the powerful symbolism ‘The Ocean, Overpeering His List’ to show the rising tides of Laertes ‘rabbles’ covering the seashore. . Laertes is not calmed down, as he believes that this would negate his status as the son of his father. Claudius confides in Laertes about his desire to kill Hamlet by a ‘accident’, so that Gertrude would not suspect any wrongdoing. Laertes immediately offers himself to Claudius as Hamlet’s ‘organ’. Laertes is not passive in the plot, despite Claudius’ manipulation. He himself comes up with the idea of poisoning the sword that has already been ‘unbated.’ His desire for revenge is so strong, he will even kill his childhood friend. Hamlet is the unorthodox revenge hero who cannot kill the murderer of his father after he has married his mother. Laertes responds violently and unambiguously when Claudius asks him what he is willing to do in order to avenge father’s murder: “To cut the throat of that man I’the’ church”. Hamlet was unable to kill Claudius earlier in Act III, Scene iii.

Laertes’s aggressive response reveals him as a man who is not afraid to act, and therefore a medieval man. Hamlet is not a Renaissanceman, but Shakespeare has cast him as one. Shakespeare’s method of transcending revenge tragedies is to make Hamlet a contemporary character, not a Senecan revenger. Shakespeare introduces a character who is not your typical Roman Catholic. Instead, he represents a whole new breed of men. Hamlet studies at Witternberg university, in Germany. Witternberg is the home of Luther’s Reformation and Protestantism. Shakespeare infuses Hamlet with a humanist element, with a thirst for learning and an interest in the complex personality of men (‘What is man?’). Shakespeare, by creating an educated Renaissance Humanist Hamlet, sets Hamlet apart as a revenge hero from others such as Hieronimo of “The Spanish Tragedy” and Laertes.

Critics claim that Hamlet becomes the revenge hero he has always wanted to be in the play’s final scene, when he kills Claudius out of passion. In the end, the scene in which the stage is strewn with dead bodies conforms perfectly to the tradition of a conventional revenge drama. Elizabethan audiences were sure to be satisfied. Hamlet shows how emotional, moral, and psychological factors can affect the way we act. Hamlet seems to be skeptical about the possibility of acting in a deliberate, controlled manner. He acts, however, with a reckless, blind abandon, and not in an intentional way. Shakespeare says that other characters, who are less concerned about ineffective action, are more able than Hamlet to act because they don’t think about it so much. Hamlet’s indecisiveness and failure to act is central to the plot. However, the play is more about Hamlet’s internal quest for revenge.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its treatment of vengeance is unusual. Although revenge is the primary theme, it only plays a secondary role in the story. Hamlet’s unwillingness to avenge his father, combined with his indecision, instability and misogyny, is far more important. Shakespeare’s revenge drama is conventionally structured, but his hero does not feel trapped by it. Shakespeare uses theatrical conventions like soliloquies to build a connection between his hero, the audience and himself. He also lets the audience see what the hero is thinking and feeling. Shakespeare, by constructing a psychodramatic play within a revenge tragedy structure ensures the play’s essence is not revenge per se, but an emotional and psychological analysis of Hamlet. Shakespeare transcends revenge tragedy conventions, not deviating as Sydney Bolt claims.


  • stanleybyrne

    Stanley Byrne is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher. He has degrees in education and political science from the University of Notre Dame and has worked in various teaching and research positions since he graduated in 2014. He is the author of a number of educational blog posts and has written for Huffington Post, The Guardian, and Salon.