How to Read Hamlet as an Unconventional Revenge Tragedy

Revenge is one of the primitive impulses of man. In a civilized society, this primitive impulse of being even with the wrongdoer is mistrusted because revenge goes against the grain of the concept of law and order. But revenge motive always attracted the dramatists, right from the days of Aeschylus to those of Shakespeare. The Elizabethans had a strong predilection towards the violent and vengeful; they liked the display of passions, ranting speeches and bloody actions on the stage. Much of this popular dramatic taste was the creation of Seneca, the Roman dramatist who was frequently staged in the theatre houses of England. There is no question about the fact that, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written in the tradition of revenge tragedy. Shakespeare has used the revenge motive of killing the killer of a dead kinsman, just as we see in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, but Shakespeare as a dramatic genius transcended his own time. He used the popular elements of contemporary revenge tragedy, but his dramatic imagination lifted the play Hamlet much above the common level of a humdrum revenge play. Hamlet is a genuine tragedy that illumines our mind with high philosophical ideas about human life and fills us with genuine tragic-emotions of pity and terror. Hamlet is not a mere tragedy; it is a play that is easily ranked with the greatest tragedies of the world.

The Elizabethan revenge tragedy followed a set pattern:-

  • It dealt with crime, usually murder.
  • The duty of vengeance is laid on the next of kin. In The Spanish Tragedy, it is the father who takes revenge against the killer of his son. In Hamlet, it is the son who takes revenge for a dead father.
  • In many of the revenge plays, the supernatural plays an important part.
  • The avenger encounters many impediments to his task of revenge.
  • The hero delays in taking revenge because of the impediments and as a result things go against him. Although he succeeds finally to take revenge it entails his own death also as well as the death of many innocent people around him. The end of a revenge play is extremely bloody.
  • A number of crude elements are introduced in a revenge play in order to create the melodramatic effect, along with murders and blood-shed, violently rhetorical language is also introduced.

Judging by the above characteristics Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge play par excellence.

Hamlet is constructed on a story at the center of which is the duty of avenging a father’s death by a son. The ghost of Hamlet’s father enjoins upon him the task of killing Claudius; the plot of the play is concerned with Hamlet’s continuous failure to complete the duty of revenge.

Besides this central theme of revenge concerning Hamlet and his father, there are other revenge themes as well. There is Fortinbras who wants to take revenge on Denmark for the loss sustained by his father. Laertes also seeks to revenge his father’s death and the insanity of Ophelia against Hamlet. In fact, these different revenge motives are intertwined in the play. Hamlet’s motive of revenge against Claudius and Laertes revenge motive against Hamlet comes face to face and gives rise to the climactic duel scene in which Hamlet dies. In this regard, Hamlet can be considered as a successful revenge play.



Hamlet is a typical revenge tragedy in the use of the supernatural. The supernatural visit of Hamlet’s father is central to the design of the play. Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural is not crude as we find in other conventional revenge tragedies.

Shakespeare has made the ghost as human and as plausible as possible. Moreover, Shakespeare has made the supernatural elements a corollary of the main theme. Hamlet’s tragedy occurs not because he has seen the ghost rather because of his internal psychological problem.

In fact, Hamlet is much superior to a tragedy of revenge. Hamlet is not a common avenger; he is a prototype of the individual man facing existential problems of life. His problems engage us in such a manner that we forget about his task of revenge altogether and start considering him as an enigmatic person.

Hamlet meditates upon each of his action. This introspective nature renders him incapable of taking revenge at the appointed time. Therefore our interest in the play is not so much on revenge but on Hamlet’s fate. Shakespeare shows rare psychological insight into the complex mind of the hero which is unparalleled in literature.

To learn more about Hamlet, take a course for free: “An Introduction to Hamlet by Shakespeare.” 

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