Why Hamlet Is Not a Conventional Revenge Tragedy
Hamlet is one of the greatest dramas in world literature. It is an immortal tragedy. This play belongs to a class known of drama known as a revenge tragedy. A revenge tragedy is a form of a play whose action pivots on the desire of a hero or villain to avenge a wrong. In other words, revenge motive is the mainspring of this sort of play. This type of play was established by the Roman dramatist, Seneca the most famous play on this tradition is Thomas Kyd’s the “Spanish Tragedy” on which a father, Hieronimo, avenges the murder of his dear son Horatio. In Hamlet, Hamlet avenges the murder of his father, the late king of Denmark.
The chief features of a revenge tragedy are: it deals with crime; usually, murder with varying motives and the ghost of the murdered person appears on the stage and enjoys the revenge. The duty of vengeance is laid on the next of kin or near relative. Revenge is conceived of as a sacred duty and not a kind of wild justice. The murder engages disastrous consequence to the person who is charged with the duty of avenging the murder and that person encounters many impediments to vengeance. There are much bloodshed and physical horrors when the murder is avenged, the avenger and all others closely concerned perish together in one gory ruin.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has used all these dramatic traditions of a revenge tragedy but his artistic handling of the theme has lifted this play much higher than any play treating this theme.
An important feature of the revenge tragedy is the ghost of the dead which reveals the misdeed and the identity of the culprit and lays the duty of avenging the murder. The ghost urges the avenger to action and the avenger encounters many impediments in achieving this goal. However, finally, he avenges the murder with much difficulty even at the cost of his life. Undoubtedly, Hamlet has an affiliation with all these of the ghost of the dead king, his father. To take revenge upon Claudius who has ascended to the throne by foul, Hamlet takes the ghosts saying as authentic. He is determined and ultimately the revenge is taken at the costs of his own life as well as the lives of all others. The revenge becomes the central theme of Hamlet.
Apart from the supernatural elements, we have violent, bloody and terrifying scenes which are the staples of revenge tragedy. Polonius is killed before our eyes by Hamlet. Besides, there are scenes: Ophelia going mad, getting drowned, enraged and demanding justice, Laertes and Hamlet leaping into the grave of Ophelia and grappling with each other. Finally, there are murders which bring the play to a close the queen is first to die, having drunk poisoned wine, then the king died being wounded by Hamlet and being compelled to drink the poisoned wine, the last to die is the hero himself. He is mortally wounded by the same poisoned sword with which he afterward wounds Laertes. These several deaths present horror on the stage.
Now it is clear that Shakespeare’s Hamlet has all the elements of a Senecan tragedy. However, his treatment of the revenge makes Hamlet much more than a mere revenge tragedy. Though it is a tragedy of “blood and horror”, the treatment of the theme is not as crude and gross as that of the conventional Revenge tragedy. The elements have been refined to raise Hamlet far above cheap melodrama in the first place. Shakespeare chose a theme dealing with a duty higher than the others namely a son’s revenge for the murder of his father. A critic remarks on Hamlet that it is not to be regarded as a tragedy of revenge but as a tragedy of the human soul. The remark is true because Shakespeare has portrayed Hamlet as a man of irresolution in spite of his extraordinary intellectual genius and personality. Whenever he is called to act upon the ghost’s injunction, he rethinks due to the conflict which is going on in his mind. It is Shakespeare’s skill in the presentation of the character of Hamlet that distinguishes the play from the conventional Revenge Tragedy.