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Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy and Revenge Play

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

Hamlet as a Revenge Tragedy

Definition of Revenge Tragedy

A revenge tragedy is a kind of tragedy wherein the main theme is revenge. In English literature, the revenge tragedy was derived from the tragedies of the Roman dramatist, Seneca. It was Thomas Kyd, who established the revenge tragedy by writing The Spanish Tragedy, while William Shakespeare perfected it in his miraculous hands. Hamlet is also a revenge tragedy as it possesses the features of a typical revenge tragedy. Let’s find out as to whether Hamlet fits into a revenge tragedy or not:

Crime in a Revenge Tragedy

Firstly, a typical revenge tragedy deals with a crime. In all revenge tragedies, a crime is committed by the antagonist of the play, but the judiciary system of the country cannot penalize the antagonist due to high stature of the antagonist. That’s why; the protagonist has to punish the antagonist, usually at the cost of his own life. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. In Hamlet, we find that Claudius commits a crime by murdering King Hamlet and marrying the Queen. Hamlet resolves to take revenge upon the murder of his father. In the final scene, Hamlet punishes Claudius by killing him, but at the very cost of his own life.

Ghost in a Revenge Tragedy

Secondly, in all revenge tragedies, a ghost plays an important role in revelation of the murderer. It is the ghost, who informs the protagonist about the murderer of the relative of the protagonist. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy.

In Hamlet, the ghost appears before the Prince Hamlet and informs him about the murderer of his father. The ghost says:

…………………But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

(Act 1, Scene V)

The ghost also orders him to take revenge upon the death of his father.

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But howsoever thou pursuest this act…

(Act 1, Scene V)

The ghost appears again and again before Hamlet and motivates him to take revenge.

Doubts & Hesitation in a Revenge Tragedy

Thirdly, the main character in a revenge tragedy has some doubts about the revelation of the ghost. He is not certain about the murderer, identified by the ghost. That’s why; he hesitates to take his revenge. The protagonist wants to prove the veracity of the words of the ghost through various techniques. Once, he is sure about the murderer, he takes vengeance upon the murderer of his relative. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. In Hamlet, we observe that the main character, Hamlet, hesitates to take action against the king. In the beginning of the play, he is not sure about the story of the ghost. He says:

The spirit that I have seen,
May be the devil; and the devil hath power,
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.

(Act II, Scene II)

He proves the words of the ghost to be true by enacting a mock play. Once, he is sure that King Claudius is the murderer of his father; he proceeds to take revenge upon him. Later in the play, we see that Hamlet kills Claudius, but at the cost of his own life.

Madness in a Revenge Tragedy

Fourthly, the main character in a revenge tragedy suffers from madness or pretends madness so that to know about the real murderer or the crime committed by the antagonist. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. Prince Hamlet does not believe the words of the ghost blindly. He wants to convince himself as to whether the revelation made by the ghost is authentic. To do so, he pretends madness. He says:

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange, or odd, so e’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet,
To put an antic disposition on……..

(Act I, Scene V)

A Play within a Play in a Revenge Tragedy

Fifthly, a play within a play is another feature of a revenge tragedy. Most of the revenge tragedies consist of a play within a play. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy as it contains a play within a play. When Hamlet is ordered by the ghost to take revenge upon the death of his father, he suspects the story of the ghost. He wants to prove it. For this purpose, he enacts a play, called The Murder of Gonzago or The Mousetrap. Hamlet is of the view that if Claudius feels disturbed by the story of the play, it will reveal his guilt. He says:

Scroll to Continue

The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

(Act II, Scene II)

This play proves that the story of the ghost is true. Thereafter, Hamlet changes his mind and tries to murder Claudius.

Soliloquies in a Revenge Tragedy

Sixthly, a typical revenge tragedy contains one or more soliloquies, which reveal the thoughts of the character. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. There are many soliloquies in Hamlet. The most popular amongst the soliloquies is the one in which Hamlet reveals his views about life and death. He is on the horns of dilemma and doesn’t know what to do. To commit suicide or to live is an enigma to him. He says:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

(Act III, Scene I)

Machiavellian Villain in a Revenge Tragedy

Lastly, a revenge tragedy features a Machiavellian villain. A Machiavellian villain is a ruler who employs all sorts of means to retain his power. In this sense, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. In Hamlet, Claudius is a Machiavellian villain. He employs every means to establish himself as the king of Denmark. He kills the father of Hamlet and marries her mother to declare himself as the king of Denmark. Similarly, he sends Hamlet abroad to get rid of him. He also orders Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to kill Hamlet, but they fail in their efforts. King Claudius is a Machiavellian villain in every respect.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Muhammad Rafiq


Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on February 26, 2020:

Thanks for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed it. It is also one of my favourite plays and I enjoy it a lot. I agree with you that is a complex tragedy due to the physiological aspects of Hamlet. The soliloquies of Hamlet give us insight into the psyche of Hamlet. I watch the that production.

Glen Rix from UK on February 26, 2020:

I enjoyed reading you analysis of the structure of revenge tragedy. Hamlet is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, due to the complexity of the psychological aspect of the characterisation of the protagonist. I have watched many productions and particularly like the RSC production in which David Tennant plays the lead role. It’s available on dvd.

Safaa on March 18, 2019:


Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on May 29, 2017:

Thanks for your comments and appreciation.

Sharmistha Das on May 29, 2017:

Truly appreciateable,content is really commendable.

Sadam hussain on December 31, 2016:


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