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Hamlet – The ‘Revenge’ Play

In Elizabethan tragedies, there are several elements to each play: “a hero who must
avenge an evil deed, often encouraged by the apparition of a close friend or relative”;
“scenes of death and mutilation”; “insanity or feigned insanity”; “sub-plays”; and “the
violent death of the hero.” Hamlet fulfils these criteria and as a ‘revenge play’,
effectively shows the conflicts within and between characters throughout the play.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a ‘revenge play’ – that leads to tragedy; Hamlet is avenging


his father’s death and it ends in a ‘bloodbath’. Having been informed by his father’s
ghost in Act 1 that he was murdered by Claudius, he is faced with the prospect of
killing Claudius. For the rest of the play up until Act 5, Hamlet is in internal turmoil as
he becomes frustrated with his own delay in assassinating Claudius. Kenneth Muir
posits that Hamlet “has to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling; he has to
make a moral decision, in a complex situation where he cannot rely on cut-and-dried
moral principles, or on the conventional code of the society in which he lives; and on
his choice depend the fate of the people he loves and the fate of the kingdom to
which he is the rightful heir.” (Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern, 1958) Hamlet is
conflicted throughout the play; the concept of revenge causes him to become
mentally unstable. From scene to scene, Hamlet, sure of something, then becomes
unsure; Ambiguity becomes a key element associated with the play’s course.

It is not Hamlet alone who is seeking revenge. Fortinbras of Norway considers


avenging his father’s death (he was killed by King Hamlet) by invading Denmark in
order to recover the lands which King Hamlet seized. However, ironically, Fortinbras
does not take revenge on Denmark as he considers it the only place he can live. He
could have taken revenge during the play, but for his own reasons, chooses to
abstain from enacting revenge. Laertes attempts to achieve revenge against Hamlet
because Hamlet killed Laertes’ father, Polonius. It is the blind rage of both Hamlet
and Laertes that leads to their deaths. They both conceive plots to kill the other, but
do not consider the potential problems that could occur; Laertes ignores the chance
that his poisoned tipped sword could be used against him, and Hamlet does not think
about the problems associated with poison. The play ends in a mass murder, and
the revenge seems to have gained little, and cause many innocent lives to be lost.
Therefore Hamlet, Fortinbras and Polonius are all seeking revenge, and provide a
contrast between each other as each enacts their own individual version of revenge
throughout the play, two spurred on by emotion which leads to their deaths, the
other, Fortinbras, more rational, has a much more appropriate plan in mind which
leaves him alive.