Analyze Shakespeare's Hamlet with regard to the "Revenge Tragedy" genre, popular with other dramatists of the time.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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It is interesting to note, but perhaps not surprising, that at the same time Shakespeare was writing his dramas in Elizabethan England, several of his contemporaries were doing the same: Christopher Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta (a revenge tragedy, performed as early as 1590—or so it is believed), Sir Thomas Kyd was writing his Spanish Tragedy and the French writer Belleforest wrote Histoires Tragiques, 1576—all revenge tragedies. While the modern world looks at Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's finest works, it is ironic to note that Shakespeare himself was more than a little ambivalent about the play, and used Hamlet to make a "statement"—because Shakespeare, according to Réné Girard, greatly disliked the "Revenge Tragedy" genre.

In general, this genre included the following characteristics:

...revenge of a father by a son or vice versa, an act which is initiated by the murdered man's ghost. Other devices found in Revenge Tragedies include hesitation by the hero, real or feigned madness, suicide, intrigue, and murders on stage.

Anyone familiar with Hamlet will agree that all of these devices are present. Hamlet has been directed [it seems] by the ghost of his father (Old Hamlet) to avenge his death at the hands of Hamlet's uncle, Claudius. Hamlet hesitates until the very end to kill his uncle, but only after Claudius has plotted with Laertes to kill Hamlet, and accidentally poisons Gertrude (with wine meant for Hamlet). Hamlet has also adopted "feigned madness," though at times he is so distraught that he may not acting much; there is also the suicide of Ophelia, a great deal of intrigue (with spying by Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and Hamlet's own "counter-plots" (such as asking the players to reenact the murder of his father). For most of the play, the only on-stage murder we witness is that of Polonius, but at the end of the play, four people die within minutes of each other in the last scene—on stage.

It would seem, then, that Shakespeare closely follows the "recipe" for a Revenge Tragedy. Critic Réné Girard postulates that Shakespeare was weary of this form of drama, but like any savvy playwright, knew that he could not openly flout this dramatic form—for it was still popular with theater-goers. Shakespeare's unique form of the Revenge Tragedy included a double entendre...in which he subtly dismissed the "lame" nature of revenge theater while still delivering to the audience its desired catharsis.

So Shakespeare created Hamlet and exaggerated the devices generally employed with this genre. An example is the extensive amount of time it takes for Hamlet to act against his uncle for killing Old Hamlet. The audience cannot fathom why Hamlet takes so very long to exact punishment from Claudius for Old Hamlet's murder. His failure to act, according to Girard, is Shakespeare's attempt to satirize the genre while still providing the audience with what it wanted: catharsis. Had he not done so, he would not have been able to survive—writing unpopular plays.

Ironically, in finding fault with the genre, Girard points out, Shakespeare creates a play that is even more relevant today, with modern audiences. It is noted:

Hamlet's dilemma essentially represents the modern day evolution of society to a "no man's land," [Girard] argues, where revenge remains a force upon which we often dwell, but seldom act.

Additional Sources:

http://www.enotes.com/jew-malta

http://www.enotes.com/revenge-tragedy-criticism/revenge-tragedy

 

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