"Hamlet" is not fully a revenge tragedy. Elucidate.

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ajmchugh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's interesting that you ask this question, as it just reminded me of a discussion I had with some colleagues a few years ago.  Though we didn't come to much of a consensus, we did agree that to label Hamlet as just a "revenge tragedy" is a bit of an oversimplification.  Here are some of the main points we discussed, as I remember them:

The issue of revenge is no doubt central to the action of the play.  However, the real tragedy, as other posts articulate so well, has more to do with Hamlet himself than with the issue of revenge; more specifically, one can look at this play as a tragedy of the results of the gross failures of communication that stem from Hamlet's behavior (though that assertion, too, sounds like an oversimplification!) or, more simply, a tragedy detailing the breakdown (real or feigned) of the protagonist's mental state and its results. 

In Act 1, Hamlet makes clear his plans to put on an "antic disposition," and it is this behavior that is responsible for much of the play's tragedy--and it is also this behavior that is even more central to the play.  Seemingly, a distraught Hamlet, after just having dealt with the sudden death of his father and the more recent realization that his uncle was responsible, could have just quietly killed Claudius and been done with it. Yes, his inaction is directly linked to his obsessive behavior regarding his revenge, but when we consider the implications of Hamlet's behavior, the issue of revenge almost becomes secondary.

Most notably, Hamlet's behavior ruins nearly every relationship he has.  Primarily, Hamlet's resentment of his mother, who is certainly not free of blame, causes an obvious strain in their relationship, as Gertrude somehow does not understand the cause of her son's upset.  Similarly, Ophelia is unable to understand Hamlet's abusive behavior toward her, and that behavior, coupled with his accidental murder of Polonius, leads to her suicide.  His friendships are strained because so few people truly understand why he is acting the way he is.  The assertion that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" is accurate, but it is more inclusive than just the murder of the king. 


I'm sure we discussed more, but this is the gist of it.  Thanks for the post--I've enjoyed revisiting this discussion and reading others' responses. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the play Hamlet can be considered as a tragedy of Hamlet. For, Hamlet's vacillation between resolve and doubt is what drives the tragic events to the final act and Hamlet's demise.  Thus, the greatest conflict is within Hamlet himself, rather the drive for revenge. He is, then, existentially his own adversary.

Undoubtedly, the soliloquies of Hamlet are what propel the drama and action of Shakespeare's play.  In his first soliloquy, for instance, Hamlet becomes passionately resolved to avenge his father's murder.  However, by the second soliloquy, he has descended into a dark melancholy in which "Man delights me not, nor woman neither" (2.2.300).  Much of the plot, then, revolves around Hamlet's attempts to ascertain the guilt of Claudius, for in his self-debate and vacillation, he worries that if Claudius is not, indeed, culpable he will be put to death for the crime of regicide.  Yet, he is taken with the tears of an actor for a pretended situation, and berates himself for his lack of action, returning again to resolve, "The play's the thing!"

This pattern of resolve followed by inaction is recurrent throughout the play as Hamlet even debates existence.  His final action come not so much from a desire to kill Claudius as it seems to stem from his attempt to show himself a man like Fortinbras,

...a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell. (4.4.48-53)

Finally, in a act that emulates that of Fortinbras in his courage and integrity, Hamlet, too, "exposes what is mortal and unsure" to death and danger inorder  to prove "This is I,/Hamlet the Dane," a prince of integrity, as well.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Well, if Hamlet is not fully a revenge tragedy, it's pretty close.  It has all the elements of a classicrevenge tragedy: a murder, a ghost who spurs the avenger to action, isolation of the main character, soliloquies to keep the protagonist close the the audience, feigned madness evolving to possible insanity or madness, revenge taken by the family member. In just about every way, Hamlet is the epitome of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

One element I can think of which might be borderline in this play is the fact that the revenge must be the cause of the catastrophes.  Indirectly, of course, everything in this play is linked to Hamlet's plan for revenge; however, the Fortinbras scenario is only tenuously linked to the idea of revenge.  It seems likely that the hot-headed young man (seeking revenge for his own father, incidentally) would have pursued the same course of action no matter who was king.

The only other element I think might be "not fully a revenge tragedy" is that the revenge process didn't start immediately.  Traditionally, the beginning of the revenge must start immediately after the incident; here it's at least thirty days before Hamlet visits with the Ghost and begins his course of action.

Sorry if I'm missing anything; I'll be anxious to see if anyone else has something to add.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I like the previous post's thoughts on the issue.  Perhaps, the play is about the shortcomings of Hamlet.  If there is a failed revenge factor present, it might be inclusive of the idea that Hamlet has recognized a condition of the modern setting in regards to his freedom.  Certainly, there are no institutional barriers to Hamlet's freedom.  He is essentially free to pursue whatever path of consciousness he wishes to and actively does so.  The play might not be entirely driven by revenge, although the first post was accurate in that it's fairly close.  Yet, Hamlet might recognize part of his condition as failing to appropriate the world in accordance to his own subjectivity.  Hamlet seeks to utilize his freedom in thought, in belief, in articulation, but is fruitless in his ability to find contentment and to find happiness.  His use of freedom, doing what he seeks to do, does not bring him any feelings of being settled.  Perhaps, the play is more about this exploration of how even with the freedom to do what we supposedly want to do, we cannot find that sense of permanent happiness that we think is possible.