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Elizabethan revenge in hamlet

Elizabethan Revenge in Hamlet

Hamlet is a play written by William Shakespeare that very

closely follows the dramatic conventions of revenge in Elizabethan

theater. All revenge tragedies originally stemmed from the Greeks, who

wrote and performed the first plays. After the Greeks came Seneca who

was very influential to all Elizabethan tragedy writers. Seneca who

was Roman, basically set all of the ideas and the norms for all

revenge play writers in the Renaissance era including William

Shakespeare. The two most famous English revenge tragedies written in

the Elizabethan era were Hamlet, written by Shakespeare and The

Spanish Tragedy, written by Thomas Kyd. These two plays used mostly

all of the Elizabethan conventions for revenge tragedies in their

plays. Hamlet especially incorporated all revenge conventions in one

way or another, which truly made Hamlet a typical revenge play.

"Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of many heroes of the Elizabethan and

Jacobean stage who finds himself grievously wronged by a powerful

figure, with no recourse to the law, and with a crime against his

family to avenge."

Seneca was among the greatest authors of classical tragedies

and there was not one educated Elizabethan who was unaware of him or

his plays. There were certain stylistic and different strategically

thought out devices that Elizabethan playwrights including Shakespeare

learned and used from Seneca’s great tragedies. The five act

structure, the appearance of some kind of ghost, the one line

exchanges known as stichomythia, and Seneca’s use of long rhetorical

speeches were all later used in tragedies by Elizabethan playwrights.

Some of Seneca’s ideas were originally taken from the Greeks when the

Romans conquered Greece, and with it they took home many Greek

theatrical ideas. Some of Seneca’s stories that originated from the

Greeks like Agamemnon and Thyestes which dealt with bloody family

histories and revenge captivated the Elizabethans. Seneca’s stories

weren’t really written for performance purposes, so if English

playwrights liked his ideas, they had to figure out a way to make the

story theatrically workable, relevant and exciting to the Elizabethan

audience who were very demanding. Seneca’s influence formed part of a

developing tradition of tragedies whose plots hinge on political

power, forbidden sexuality, family honor and private revenge. "There

was no author who exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the

Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did

Seneca." For the dramatists of Renaissance Italy, France and England,

classical tragedy meant only the ten Latin plays of Seneca and not

Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. "Hamlet is certainly not much like

any play of Seneca’s one can name, but Seneca is undoubtedly one of

the effective ingredients in the emotional charge of Hamlet. Hamlet

without Seneca is inconceivable."

During the time of Elizabethan theater, plays about tragedy

and revenge were very common and a regular convention seemed to be

formed on what aspects should be put into a typical revenge tragedy.

In all revenge tragedies first and foremost, a crime is committed and

for various reasons laws and justice cannot punish the crime so the

individual who is the main character, goes through with the revenge in

spite of everything. The main character then usually had a period of

doubt , where he tries to decide whether or not to go through with the

revenge, which usually involves tough and complex planning. Other

features that were typical were the appearance of a ghost, to get the

revenger to go through with the deed. The revenger also usually had a

very close relationship with the audience through soliloquies and

asides. The original crime that will eventually be avenged is nearly

always sexual or violent or both. The crime has been committed against

a family member of the revenger. " The revenger places himself outside

the normal moral order of things, and often becomes more isolated as

the play progresses-an isolation which at its most extreme becomes

madness." The revenge must be the cause of a catastrophe and the

beginning of the revenge must start immediately after the crisis.

After the ghost persuades the revenger to commit his deed, a

hesitation first occurs and then a delay by the avenger before killing

the murderer, and his actual or acted out madness. The revenge must be

taken out by the revenger or his trusted accomplices. The revenger and

his accomplices may also die at the moment of success or even during

the course of revenge.

It should not be assumed that revenge plays parallel the moral

expectations of the Elizabethan audience. Church, State and the

regular morals of people in that age did not accept revenge, instead

they thought that revenge would simply not under any circumstances be

tolerated no matter what the original deed was. " It is repugnant on

theological grounds, since Christian orthodoxy posits a world ordered

by Divine Providence, in which revenge is a sin and a blasphemy,

endangering the soul of the revenger." The revenger by taking law into

his own hands was in turn completely going against the total political

authority of the state. People should therefore never think that

revenge was expected by Elizabethan society. Although they loved to

see it in plays, it was considered sinful and it was utterly


The Spanish Tragedy written by Thomas Kyd was an excellent

example of a revenge tragedy. With this play, Elizabethan theater

received its first great revenge tragedy, and because of the success

of this play, the dramatic form had to be imitated. The play was

performed from 1587 to 1589 and it gave people an everlasting

remembrance of the story of a father who avenges the murder of his

son. In this story, a man named Andrea is killed by Balthazar in the

heat of battle. The death was considered by Elizabethan people as a

fair one, therefore a problem occurred when Andrea’s ghost appeared to

seek vengeance on its killer. Kyd seemed to have used this to parallel

a ghost named Achilles in Seneca’s play Troades. Andrea’s ghost comes

and tells his father, Hieronimo that he must seek revenge. Hieronimo

does not know who killed his son but he goes to find out. During his

investigation, he receives a letter saying that Lorenzo killed his

son, but he doubts this so he runs to the king for justice. Hieronimo

importantly secures his legal rights before taking justice into his

own hands. The madness scene comes into effect when Hieronimo’s wife,

Usable goes mad, and Hieronimo is so stunned that his mind becomes

once again unsettled. Finally Hieronimo decides to go through with the

revenge, so he seeks out to murder Balthazar and Lorenzo, which he

successfully does. Hieronimo becomes a blood thirsty maniac and when

the king calls for his arrest, he commits suicide.

As well as the fact that Elizabethan theater had its rules

about how a revenge tragedy had to be, so did Thomas Kyd. He came up

with the Kydian Formula to distinguish revenge tragedies from other

plays. His first point was that the fundamental motive was revenge,

and the revenge is aided by an accomplice who both commit suicide

after the revenge is achieved. The ghost of the slain watches the

revenge on the person who killed him. The revenger goes through

justifiable hesitation before committing to revenge as a solution.

Madness occurs due to the grieve of a loss. Intrigue is used against

and by the revenger. There is bloody action and many deaths that

occur throughout the entire play. The accomplices on both sides are

killed. The villain is full of villainous devices. The revenge is

accomplished terribly and fittingly. The final point that Thomas Kyd

made about his play was that minor characters are left to deal with

the situation at the end of the play.

The Spanish Tragedy follows these rules made by Kyd very

closely, simply because Kyd developed these rules from the play. The

fundamental motive was revenge because that was the central theme of

the play. The ghost of Andrea sees his father kill the men who

murdered Andrea originally. Hieronimo hesitates first because he goes

to the king and then he is faced with Isabella’s madness which is

caused by Andrea’s death. The play is filled with all kinds of bloody

action and many people die throughout the course of the play. The

accomplices in the play also all end up dead. Lorenzo who is the true

villain, is full of all kinds of evil villainous devices. The revenge

works out perfectly, in that both Lorenzo and Balthazar get murdered

in the end by Hieronimo. The minor characters were left to clean up

the mess of all of the deaths that occurred during the play. The

Spanish Tragedy also follows the conventions of Elizabethan theater

very closely. The murder was committed and Hieronimo had to take

justice into his own hands, because true justice just simply wasn’t

available. Hieronimo then delays his revenge for many different

reasons that occur in the play. The ghost of Andrea appeared and

guided Hieronimo to the direction of his killer. Also at the end of

the play, both Hieronimo and his accomplices die after they were

successful in committing the revenge.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare follows regular convention for a large

part of the play. In the beginning, Shakespeare sets up the scene,

having a ghost on a dark night. Everyone is working and something

strange is happening in Denmark. It is as if Shakespeare is saying

that some kind of foul play has been committed. This sets up for the

major theme in the play which is of course revenge. The ghost appears

to talk to Hamlet. It is quite obvious that the play had a gruesome,

violent death and the sexual aspect of the play was clearly introduced

when Claudius married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. The ghost tells Hamlet

that he has been given the role of the person who will take revenge

upon Claudius. Hamlet must now think of how to take revenge on

Claudius, although he doesn’t know what to do about it. He ponders his

thoughts for a long period of time, expecting to do the deed

immediately, but instead he drags it on until the end of the play.

Although what was important to note was that all tragic heroes of

plays at that time delayed their actual revenge until the end of the

play. In most revenge plays, the revenger was often anonymous and well

disguised, stalking the enemy about to be killed, but Hamlet started a

battle of wits with Claudius by acting mad and calling it his "antic

disposition", although the whole thing was a ploy to get closer to

Claudius to be able to avenge his father’s death more easily. The

tactic was a disadvantage in that it drew all attention upon himself.

More importantly though it was an advantage that his "antic

disposition", isolated him from the rest of the court because of the

people not paying attention to what he thought or did because of his


One important part of all revenge plays is that after the

revenge is finally decided upon, the tragic hero delays the actual

revenge until the end of the play. Hamlet’s delay of killing Claudius

takes on three distinct stages. Firstly he had to prove that the ghost

was actually telling the truth, and he did this by staging the play

"The Mousetrap" at court. When Claudius stormed out in rage, Hamlet

knew that he was guilty. The second stage was when Hamlet could have

killed Claudius while he was confessing to god. If Hamlet had done it

here then Claudius would have gone to heaven because he confessed

while Hamlet’s father was in purgatory because he did not get the

opportunity to confess. So Hamlet therefore decided not to murder

Claudius at this point in the play. The third delay was the fact that

he got side tracked. He accidentally killed Polonius which created a

whole new problem with the fact that Laertes now wanted Hamlet dead.

After he commit this murder he was also sent off and unable to see the

king for another few weeks until he could finally do the job. "What

makes Hamlet stand out from many other revenge plays of the period is

not that it rejects the conventions of its genre but that it both

enacts and analyses them."

It can be easily understood that Hamlet very closely follows

the regular conventions for all Elizabethan tragedies. First Hamlet is

faced with the fact that he has to avenge the murder of his father and

since there is no fair justice available, he must take the law into

his own hands. The ghost of his father appears to guide Hamlet to

Claudius and inform Hamlet of the evil that Claudius has committed.

Then Hamlet constantly delays his revenge and always finds a way to

put it off until he finally does it in Act V, Scene 2. Hamlet at the

same time continues to keep a close relationship with the audience

with his seven main soliloquies including the famous, "To be, or not

to be..."(Act 3 Scene 1). The play also consists of a mad scene where

Ophelia has gone mad because her father Polonius had been killed and

because Hamlet was sent off to England. The sexual aspect of the play

was brought in when Claudius married Gertrude after he had dreadfully

killed Old Hamlet and taken his throne. Hamlet also follows almost

every aspect of Thomas Kyd’s formula for a revenge tragedy. The only

point that can be argued is that the accomplices on both sides were

not killed because at the end of the play, Horatio was the only one to

survive, although if it wasn’t for Hamlet, Horatio would have commit

suicide when he said, " I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here’s

some liquor left."(Act V Scene 2, 346-347). If Horatio had killed

himself, then Hamlet would have followed the Kydian formula as well as

the regular conventions for Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

Hamlet is definitely a great example of a typical revenge

tragedy of the Elizabethan theater era. It followed every convention

required to classify it as a revenge play quite perfectly. Hamlet is

definitely one of the greatest revenge stories ever written and it was

all influenced first by Sophocles, Euripides and other Greeks, and

then more importantly by Seneca. Hamlet as well as The Spanish Tragedy

tackled and conquered all areas that were required for the

consummation of a great revenge tragedy. Revenge although thought to

be unlawful and against the Church was absolutely adored by all

Elizabethan people. " The Elizabethan audience always insisted on

seeing eventual justice, and one who stained his hands with blood had

to pay the penalty. That no revenger, no matter how just, ever wholly

escapes the penalty for shedding blood, even in error." This was also

a very important point that was also dealt with brilliantly by

Shakespeare in finding a way to kill Hamlet justly even though he was

required to kill Claudius. Hamlet was written with the mighty pen of

Shakespeare who once again shows people that he can conjure up any

play and make it one of the greatest of all time. Hamlet was one of

the greatest of all time.

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