To what extent, and in what ways, does Shakespearean tragedy incorporate and/or modify the conventions of revenge tragedy?
To answer this question, this essay will focus on the play in its context first: How did the Elizabethan society think about vendetta, and which typical revenge tragedies did they already know? What were the main features of the typical revenge tragedy? In the second part I want to examine to what extent Shakespeare adhered to these genre conventions and what he changed.
It is vital to acknowledge how the Elizabethan audience thought about the topic of blood revenge when confronted with it on the stage – because it had been written for this audience. Vendetta has always played a big part in the history of mankind and for a long time it was not punished, because it was seen as a person’s right to take revenge on someone who killed a close relative. Christianity has always tried to change this – to convince people to turn the other cheek. Only legislation managed to restrict vendetta, beginning with the first kings who demanded a share of the wergeld.1
Finally, private blood-revenge was not legally accepted in Elizabethan England, because it was considered to be a case of malice aforethought. 2 Moreover, the widespread opinion was, that revenge is only God’s right and that everyone who claimed this right for himself would end up in hell.3 However, on the other hand, the Elizabethan society could understand the need for revenge on an emotional, intuitive level.4 So when watching a revenge play, according to Bowers, “the English spectators viewed dramatic action at once somewhat foreign to their present state of society yet still within their range of sympathy and understanding”.5
If we want to find out whether Hamlet is a typical revenge tragedy or not, we have to define the genre conventions first. The two main authors who created these conventions were Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) and Thomas Kyd (1558-1594).
Seneca the Younger was a Roman philosopher and dramatist. He undoubtedly had a large influence on Shakespeare and other English writers, because his works, especially his revenge tragedies, were famous in Elizabethan times. A typical Senecan tragedy contained the following phases of action: the appearance of the ghost, the following processes within the mind of the avenger and the revenge itself.6
However, The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd had probably the bigger influence on Shakespeare’s work and is therefore considered to be the ‘Ur-Hamlet’. Its success was based on the universality of its motive, which was accessible to all classes: the father’s duty to avenge the murder of his son.7 According to Bowers revenge tragedy “portrays the ghost of the murdered urging revenge, a hesitation on the part of the avenger, a delay in proceeding to his vengeance, and his feigned or actual madness.”8 Other major features are bloody action and deaths not just at the end but throughout the play, the killing of the accomplices on both sides, a Machiavellian villain free from any scruples9, and that the avenger may die after he successfully killed his opponent.10 Minor characteristics concerning the avenger are for example that he wears black, reads in a book before he gives a philosophical soliloquy and his general melancholy.11
Kyd also included some irony in his play: The action is not just a single line on which the avenger moves from rage to plotting to killing. The villain competes with him and so the avenger, a complex character, has to adopt some of his cruel features and techniques to beat him.12 This also affects his personality – he is not the personified good anymore. He has to harden himself in order to fulfill the ghost’s wish.
Another important part of the Kydian formula is the play-within-a-play. Usually it puts an end to the delay and allows the avenger to become active. This is due to the nature of the play, as Mercer puts it: “Through art then, or through the pretence of art, the bloody images of revenge are forced into actuality.”13
I would like to start to analyze Hamlet by taking a close look at the action and Hamlet’s, the avenger’s, personality. The topic of Hamlet is a typical topic of a revenge play: His murdered father’s ghost appears and tells Hamlet that he will never find peace before his murderer, his brother, is killed:
GHOST I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
Naturally, the ghost blames Claudius for his death, but also passes a huge responsibility on to Hamlet, who is now only one to save his father from the “fires”, the eternal torment in hell which the Elizabethan people feared more than anything else.
However, Hamlet is not able to react immediately, his conscience causes delay – as demanded by the Kydian formula. As much as he wants to save his father from hell or at least to commit suicide to free himself from this burden, he still has to fear for his own soul:
HAMLET: But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
Hamlet compares a violent death or a death without a clear conscience to a journey to a far-away country. Interestingly he speaks in the first person plural: He sees himself included in a group of people who know that taking a life he may offend God.
This is also mirrored in Hamlet’s reaction to Claudius’ prayer when he wants to stab him after the play that revealed Claudius’ guilt:
HAMLET: A villain kills my father, and, for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
The words “to heaven” stand alone after an enjambment and are therefore particularly stressed. The prayer causes further delay, because Hamlet realizes that he might do Claudius a favour if he should kill him in an act of regret. The question he is asking himself is: ‘Is there a chance for Claudius to clear himself of his sins, and if I save my father from hell by avenging him, will I have to take his place?’ Again, the complexity of Hamlet’s round character is a typical feature of the revenge tragedy.
1 Cf. Fredson Bowers: Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton: University Press, 1966), p. 5.
2 Cf. Bowers, p. 10.
3 Cf. Bowers, p. 13.
4 Cf. Eleanor Prosser: Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: University Press, 1971), p. 3.
5 Bowers, p. 66.
6 Cf. Peter Mercer: Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), p. 27.
7 Cf. Bowers, p. 65.
8 Bowers, p. 63f.
9 Bowers, p. 72.
10 Cf. Bowers, p. 64.
11 Cf. Bowers, p. 73.
12 Cf. Mercer, p. 41.
13 Mercer, p. 56.
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