• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

To what extent is 'Hamlet' principally a revenge tragedy?

Extracts from this document...


To what extent is Hamlet principally a 'revenge tragedy'? Hamlet is one of the most ambiguous of Shakespeare's plays, to the extent that there is even argument over which genre it should be placed in. Although it contains many of the features typical of a revenge tragedy, it could be seen as a play more concerned with the ethics of revenge. Revenge tragedy was a popular genre in Elizabethan times with many famous examples written in that period, including Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy', Marlowe's 'The Jew of Malta', and one by Shakespeare himself entitled 'Titus Andronicus'. These plays followed a standard structural format and always included certain features, such as complex plotting, a play within a play, real or feigned madness, a ghost scene, various murders, and the ultimate death of the avenger. In Hamlet, these features are prominently displayed with various plots and counter-plots, the inclusion of 'The Mousetrap' and the madness of both Hamlet and Ophelia. An overview of the play might directly place it in the genre of revenge tragedy, but a definitive classification is hindered by one pivotal factor: the complexity of the protagonist. Hamlet's character is an anomaly within the play. In a traditional revenge tragedy, the bulk of the plot would be made up of the hero laying a plan for revenge and overcoming many obstacles in order to finally reach his goal. ...read more.


When Hamlet was written, England was in great upheaval, and in particular religious change, a period often referred to as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was the rebirth of old classical Greek and Roman culture into a more modern, Christian age, something which caused confusing and often conflicting beliefs; this is reflected in Shakespeare's depiction of Hamlet. The character is portrayed as both religious and moral, declaring from the start that he cannot commit suicide because the 'Everlasting had...fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter' (1.2.131), and calling on 'angels and ministers of grace' (1.4.39). Unfortunately, the demands made on the character of Hamlet are far from Christian, but appeal to a more Classical nature: that of the heroic bloodthirsty avenger, Achilles as opposed to Jesus. The Renaissance brought about the popularity of the revenge tragedy genre, as many of the values displayed in a typical play of this type, such as honour, were also prevalent in Greek and Roman culture. Christian beliefs on revenge were very different to Classical ones. Jesus taught the policy of 'turn the other cheek': Francis Bacon's essay on revenge upholds this principle, expressing that 'in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior', and even going further by claiming that 'vindictive persons live the lives of witches.' The character of the Ghost could be considered representative of the blend of cultures: he is 'confined to fast in fires' of Purgatory because he was ...read more.


Fortinbras, previously described as being 'of unimproved mettle, hot and full' (1.1.95) is said by Hamlet to have 'spirit with divine ambition puffed' (4.4.62). The language used in these descriptions is strident and powerful, reflecting the perceived character of Fortinbras as hot-headed and impulsive - much like descriptions of traditional revenge tragedy heroes, and very unlike Hamlet. Laertes too is portrayed as reminiscent of this. In direct contrast to Hamlet he forsakes his religion in pursuit of revenge, banishing 'conscience and grace to the profoundest pit' (4.5.151) and declaring, 'I dare damnation' (4.5.152). Although much religious language is used, it is only in relation to a new disregard for its teachings; Hamlet is shown to continually refer to his religion even whilst contemplating revenge. Laertes even goes so far as to say he would 'cut [Hamlet's] throat i'th' church' (4.7.124): this directly relates to Shakespeare's presentation of Hamlet - who shrank from doing just that - as a character mindful of religious teaching and consequence. Shakespeare provides a stereotypical view of the revenge tragedy hero as one who will 'greatly find quarrel in a straw when honour's at the stake' (4.4.54). This is a description that matches perfectly both Laertes and Fortinbras, and undoubtedly both of these characters have been inserted into Hamlet as a means of accentuating the unusual behaviour of the protagonist. The repetition of the word 'greatly' in Hamlet's soliloquy of Act 4 Scene 4 implies that there is an admiration for men such as these, who follow their bloodlust: less so for those such as Hamlet, who delay through ethical dilemmas. ...read more.

The above preview is unformatted text

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level Hamlet section.

Found what you're looking for?

  • Start learning 29% faster today
  • 150,000+ documents available
  • Just £6.99 a month

Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

See related essaysSee related essays

Related AS and A Level Hamlet essays

  1. Marked by a teacher

    Explore the presentation of revenge in 'Hamlet'.

    4 star(s)

    Fortinbras' situation is infinitely less complex than Hamlet's own; the boundaries between good and evil, personal and public, right and wrong, are for him, clearly defined. He is able to act openly, uninfluenced by friends and family. Hamlet on the other hand is surrounded by people who have obligations to

  2. Marked by a teacher

    Hamlet - It's hard to define what revenge actually is.

    3 star(s)

    After they realise that it's not King Claudius, Hamlet doesn't feel sorry for what he has don't to Polonius at all. He compares what he had just done to what Gertrude did by marrying to brothers. 'Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother'.

  1. Hamlet Essay DRAFT

    Hamlet uses brutal language in this soliloquy, and makes references to the witches' Sabbath, when they perform evil rites conjuring up the devil and drinking human blood. This brutal language is not in keeping with Hamlet's character, and so will have made the audience aware of the rage and anger that was building up inside him.

  2. Scene by Scene - Hamlet.

    Polonius comes in, and Hamlet, still talking crazy, gets Polonius to agree that a particular cloud looks like each of three different animals. (Appearance versus reality.) In an aside, he says to the audience that this is as good a job of acting crazy as he can manage.

  1. A consideration of the extent to which, in Hamlet's soliloquies, Hamlet is presented by ...

    Act IV, scene iv restores the focus of the play to the theme of human action. Hamlet's encounter with the Norwegian captain serves to remind the reader of Fortinbras' presence in the world of the play and gives Hamlet another example of the will to action that he lacks.

  2. Hamlet is considered to be the greatest play ever written. The themes of the ...

    Hamlet has escaped from the ship to England and is faced with a fencing match with Laertes. Although he senses something shady, he agrees. The play ends with the death of the protagonist and other characters, leaving Horatio to tell the story and Young Fortinbras to be king in Denmark.

  1. Hamlet's "antic disposition" is feigned. Discuss

    The 'closet scene' reveals Hamlet's true nature, for he is away from the eyes of those he wishes to fool. His order for Gertrude to "come, come, and sit you down. You shall not- budge. You go not till I set up a glass where you can see the inmost

  2. Criticism on Hamlet

    "Ham. A little more than kin, and less than kind. King. How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Ham. Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun." Hamlet opens his mouth with a playing on words, the complete absence of which throughout characterizes "Macbeth."

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work