Examine the ways in which Shakespeare presents and uses revenge in Hamlet

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Examine the ways in which Shakespeare presents and uses revenge in Hamlet

The play ‘Hamlet’ conforms to the typical ingredients that make up a revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan era. It conforms to certain guidelines and similar features, these are; a hesitating avenger, a villain who is to be killed in revenge, complex twisted plots, sexual obsessions, treachery, a play within a play, lust and greed which are the motives for the revenge, a ghost who calls for revenge, real or false madness and the consequently the death of the avenger.

Tragedies date back from around 4000BC in the Middle East as totemic rituals. People of that era believed if they acted out whatever concerned them, it would not come true in real life. This is still true to this day and can be seen in ‘Hamlet’ by the way the audience enjoys tragedy and revenge providing a catharsis. You get a second hand experience, and you can experience the emotion without going through it yourself.

There are also five parts to the structure of a revenge tragedy; the exposition by the ghost, this is then followed by anticipation in which the avenger usually in a series of soliloquies reveals the details of the planned revenge, confrontation between the avenger and the intended victim, then delay in which the avenger has mixed feelings about the task in hand. Finally the death of both the intended victim and usually also the avenger. Although Hamlet does conform to this, I do not think Hamlet is a revenge play but more a play about revenge.

There are four revenge plots in Hamlet the most substantial one being Hamlet’s vengeance on Claudius who murdered king Hamlet. While old Hamlet was sleeping in his orchard Claudius poured poison in his ear. It was announced in court that Hamlet had died from a poisonous snakebite. Claudius’ main motive for killing his brother is he wants to become him. Claudius wanted to be king, marry Gertrude and stop Hamlet from being king. We knew Claudius killed old Hamlet in the beginning of the play but we suppress our knowledge in order to engage in the development of the story. Shakespeare encourages this by involving the audience in Hamlet’s struggle to accept his mother’s incestuous marriage, the mourning of his father and his relationship with Ophelia.

The Christian church insisted that vengeance was God’s business not man’s. Revenge was both a mortal sin and a sin by law. Hamlet is in two minds, he knows that revenge is wrong but he knows he must avenge his father’s death, as there is no law to give him justice. Although they did believe in divine justice, God will decide his fate when he dies. Revenge is always in excess of justice. In these circumstances revenge raises both political and moral issues and in order for the revengers to uphold the law they are compelled to break it. The play condemns revenge but Hamlet stays within orthodoxy, he revenges with a conscience and in order to reinstate normality in the state of Denmark.

The ghost of old Hamlet tells Hamlet he must fulfil the act of revenge on Claudius. Old Hamlet died before he has a chance to repent his sins so his soul is suffering in purgatory and only when the revenge has taken place can his soul rest.

Shakespeare sets the scene for the ghost’s appearance within the first few lines. “Who’s there?” from the first line we can get the feeling of tension and uncertainty in the scene. It is late at night and visibility is poor. The lines are very short and sharp; the audience can tell something is about to happen. Barnardo asks Francisco if he has seen anything, “what has this thing appeared again tonight?” As the ghost appears Marcellus asks Horatio to talk to it, “ Thou art a scholar, speak to it Horatio”

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The Shakespearean audience would be very wary about the ghost.  Some didn’t believe in ghosts, while others believed that ghosts were the devil’s messengers. So they would fully understand Hamlet’s delay in carrying out the action. “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The ghost symbolises the start of Denmark’s problems, its appearance is an omen.  

It has been said by psychologists studying revenge that ‘Hamlet cannot bear to kill Claudius because the action would too closely resemble the wished for murder of his own father.’ (1).

 Sigmund Freud believed that the myth Oedipus possessed an insight ...

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