How successful is Hamlet as a play about revenge? Consider both the modern and Elizabethan audience.
Hamlet as a play about revenge is very successful in the way that it raises many questions about the morality of revenge. Despite the modern day and Elizabethan society having various different beliefs, both types of audience are able to empathise with many of Hamlet's problems.
Helen Gardner says, "The Elizabethans thought murder unethical and private revenge sinful." 1
The Elizabethan society was strongly Christian. In their society, God was in highest position, followed by the Monarch, then the other Elizabethan people. This was known as the "Chain of Being". Gardener's statement would certainly be true according to Christian teachings. They believed that a King had been appointed by God, and was therefore the person on Earth closest to God. Any murder is a sin, but murdering a King is a sin of the worst kind and complete blasphemy. This is how many would have viewed Hamlet's revenge.
The fact Claudius is King affects opinions concerning him considerably. Claudius himself believes that “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king/That treason can but peep to what it would,/Acts little of his will.” Ultimately, the fact that Claudius is King will not protect him as he thinks it will. The Elizabethan audience would have shared Claudius's view as they believed in the Divine Right of Kings where the King was thought to have protection from God, because of his position. Hamlet does not share this view. He comes to the conclusion that position makes no difference in society, because death will eventually equal all of us.
“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a King, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”
Hamlet's ideas on equality would have been confusing to an Elizabethan audience. The inclusion of this concept is successful in a play about revenge because it allows them to consider the limitations that positions in society can bring.
In our society, this has much less relevance because the audience would be well-educated, and therefore likely to agree with popularised views today such as "everyone is equal". Our society also has a completely different attitude to the Monarch. In contrast, the Queen is not supreme ruler of the country and the title of Queen does not necessarily gain her great respect. In fact, the Media often ridicules her. To a modern day audience, Claudius being a King has very little significance. Particularly so when considering that much of the audience will include young students, who could not imagine the Queen running the country. This does not necessarily make the play any less successful for the modern audience, as the escapism element will add more intrigue to Hamlet's revenge situation.
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Can killing a King possibly be justified? In Elizabethan society, killing a tyrant was acceptable. What complicated matters though, is that despite Claudius being a usurper, he is shown to be a good King. Michael Hattaway comments that "Shakespeare is characteristically complicating the issue by inviting us to wonder whether a bad man might not be a good King."2 This is not in fact the issue, for Claudius is undoubtedly a good King. The issue lies more along the lies of whether Hamlet, a good man, should take on the role of King. Claudius is shown to have many worthy qualities of a King. From the opening lines he speaks, we can see immediately that he is a brilliant speaker:
"Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/The memory be green, and that it us befitted /To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom/To be contracted in one brow of woe..."
The way he manipulates language, through use of the royal plural, means that he succeeds in allying himself with the rest of the people. He also gives the impression of unity by the description of being "contracted in one brow of woe". He is well informed about political affairs, and is diplomatic - "we here dispatch/You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltemand,/For bearers of this greeting to old Norway". He can make quick decisions, "I have in quick determination/Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England". He also acts upon his made decisions - "...prepare thyself./The bark is ready and the wind at help,/Th'associates tend, and everything is bent/For England."
In fact everyone shows Claudius respect ("In that, and all things, will we show our duty"), except Hamlet. "A little more than kin, and less than kind" is his opening line in the play, in reply to Claudius. The pun suggests that Hamlet considers himself and Claudius very little alike in character. This is certainly true.
Unlike Claudius, Hamlet cannot carry out his actions simply. He spends a great deal of time philosophising over his revenge, rather than carrying it out. After hearing the Ghost, Hamlet promises, "I with wings as swift/ As meditation or the thoughts of love/ may sweep to my revenge." He does not actually fulfil what he says here, but spends much time being frustrated -"I do not know/why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do',/ Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means/ To do't"
In a play about revenge, this is successful rather than if it were carried out in a quick, rash way, because it allows us to think more deeply about Hamlet's inward struggles with himself. This is true for the modern audience. An Elizabethan audience's expectations would have been different. Despite revenge being condemned in society, they were popular in plays and the audience may well have expected Hamlet to act on his revenge straightaway. On the other hand, there was much political controversy at the time the play was written, with the Essex rebellion still fresh in peoples' minds. This meant the Elizabethan audience would have understood the importance of a good monarch, such as Claudius.
Would they really want Hamlet to replace him? William Hazlitt describes how Hamlet "is not a character marked by strength or sentiment of will or even passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment." 3 It is true that Hamlet is thoughtful, and is not strong-willed - this is clearly seen when he agonises over carrying out Claudius's murder. Careful thought may not sound disadvantageous but it is not a typically good trait in a King, who must be capable of making instantaneous decisions concerning affairs of the state, and be able to carry them out swiftly. However, this delay in revenge is successful when considering an Elizabethan audience, because it allows them to think more carefully about the consequences of Hamlet's revenge.
Hamlet is successful as a play about revenge because it makes us consider Hamlet's true motives for revenge. Hamlet says he will feel no remorse for killing Claudius because "He hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother,/Popped in between th'election and my hopes." The idea that Hamlet's main reason for killing Claudius is because he took Hamlet's rightful position as King can be dismissed, because this is the only point in the play that he mentions this. One question that can be raised is whether Hamlet is genuinely seeking revenge for his father's sake. Eric Carson believes his motive for revenge is that Claudius has "emasculated Hamlet by robing him of his central role model of masculinity." 4 Hamlet shows a great deal of regard for his father, describing him as having "A combination and a form indeed/Where every god did seem to set his seal/To give the world assurance of a man." However, he also spends an equal amount of time speculating on Gertrude and Claudius's relationship.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is shown to be plagued by the thought of his mother "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bend./ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty."
We can see how bitter Hamlet is as a result of his mother making "marriage vows as false as dicer's oaths." It has even made him lose faith in women altogether - "Frailty, thy name is woman." Is this the real reason why Hamlet seeks revenge? The Elizabethans are likely to have thought not. To them, Gertrude marrying Claudius was not considered incestuous but was acceptable in society.
Freud wrote that "Shakespeare's Hamlet, is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex." 5 Today, Freud's views are widespread and the type of people in the audience i.e. students, or well-educated people, are likely to be familiar with his ideas. With the help of individuals such as Frued, we have a much better understanding of psychology. This makes it more likely that we will think Hamlet's main motive for killing Claudius is because he is affected severely psychologically by his mother's incestuous relationship.
"There appears to be no reason at all in nature why this young Prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible." 6 This is the view of Thomas Hanmar.
It can be argued that Hamlet does have a reason - after all, he has no confirmation that the ghost was telling the truth. Even after the ghost is confirmed to be correct though, he still continues to delay the murder. In Act three, Scene three Hamlet has the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius yet he decides not to, on the grounds that, “A villain kills my father, and for that/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/To heaven.”
An Elizabethan audience would have understood this reason well, because of their faith. In their eyes, someone who sinned and repented would actually go to heaven so Hamlet not murdering Claudius in this situation is understandable. The opinion of Hyland is that, “Clearly a man whose religious beliefs keep him from suicide will not easily be able to commit murder.” It is true that Hamlet wishes "that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" but it should not be forgotten that Hamlet sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths without any guilt; "they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience. Their defeat/Does by their own insinuation grow."
Religion is not the reason for Hamlet's delay. Modern day audiences are likely to interpret Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius as a delaying tactic. Again, our greater understanding of psychology allows us to realise that Hamlet is facing a moral dilemma. “Hamlet has no opportunity to kill the King and then justify his actions until the final disaster”7 is the opinion of Friedlander. Hamlet does have a lot of difficulty in justifying the killing of Claudius- he does not seem to think that the murder of his own father is enough of a reason to justify Claudius’s murder. Claudius says "revenge should know no bounds" but Hamlet cannot take such a simplistic view on his revenge. Catherine Belsey can offer a clue as to why revenge is so difficult for Hamlet: "What is intolerable in Hamlet's situation is that it cannot be reduced to the familiar antithesis of right and wrong: conscience both demands and opposes action." 8 It is only after his mother dies that Hamlet actually murders Claudius. This is notable because it brings up the question again of whether Hamlet’s real motive for revenge is for his mother’s sake.
There are parallels that can be drawn between Hamlet, Fortinbras and Laertes. At some point in the play, they all wish to avenge their fathers. This is successful in a play about revenge because the intertwining of each of these characters’ different reactions to revenge allow us to draw comparisons with what could be considered the "correct" way to carry it out.
Laertes’s uses trickery in his revenge; “yet it is almost against my conscience”. His reaction to his father’s murder and sister’s madness are passionate, just like Hamlet’s. He claims that he would "cut [Hamlet's] throat I'th'church" which acts a contrast to how Hamlet did not cut Claudius's throat "in church" - i.e. in the prayer scene. When he says “I’ll be revenged/Most thoroughly for my father,” he does mean to carry it out. Laertes acts rashly in comparison to Hamlet, yet his circumstance is ultimately the same as Hamlet's at the end- his revenge successful, but he dies.
Fortinbras acts upon his revenge quickly, but with thought, as he decides to “suppress /His further gait herein, in that the levies,/The lists, and full proportions are all made/Out of his subject". Ultimately, he is the most successful out of the three because he gains Denmark- his aim, as well as Hamlet's respect.
Because their situations are so different it is difficult to draw any conclusions about whether Shakespeare was attempting to portray a particular moral about revenge. Shakespeare may well have been suggesting that there is no “right” answer. This is what partly makes the play so successful as one about revenge – it does not choose for the reader what is morally correct and what is not, but allows us to make up our own mind.
1 Gardner, Helen. “Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge" 1967
2 Hattaway, Michael. "An introduction to the variety of Criticism - Hamlet" 1987
3 Hazlitt, William. "Characters of Shakespeare's Plays" 1817
4 Carson, Eric.
5 Freud, Sigmund "The Interpretation of Dreams" 1914
6 Hanmer, Sir Thomas. "Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" 1736
7 Ed Friedlander, "Enjoying Hamlet by William Shakespeare"
8 Catherine Belsey. ""The Subject of Tragedy" 1985