Hamlet and revenge

Hamlet shows Shakespeare intent on sabotaging the conventions of revenge tragedy. Kiernan Ryan explains why.

The procrastinating prince

For centuries critics have tied themselves in knots trying to solve the baffling problem Hamlet appears to pose. Commanded by his father’s ghost in Act 1 to ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ by his brother Claudius, who has robbed him of his wife and throne as well as his life, Hamlet swears that ‘with wings as swift / As meditation, or the thoughts of love,’ he will ‘sweep to [his] revenge’ (1.5.25, 29–31). He then spends almost the entire play spectacularly failing to keep his oath, despite the ghost's reappearance in Act 3 to remind him: ‘Do not forget! This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose’ (3.4.110–11). Indeed after his departure for England, Hamlet’s obligation to avenge his father seems all but forgotten, and on his return he shows no sign of planning to take his uncle’s life. When he does at last kill Claudius in the dying moments of Act 5, he does so suddenly, without forethought, poisoning the King in revenge for conniving to poison him and for accidentally poisoning Gertrude.

Reference to early Hamlet play in Lodge’s Wit’s Misery, 1596

Reference to early Hamlet play in Lodge’s Wit’s Misery, 1596

In his Wits Miserie (1596), Thomas Lodge describes a theatrical ghost ‘which cried … Hamlet, revenge’. Some scholars see this as a reference to a lost Hamlet play that appeared before Shakespeare’s.

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It’s only by chance, in other words, that Hamlet finally avenges his father’s murder, which might otherwise have remained unavenged. The retribution he happens to exact is exacted too late, moreover, to prevent all the deaths that need not have occurred, if only he had killed Claudius sooner. As a direct or indirect result of his procrastination, Hamlet slays Polonius instead of Claudius; Ophelia goes mad after her father’s murder and drowns; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched by Hamlet to their deaths; and in the play’s climactic duel Hamlet’s mother drinks from the lethal cup intended for her son, who is fatally wounded by Laertes in revenge for the deaths of his father and sister. On the face of it, it’s hard to resist the conclusion most critics have drawn, which is that the main cause of the whole tragic train of events is Hamlet’s compulsion to postpone. And for those who assume that to be the case, all that remains is to crack the conundrum with which the play confronts them: why does Hamlet delay?

The crux of the matter

There’s no point asking Hamlet why, because Hamlet himself is baffled by his inability to act promptly. He rebukes himself bitterly in Act 2 after watching an actor weep, convulsed with simulated sorrow for an imaginary character, who means nothing to him. The actor’s performance ‘But in a fiction, in a dream of passion’ (2.2.552) puts Hamlet to shame, because ‘the motive and the cue for passion’ (2.2.561) that Hamlet has are real and compelling, yet all he can do, as he says, is mope about ‘Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause’ (2.2.568). A whole act later, Hamlet is still at a loss to explain why, ‘laps’d in time and passion’, he still ‘lets go by / Th’ important acting’ of his father’s ‘dread command’ (3.4.107–08). Deep into Act 4 he finds himself shamed yet again for dragging his heels, this time by the sight of Fortinbras’s army marching headlong to their doom, merely ‘to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name’ (4.4.18–19). And he voices his bewilderment at his inexplicable inertia once more in his last great soliloquy: ‘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’ (4.4.43–46).

The same soliloquy makes it clear that Hamlet finds neither of the reasons he considers for his delay convincing. That the cause might be ‘some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th’ event’ (4.4.40–41), as a result of which action becomes impossible, might seem plausible. But it doesn’t square with Hamlet’s obvious ability to act decisively when he wants to, as he does when he charges fearlessly after the ghost; when he sets The Mousetrap ‘to catch the conscience of the king’ (2.2.605); when he runs his sword through Polonius in the belief that he’s stabbing the king; when he foils Claudius’s plot to have him murdered in England, consigning his treacherous friends to the fate meant for him; and when he kills Claudius without hesitation in the heat of a duel he has no qualms about fighting. On this evidence, too, the other charge Hamlet levels at himself – that he’s guilty of cowardice – doesn’t hold up either. Nor does the surmise that he’s secretly deterred not just from taking revenge, but from taking another life at all, by the Christian objections of his conscience. Hamlet isn’t troubled in the least by such objections, as he proves by his keenness to kill Claudius in a damnable state of sin rather than the state of grace his father was denied. And for the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he feels not a twinge of guilt.

The real tragedy

Not that Hamlet’s failure to find a solid reason for his quandary has stopped critics from furnishing explanations of their own, the most common being that he’s suffering from some kind of psychological disorder. A.C. Bradley, for example, diagnosed the prince in his influential study Shakespearean Tragedy as afflicted by the form of depression called melancholy in Shakespeare’s day, taking his cue from Hamlet’s remarking ‘I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth’ (2.2.295–96). For Ernest Jones, on the other hand, whose classic Freudian reading of the play in Hamlet and Oedipus has proved equally influential, the unconscious source of Hamlet’s suicidal melancholy and pathological reluctance to avenge his father must be his repressed desire for his mother, for by killing his mother’s lover, her new husband Claudius, he would be killing the mirror image of his secret Oedipal self.

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628

Robert Burton’s huge Anatomy of Melancholy explores many causes of sadness, including love and ‘desire of revenge’.

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What’s wrong with all these attempts to account for Hamlet’s delay – including Hamlet’s own conjectures – is the same fundamental misconception. They all accept that the prince has a legitimate obligation to avenge his father’s murder and thus restore the status quo – the fact that the murderer is the sovereign himself leaves him no option but to take the law into his own hands to achieve through revenge what Bacon called ‘a kind of wild justice’. So the tragedy of the situation is seen as Hamlet’s unfortunate possession of some emotional, intellectual or psychological flaw, however virtuous its origin, which prevents him from fulfilling that obligation without delay. The assumption is that if Hamlet’s character hadn’t been marred by what he calls ‘some vicious mole of nature’ and ‘the stamp of one defect’ (1.4.24, 31), the tragic catastrophe wouldn’t have occurred and the only corpse left at the end would have been Claudius’s.

Bacon’s essays on revenge, envy and deformity

Bacon’s Essays 'Of Revenge' and 'Of Envy'

Francis Bacon’s famous essay ‘Of Revenge’ (first published in 1625).

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But what if we proceed on the opposite assumption? What if Hamlet’s tormented resistance to performing the role of revenger expresses a justified rejection of a whole way of life, whose corruption, injustice and inhumanity he now sees clearly and rightly finds intolerable? What if everything we see and hear in the play confirms Hamlet’s conclusion that the world as it stands is a prison, ‘in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst’ (2.2.245–47)? In that case the tragedy turns out to be something quite different. It’s the tragedy of having to live, love and die on the soul-destroying terms of such a world at all, despite feeling the need and the potential to dwell in a world fit for what human beings could be – ‘the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals’ (2.2.307) – instead of one fit only for the scoundrels, pawns and parasites – the ‘quintessence of dust’ (2.2.308) – that societies like this force most of them to become.

From this standpoint, Hamlet’s retreat into the dramatic limbo of his ‘antic disposition’ (1.5.172), the cryptic quibbling of his feigned madness, isn’t a symptom of some mysterious malaise that’s incapacitated him, but the only sane response to an insane predicament in a society that no longer makes sense. Critics who regard it as normal and necessary to comply with convention and maintain the status quo have inevitably found Hamlet’s disinclination to do so a source of endless puzzlement and made this tragedy ‘the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright’, as Harry Levin famously dubbed it. But once one has grasped that it’s the time that’s ‘out of joint’ (1.5.188) and not Hamlet, and that not being in tune with his time makes Hamlet a hero ahead of his time, the problem ostensibly posed by the play disappears.

‘Now could I drink hot blood’

The fact that it doesn’t disappear as far as Hamlet’s concerned, and that a true understanding of his tragic plight eludes him, is hardly surprising. As a Renaissance prince, steeped in the values of his class and culture, Hamlet is naturally appalled to find himself failing to play the prescribed royal part of righteous avenging son.

Acutely aware that the part is a theatrical cliché, he strives repeatedly to stick to the stage revenger’s script, whipping himself up into a melodramatic rage whenever his resolution flags: ‘Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on’ (3.2.390-92). But every attempt to conform to the culturally approved stereotype proves futile, because right from the start, even before the ghost’s revelation and demand for revenge, Hamlet has ‘that within which passes show’ (1.2.85): a grief-stricken sense of disillusionment so complete that ‘all the uses of this world’ seem ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’, and he wishes ‘that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter’ (1.2.132).

Saxo’s legend of Amleth in the Gesta Danorum

Saxo’s legend of Amleth in the Gesta Danorum

The savage Norse folk-tale of Amleth was first recorded by Saxo Grammaticus, and printed in this beautiful Latin edition of 1514.

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Hamlet, published by the Cranach-Presse

Illustrations for Hamlet by Edward Gordon Craig

This stunning edition of Hamlet, published by the Cranach-Presse (1930) includes Shakespeare’s sources, Saxo and Belleforest, in the margins.

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Held by© The Edward Gordon Craig Estate

Shakespeare seems to have borrowed the basic elements of the play’s revenge plot from the version of the tale he read in François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, a tale Belleforest had found in Saxo Grammaticus’s collection Danorum Regum heroumque Historiae. He was also indebted, directly or indirectly, to Thomas Kyd’s trailblazing play The Spanish Tragedy, whose phenomenal success spawned a host of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies. The similarities between Kyd’s plot and Shakespeare’s – a ghost, a loyal friend called Horatio, a play within the play, a female suicide, and a brother who kills his sister’s lover – are striking. But the more conscious one becomes of how closely Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy resembles Kyd’s prototype as well as Belleforest’s version of Saxo, the more obvious its radical difference from them, and from all the other revenge tragedies of the period, becomes.

Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

Though only printed in 1615, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie was probably written c. 1582–92, before Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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In Hamlet Shakespeare deliberately sabotages the whole genre of revenge tragedy by creating a tragic protagonist who refuses, for reasons he can’t fathom himself, to play the stock role in which he’s been miscast by the world he happens to inhabit. Shakespeare makes his purpose plain by juxtaposing Hamlet with Fortinbras and especially Laertes, two conventional sons who are also determined to avenge their fathers, but who don’t have the least scruple about doing so. He makes it plainer still by refusing to reduce the cause of Hamlet’s tragedy to ‘the stamp of one defect’ in him, because that would mean pinning the blame on the protagonist alone, instead of calling into question the society that trapped him in such an impossible predicament in the first place.

‘Here’s fine revolution’

It’s surely not difficult, after all, to see how impossible that predicament is for a prince so alienated from everything his rank entails and his society expects that he holds sovereignty itself, indeed hierarchy as such, in contempt. ‘The King is a thing’, Hamlet retorts to Rosencrantz, ‘Of nothing’ (4.2.28–30) before proceeding to prove to Claudius ‘how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar’ (4.3.30–31). And as he watches the upper-class skulls of those who once owned and ruled Denmark being turfed up by a common gravedigger’s spade, the symbolic significance of the scene doesn’t escape him: ‘Here’s fine revolution’, he observes to Horatio, ‘and we had the trick to see’t’ (5.1.90–91). What would be the point of obtaining the private ‘wild justice’ of revenge for a king’s son who realises that the entire kingdom is founded on inequality and thus inherently unjust? Whatever personal satisfaction killing Claudius might afford him would be purchased at the price of complicity with a ruthless society that’s bound to foster crimes like Claudius’s. It would mean becoming a clone of Claudius, the mirror-image of his father’s murderer, and believing like Laertes that taking revenge is enough to right the wrong and settle the matter.

But taking revenge could never settle the matter for Hamlet, because the root cause of his quandary lies deeper than his uncle’s villainy. Because ‘The time is out of joint’, there’s no way he could ‘set it right’ (1.5.188–89) just by killing Claudius, who’s merely a product of the barbaric era in which Hamlet finds himself stranded. So with no adequate course of action open to him, paralysed by the futility of the revenge his society demands that he seek, Hamlet wavers and stalls, playing for time until circumstances force his hand and he kills Claudius in anger on the spur of the moment. Shakespeare ensures that Hamlet does avenge his father in the end. But not before his revolt against his role has revealed Shakespeare’s time as a time that only the ‘fine revolution’ Hamlet glimpses in the graveyard could set right.

  • Kiernan Ryan
  • Kiernan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015) and the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015). His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

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