Hamlet and the Genre of the Revenge Tragedy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Revenge in the Elizabethan World

3. Revenge and the Elizabethan Audience

4. Influences on Shakespeare’s Revenge Plays

5. The pattern of Elizabethan Revenge Plays: The Kydian Formula
5.1 The Action in the Kydian Revenge Play
5.1.1 The Delay
5.1.2 Play-Within-a-Play
5.2 Characters in the Kydian formula
5.2.1 The Avenger
5.2.2 The Villain
5.2.3 The Ghost
5.3 The Message of the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

6. Hamlet as a Revenge Play
6.1 The Action of Hamlet
6.1.1 The Delay
6.1.2 The Play-Within-a-Play
6.2 The Characters
6.2.1 The Avenger
6.2.2 The Villain
6.2.3 The Ghost
6.3 The Message of Hamlet

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In Elizabethan England the genre of the revenge tragedy was very popular. Many plays of this kind by several different playwrights, including William Shakespeare, were written and staged in the 16th and 17th centuries. The success of the genre was not only due to it’s bloody, criminal, and therefore exciting action but also to the topicality of revenge at that time. In revenge plays questions were raised which concerned the Elizabethans and which made them reflect on their own situations and attitudes. It was around 1570, that English playwrights took over the concept of the revenge tragedy from foreign authors such as Seneca.[1] However, the genre was so successful and widely spread among the English, that a new Elizabethan revenge tragedy was developed. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, which can be regarded as the prototype of the English revenge drama, constituted a pattern containing the basic elements of a revenge play, which a lot of contemporary authors, such as Shakespeare, are said to have followed.[2] In the following, the success of the Elizabethan revenge play will be examined with respect to the attitude towards vengeance at that time. Furthermore, the relevance of the revenge tragedies for the Elizabethan audience will be taken into consideration. Afterwards, the pattern introduced with Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the Kydian formula[3], will be depicted before it’s basic constituents will be related to Hamlet, the most famous Shakespearean tragedy, in which revenge is an important motive.

2. Revenge in the Elizabethan World

Revenge is a topic mankind has been familiar with for many centuries. Formerly, when no states and laws existed, the primitive people regarded violent acts against themselves not as a crime and a public matter, but as a personal injury and therefore a private affair. Therefore, revenge was the only means of justice those people could stick to. Since the bounds within a families were very close ones and solidarity was an important value, blood revenge taken by the family of the victim on any member of the opposed family was quiet common.[4] Even in the development of the English nation and its laws, vendetta was not sued and not illegal for a very long time, and even Christianity did not have any influence on it at first. With King Edward I, however, a law against blood revenge was first established. Despite of this law, vendetta was still privately used. Even though the legal system developed more and more over the centuries, avengers could often avoid punishment. Henry VII developed the indictment to simplify the prosecution of murderers on a public level, which was supposed to reduce private approaches.[5] The development of a legal condemnation of revenge was developed late and slowly, but the more strict it became the more ethically immoral also blood-revenge became. Since the preceding years had been full of national quarrels and disorder in the country, which were due to private struggles, not only the church but also the state of the highly Christian Elizabethan England condemned private revenge.[6] In the Elizabethan times, private revenge was officially forbidden and was punished severely, as only God himself was supposed to have the power to take revenge.[7] This attitude was also spread among the religious public. The people were not supposed to avenge their murdered relatives, but to leave the revenge to God. Taking revenge by themselves would have meant action against God and therefore a sin. As a consequence, avengers were thought to be damned eternally and punished with physiological and psychological problems in the course of their lives as well.[8] Also with regard to the law murder was a crime which had to be charged and could not be justified. The exception of this rule was manslaughter, meaning that the revenge had been an immediate reaction out of affect, which was actually forgiven.[9] Murder, on the other hand, was totally illegal in Elizabethan times, because it was supposed to be based on malice, no matter whether the murder was due to blood-revenge or not. Thus, an avenger had to receive the same punishment as any other murderer.[10] In the Elizabethan society revenge was not only regarded illegal and blasphemous, but also Un-English. It was a crime connected to Italy and Spain, a prejudice which had its basis on Machiavelli. The only thing the relatives of the victims could do was to wait patiently until God took his divine revenge[11] or to engage the law courts, in order to take public revenge. Next to the theory that the Elizabethans totally condemned private revenge there exists the idea of a less strict attitude against the ethics of the time. Since the legal system didn’t work out perfectly, which increased the distrust of the people in the state, some Elizabethans regarded blood-revenge as tolerable when there was no law dealing with the crime which had been committed. It can be suggested that, even though the morality of the time forbid private revenge and the Elizabethans regarded its as a crime and a sin, they tolerated it in certain cases. This was basically due to their knowledge about the times when blood-revenge had been allowed and the traditional view of revenging a family member’s death as being a sacred duty.[12] This challenging attitudes towards the topic, the strong believe in the religious morality on the one hand and the sympathy for revenge under certain circumstances on the other, made it into a topic which was very up-to-date.[13] Thus, the topic of revenge on the Elizabethan stage was closely related to the reality and interests of the audience.

3. Revenge and the Elizabethan Audience

Since the law system and the prosecution of crimes didn’t work out very well during the Elizabethan age, a strong interest in the topic of revenge was raised in the people of the time. Since the revenge plays dealt with this theme and, moreover, with the influence it could have on the avenger and his morality, they became very successful. The current problems and situations of the time, such as the discussions on the morality of revenge, were reflected by the plays and therefore they were very appealing to the audience.[14] Revenge was a topic affecting the people on a moral level and creating a dilemma. On the one hand, the audience sympathised with the avenger in the play because he fulfilled his duty towards his murdered family member. On the other hand, however, they strongly believed in the contemporary ethics and in the concept that God was the only one who was supposed to take revenge. Therefore, the audience of the revenge play demanded the death of the avenger as he has committed the most serious of crimes, even though they felt sympathy for him. The playwrights of the time knew about this moral dilemma of their audiences and were aware of the fact that the inclusion of the revenge theme in their plays promised success.[15] Shakespeare in particular included the revenge motive in almost all of his plays, even in the comedies.[16] The playwrights did not want to justify vendetta in their plays since the state and the church were strictly against it. On the contrary, they wanted to show what could happen to a person getting into the ethical dilemma between his ethic beliefs and his family duty.[17] The same moral challenge, therefore, took place on stage and in the audience’s minds. The sight of blood in a revenge play as well as duels or the use of poison to kill the enemy were not unknown to the Elizabethans. Since they were familiar with public executions and because duels were common among the noblemen of the time, they even demanded it to be a topic on stage. The topic of blood-revenge excited them, not at least because it was the worst of all crimes and sins.[18] Next to this excitement, the spectators started to think about their own attitudes towards life and it’s injustice or about religious questions such as theodicy.[19]

4. Influences on Shakespeare’s Revenge Plays

A large influence not only on Shakespeare, but on a lot of authors of English tragedies had Seneca. His tragedies, especially those containing the theme of the results of crime and murder, were very famous and influential in Elizabethan times, as they had just been translated into the English language between 1559 and 1581. Blood, crime and horror as well as detailed descriptions of passions like ambition, hate or love were common in Seneca’s plays and very well liked by the Elizabethan readers. Also the motive of blood-revenge as a religious duty was often included in Seneca’s tragedies and already in his plays a ghost played the important role of demanding the revenge of a killed family member.[20] Further characters which were taken over from Seneca’s tragedies were the villains or the companions of the hero and the villains. Also topics like blood and crime or supernatural influences as well as the rhetorical features, such as long soliloquies were transferred from Seneca into the Elizabethan tradition. However, the main development of Elizabethan revenge tragedies began with the drama The Spanish Tragedy written by Thomas Kyd between 1587 and 1589[21], who based his play not only on Seneca, but also on some other writers, so that Seneca’s influence is often said to have been overestimated.[22] Kyd took over the structure and also many rhetorical means used by Seneca but he filled the play with a much larger amount of action and expanded most of the characteristic features of the former revenge play. The ghost, for example, which had always been connected to the revenge play, had no longer only the function of giving a prologue as it had been the case in Seneca’s Thyestes, but became more and more involved in the actual action. Furthermore, the elaborate descriptions of passions, emotions and even madness appearing in Seneca have not just been taken over by the Elizabethan playwrights, but have also been converted into the main strand of action. Conclusively, it can be said that, especially with regard to the motive of revenge and the characters, Seneca had a very important influence on the Elizabethan revenge tragedy. However, the Elizabethans themselves developed their own, more elaborate concept of the genre, so that The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd can be regarded as the prototype of Elizabethan revenge literature. In this development also other influences played a role.[23] One further factor which influenced the playwrights of revenge tragedies such as Shakespeare, was the conception they had of those nations they situated the action of their plays in. Here, Italy played a special role since the villainous attitudes of Machiavelli were assigned to the whole Italian population. In the eyes of the English Italians were regarded as very revengeful characters and, in fact, private revenge was a legal practice in Italy. Also Spanish and German people were thought to be avengers as well as Turks and Danes, since the legal system in those countries did not prosecute revenge. Thus, the English playwrights included characters of these nationalities in their plays in order to emphasize that the English people were not as revengeful as others. The Elizabethans also read Italian novels which included the motive of revenge and which therefore verified their impressions. These novels and their translations were well known in Elizabethan England and therefore had a strong influence on the development of the English drama. Additionally, made the audiences familiar with the motive of revenge on stage.[24] As a source especially for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, scholars also mention a lost literary work called the Ur-Hamlet, which is supposed to have been written by Thomas Kyd as well and which Shakespeare might have modified.[25] But since no copy of this text is left, in case there had ever been a written version, there are only few information about it.[26]


[1] Cf. Robert N. Watson, “Tragedies of Revenge and Ambition”, in: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Claire McEachern (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) p.161ff.

[2] Cf. Andrea Stadter, Hyperion to a Satyr. Hamlet im Kontext zeitgenössischer Rachetragödien 1589-1603. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag 1989), p.16f.

[3] Cf. Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Princeton: Princeton UP 1971), p.71.

[4] Cf. Ibid., p.4.

[5] Cf. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.6ff.

[6] Cf. Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1971), p.3ff.

[7] Cf. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.11ff.

[8] Cf. Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, p.3ff.

[9] Cf. Ibid., p.18.

[10] Cf. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.10f.

[11] Cf. Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, p.10ff.

[12] Cf. Bowers, The Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.35ff.

[13] Cf. Ibid., p.39f.

[14] Cf. Watson, “Tragedies of Revenge and Ambition”, p.160ff.

[15] Cf. Paul N. Siegel, Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise. A Marxist Study( New York: New York UP, 1983.), p.101f.

[16] Cf. Watson, “Tragedies of Revenge and Ambition”, p.6.

[17] Cf. Michael Mangan, A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies (New York: Longman, 1991), p.68f.

[18] Cf. Bowers, The Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.16ff.

[19] Cf. Stadter, Hyperion to a Satyr, p.84f.

[20] Cf. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p. 42ff.

[21] Cf. Ibid., p.65.

[22] Cf. Stadter, Hyperion to a Satyr, p. 36ff.

[23] Cf. Stadter, Hyperion to a Satyr, p. 42ff.

[24] Cf. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642, p.42ff.

[25] Cf. Stadter, Hyperion to a Satyr, p. 53f.

[26] Cf. John Russel Brown, Shakespeare: The Tragedies ( Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p.135.

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Hamlet and the Genre of the Revenge Tragedy
University of Paderborn
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Hamlet, Genre, Revenge, Tragedy, Thema Hamlet
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Melanie Kloke (Author), 2006, Hamlet and the Genre of the Revenge Tragedy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66583


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