Considered as one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is also one of the best-known plays in world literature. It is distinguished to be one of the first of its kind of being peculiarly a “philosophical play”, in addition to having a variety of metaphysical and psychological theories. Although revenge tragedies already existed during and before its time, Hamlet best exemplifies the genre of Elizabethan revenge. A center of many arguments is the apparent delay of Hamlet’s revenge. Critical discussion of this supposed procrastination has a long history.
Goethe thought Hamlet too sensitive, Coleridge and A. W. von Schlegel too intelligent to be capable of action. The early 20th century English critic A. C. Bradley saw him as restrained by melancholia, the 19th century German scholar Herman Ulrici by moral scruples; the Freudians viewed him as too complex-ridden to kill his uncle (“Hamlet”). This aspect of Hamlet’s behavior is seen either as a flaw or a virtue. The story contains four sons of murdered fathers (Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, and Pyrrhus), but Hamlet differs from the three’s pursuit for revenge.
He even goes as far as feigning insanity in order to conceal his real agitation and divert attention from his task of revenge. The subject of revenge, which is one of the focal themes of the play, transcends every genre, for there is a Hamlet in every one of us. II. The Aspect of Revenge and How It Transcends Every Genre As Hamlet in the story suffers pain and grief as a result of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, the usurping of the throne and by the betrayal he felt from his mother’s remarriage to his father’s brother, Hamlet is then filled with the dilemma of whether to take revenge against the wrongdoer.
Suffering and grief as a consequence of injustice and oppression is as old as man’s history. Even during the course of the play, Hamlet’s torment alienates him from all those around him, even though he has a close friend to confide with. Such inner turmoil is only expressed in his soliloquies but unknown to those around him. Certainly, the depth of suffering is known only the most by the one who suffers. How people variously react to such agonies is showcased in the play’s story.
Most often, it is the common desire to act as the three other young men (Laertes, Fortinbras, and Pyrrhus) did — pursue their task of vengeance with ruthless single-mindedness. However, Hamlet’s situation is far more complicated. This shows that indeed, vengeance is far from simple. While it seeks to retaliate by inflicting pain for pain, Shakespeare’s Hamlet shows the peril of vengeance. All those who sought revenge died. Hamlet’s loved ones (such as Ophelia), those whom he could have sought solace and comfort, and himself also died.
They became victims of Hamlet’s reckless rage as a result of his deflected and unfulfilled desire for retaliation. Revenge therefore, sinks both the offender and the avenger, pulling down along with it the innocent. It is a bearer of destruction. While most revenge plays justifies the avenger by emphasizing him or her as a victim, Hamlet’s character hangs a question above it. At the very core of revenge is bitterness, and is like a ‘rotten apple that spoils the whole bunch’. It has destroyed everything that’s good in Hamlet and made him much more evil than his stepfather.
The danger of retaliation is to do greater harm than what was received. No one overcomes evil, with evil. Before bitterness could do its harm, it is best thrown out. Truly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks to every individual in every genre, since ALL of us must pass through a time of making that choice: “TO BE (bitter) OR NOT TO BE (bitter)?… That indeed is a question we all must face.
1. “Hamlet”. Collier’s Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. 1990. 2. A. L. Rowse. Hamlet: Modern Text with Introduction. 1984.