Audiences watching Hamlet at the time it was first performed would recognize the play as belonging to a particular genre: they didn’t have a name for it, but modern scholars call it “revenge tragedy.” In a revenge tragedy the hero has suffered a great wrong, usually the murder of someone he loves, and the plot is driven by his desire for revenge. At the end of the play, the hero murders the person who has wronged him, and typically the hero also dies. The first really popular revenge tragedy was The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. It was written more than a decade before Hamlet, and it was still being performed when Hamlet was first staged. Shakespeare’s audiences would have noticed that Hamlet borrows several features from Kyd’s play, including a vengeful ghost, a play-within-a-play and a hero who goes mad. But rather than simply repeating the familiar conventions of the revenge tragedy, Hamlet subverts many of the tropes to question both the genre of revenge tragedy, as well as the nature of revenge itself.
Hamlet turns revenge tragedy on its head by taking away the usual obstacles to the hero’s vengeance. In a typical revenge tragedy like The Spanish Tragedy, the hero faces two obstacles: to find out who the murderers are, and then to get himself into a position where he can kill them. In Hamlet, the hero learns the identity of his father’s murderer at the end of Act I, and he’s in a position to kill Claudius from the very beginning. No character thwarts him in his desire for revenge, and, living in the same palace as his nemesis, he has many chances to enact his plot. Hamlet’s only real obstacle is in his head: he is uncertain what he should believe and how he should act. By making the obstacles to Hamlet’s revenge internal, Shakespeare introduces philosophical questions to the revenge tragedy which had not appeared in the genre before. Can we believe the evidence of our eyes? Is revenge justified? Can we predict the consequences of our actions? What happens when we die?
While Hamlet, being a tragedy, is generally seen as a very serious play, in some ways it seems to make fun of the revenge tragedies that came before it. When Hamlet cries “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless Villain! / O, vengeance!” (II.ii.) he sounds like a sillier version of Hieronimo, the hero of The Spanish Tragedy. The play-within-a-play staged in Act III, Scene 2 is a parody of a revenge tragedy: its rhymes would have made it sound absurdly old-fashioned to an audience in Shakespeare’s time. With the character of Laertes, Shakespeare pokes fun at the traditional heroes of revenge tragedy. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is ready to rush to his revenge, but Claudius is easily able to manipulate him and Laertes ends up begging forgiveness from the man he wanted to murder. By making traditional revenge tragedies look ridiculous, Shakespeare shows us that the troubling philosophical doubt of Hamlet is more realistic than the passion and fury of plays like The Spanish Tragedy.
After Hamlet, the genre of revenge tragedy would never be taken entirely seriously again. Later revenge tragedies follow Hamlet in using humor, especially humor at the expense of the revenge tragedy genre itself. The best-known revenge tragedy written after Hamlet is The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton, which was first performed in 1606. Despite its title, The Revenger’s Tragedy is as much a black comedy as a revenge tragedy. Its violence is deliberately over-the-top and its plot absurdly complicated. Middleton was also influenced by Hamlet’s philosophical questions. Where Hamlet doubted the morality of seeking revenge, Middleton’s hero Vindice is openly immoral in pursuing his: by the end of the play Vindice is more a villain than a hero. Modern action movies also owe a great deal to Hamlet’s comic take on the revenge plot. Movies like Kill Bill and John Wick share with Hamlet and The Revenger’s Tragedy amoral heroes and complex revenge plots ending in comically gory action sequences.
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