Hamlet and its contemporaries
Hamlet is one of a cluster of similar plays that were tremendously popular on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage that are now grouped as revenge tragedies. These plays draw upon the works of the Stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca, whose blood-soaked tragedies feature the revenge motif, a ghost, and rhetorical excess. Some examples of revenge tragedy on the English Renaissance stage include:
- Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (date uncertain, some time between 1582 and 1592)
- Kyd (probably), the Ur-Hamlet (c. 1587)
- John Marston, Antonio's Revenge (1600)
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1601)
- Henry Chettle, The Tragedy of Hoffman (1602)
- Thomas Middleton, The Revenger's Tragedy (1606); this play was formerly attributed to Cyril Tourneur, but is now accepted as Middleton's
- Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy (1609)
- George Chapman, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois (1610).
Of these plays, the Ur-Hamlet is lost, but its existence is known because Thomas Lodge alludes to it in his tract Wit's Misery (1596). Lodge says of a man who resents another man's success:
he walks for the most part in black under colour of gravity, and looks as pale as the visard of the ghost which cried so miserally at the theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge. (p. 62)
From Lodge, we know that even the idea of a ghost urging Hamlet on to revenge was not original to Shakespeare, but had made its way to the stage some years before Shakespeare's own play. Given this, it is unsurprising that the plot, situations, style, and characterization of Hamlet have much in common with other revenge tragedies of the period.
The Tropes of Revenge Tragedy
The elements of revenge tragedy as a genre were first identified by Ashley H. Thorndike in a 1902 article. The tropes Thorndike enumerates are these:
- The ghost of a murdered man urges his son to seek revenge.
- The revenger hesitates in his task. Elaborate soliloquies often provide both the medium of and the justification for his procrastination.
- One or more characters, typically including the revenger, are or pretend to be mad.
- Both the revenger and his enemies make use of intrigue. Characters plot against each other and traps are laid for the unwary.
- The body count is very high; few characters are left standing at the end.
These elements, all present in Hamlet, are found in revenge tragedies both preceding and succeeding that play. Not every play has all these elements. For example, The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois is about a murdered brother rather than father. But the plays clearly form a group that draw upon a shared set of tropes. Let's look at some examples.
The Spanish Tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy is the earliest extant play of the revenge tragedy genre. Hieronimo, the protagonist, is driven mad by the murder of his son, Horatio. After much soliloquizing, he exacts his revenge on the killers by staging an elaborate play-within-a-play. The ghost of Hieronimo's best friend, Andrea, who has been killed in battle prior to the action of this play, is onstage throughout, as is another character who is the personification of Revenge.
Harold Jenkins's introduction to the Arden edition of Hamlet (1982) summarizes the parallels between Shakespeare's play and Marston's:
In each a son is visited by the Ghost of his father, who reveals that he has been poisoned, laments that his wife has yielded to the murderer, and calls on his son for revenge. The son, already separated from his beloved, whose chastity is put in question, becomes melancholy and impersonates a fool or madman. He forgoes an opportunity to stab the murderer for the sake of a fuller revenge later, and the Ghost appears to him again in his mother's chamber. (p. 7)
Jenkins also lists several "incidental similarities" between the two plays, for example both heroes' wearing black and appearing onstage reading a book.
The Atheist's Tragedy
Tourneur's play features a wicked uncle, D'Amville, who murders his brother Montferrers. Montferrers' ghost tells his son Charlemont about the murder, but specifically instructs him to leave revenge to God, who will surely punish the avowed atheist D'Amville. (Get it? Damn-ville?) In a neat inversion of the usual vacillating revenger trope, Charlemont wants to avenge his father, but the ghost himself has counseled inaction.
Similar parallels and contrasts can be drawn between Hamlet and every other revenge tragedy of the period. From this, it is clear that Shakespeare's play does not deviate from the conventions of revenge tragedy. Whatever accounts for the popularity of Hamlet (and that's a whole 'nother question altogether), none of its structural or thematic features make it unique among revenge tragedies.
Why Revenge Tragedies?
Perhaps instead of focusing on the popularity of Hamlet specifically, we could examine why revenge tragedies in general were so popular on the English Renaissance stage. Katharine Eisaman Maus has argued:
Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies explore the particular stresses and incongruities produced by the highly stratified society of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. ... Overt displays of dominance and submission marked degrees of rank: and everyone, of course, except the monarch at the apex of the pyramid, had to humble himself before someone else. Renaissance revenge tragedy taps the repressed frustration of such situations, presenting the delicious spectacle of subjects hoodwinking and finally annihilating their superiors.
Revenge tragedy, reflects, however, not merely the predictable strains of life in a hierarchical society, but the less calculable effects of a hierarchy in the process of transformation. (p. xi–xii)
Maus points out that as the older, fixed hierarchies gave way to new forms of social organization, individuals could no longer rely on established norms or processes of justice. One might consider the effects of the Reformation in dismantling certainties. As established norms crumbled, individuals found themselves having to act alone in situations where they would previously rely upon systems. Maus writes:
Revenge tragedies feature someone who prosecutes a crime in a private capacity, taking matters into his own hands because the institutions by which criminals are made to pay for their offenses are either systematically defective or unable to cope with some particularly difficult situation. Such plays testify to an apparently ineradicable yearning for justice—a yearning that abides even, or especially, in the most unfairly victimized persons. But at the same time, they register a troubling discrepancy between the desire for equity and the means of fulfilling that desire.
Usually the deficiencies of the world presented in the play antedate the action we see on stage. Indeed the defectiveness of the status quo is virtually a precondition of the genre; for by definition revenge occurs after a crime has been perpetrated, as a response to some previous outrage. ... The importunate ghosts who haunt revenge tragedies remind characters and audiences of constraints the past places upon the present, of obligations the living bear to the departed. (p. ix)
As the social order crumbles around him, how is Hamlet to seek justice for his murdered father? He can hardly go to the king; the very situation forecloses that avenue. He can't even trust his mother. All he can do to fulfill his obligations to his father and to achieve some measure of equity is to wreak revenge by acting on his own. The figure of Hamlet, alongside the other haunted, lonely, and mad avengers of this period, epitomizes the emergence of the early modern subject during the Renaissance as an autonomous actor, an individual unmoored from the fixities of the vanished feudal system.
- Lodge, Thomas. Wit's Misery and the World's Madness. 1596. In The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, v. 4. Glasgow: Hunterian Club, 1883.
- Maus, Katharine Eisaman, ed. and intro. Four Revenge Tragedies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1601. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.
- Thorndike, Ashley H. “The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays.” PMLA, vol. 17, no. 2, 1902, pp. 125–220. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456606. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.