Comment on the theme of revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Revenge tragedies were popular in Elizabethan theatre for their violent action and on-stage spectacle of bloody justice. Hamlet uses a medieval Danish revenge story as a framework to comment on the internal ambiguity of the revenge tragedy as a genre, questioning whether murder is acceptable (particularly the murder of a king, in the context of a society in which the ruler was seen to rule through a ‘divine right’) and how the cycle of violence can end when every murder has to be answered by another.

The narrative of Hamlet is dominated by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, three men seeking revenge for the death of their families. Using soliloquies, which provide an externalised insight of the internal thoughts of a character for the audience, Hamlet discusses whether he should revenge his father, yet each of the play’s acts of violence (often upon the innocent characters rather than the guilty) inspire more. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius cause the suicide of Ophelia and inspires Laertes to try and kill Hamlet; Laertes’ arrangement of the poisoned sword and drink at the fencing match kills Claudius and Gertrude as well as Hamlet. Revenge in Hamlet is shown to be disruptive to society, and the motif of disease throughout is used to comment on the ‘rotten state’ of Denmark corrupted by violence. Only through the final deaths of the play can order then be re-established by Fortinbras.

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