Before diving into Hamlet, I wanted to share with you this video clip I received through a list-serv I am on. So back in 1666, a great fire that burned from Sunday Sept. 2nd to Wednesday Sept. 5th consumed nearly all of London. (Rumors abounded as to who started the conflagration.) Due to the destruction that this fire wreaked on the city, much of the London that Shakespeare lived in has been lost. Now through researching documents and painting of what London look liked before the Great Fire, a group of students from De Montfort University actually virtually recreated London pre-Great Fire. Here’s a clip of what they did. Enjoy!
The History of Hamlet
As I mentioned in my posting on Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is not known for the originality of his plots. Only four – Midsummer, Love Labor’s Lost, The Tempest, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, of his 36 plays did Shakespeare invent a plot for. When it comes to Hamlet, Shakespeare very much lifted the plot of this play from other versions of Hamlet that had been on the Elizabethan stage. Since the 1580s, London audiences had seen different versions of Hamlet’s tale performed. Although the script is lost to us, Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet was the most popular version Hamlet before Shakespeare’s. (Even the acting troupe that Shakespeare was a member of, the Chamberlain’s Men, put on this version of Hamlet in 1594)
The story of Hamlet actually dates back to a 12th-century saga by Saxo-Grammaticus. In this version of the tale, the hero, Amleth, seeks to kill his uncle for having murdered his father and taken the throne from him. A more recent retelling of the tale by Francoise de Belleforest was translated and printed in London in 1570.
My point here is that by the time Shakespeare writes his Hamlet in 1599-1600, his audiences would have been very familiar with the story. (Think about how familiar most audiences today are with story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman!) Shakespearean scholar, James Shapiro, identifies the Fortinbras subplot as the only part of the play original to Shakespeare.*
I think why Hamlet has endured for centuries is because he has Hamlet actually question his purpose in the play.
“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!”
In one of his famous essays (1625), “On Revenge,” Francis Bacon , a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, described revenge as a “kind of wild justice.” As Bacon explains, those who seek revenge often do not control the outcome of their actions: “[V]indictive persons live the life of witches; who as they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate.” He writes that while the initial wrong driving the person to revenge is a crime, the person seeking vengeance does more harm by upsetting the order of law and throwing society into chaos. Overall, Bacon warns against revenge for personal reasons since doing so leads to destructive ends.
Bacon’s thoughts on revenge open up a window into how revenge is treated in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is categorized as a revenge tragedy. This a subgenre of tragedy that was very popular on the English stage from the late 1580s to the first decade of 17th century. (Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) is thought to have started the craze.) The elements of a revenge tragedy include a ghost’s call to avenge his death, feigned insanity, a play within a play, suicide, and a gruesome, hyperbolic bloodbath at the end. (You most likely can already see where these elements are in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Now Shakespeare does not give us a straight forward, simple revenge tragedy. Rather Shakespeare writes a revenge tragedy in which he questions the value of revenge.
Let’s take a look at Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (II.ii.560-617). Hamlet has just watched the lead actor from the troupe that Roscencrantz and Guildenstern have brought to entertain Hamlet give a speech about the death of Priam, King of Troy. Hamlet remarks how at the end of speech the actor describes Hecuba, Priam’s wife, watches her husband be hacked to pieces by one of the invading Greeks. The actor becomes so overwhelmed that he begins to cry. Hamlet uses the actor’s faked tears to scold himself for having done nothing to revenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle (lines 576-582). At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet says he needs to test whether what the Ghost has told is true (lines 610-617). This is a really important moment in the play: Hamlet, rather than just simply acting on the Ghost’s call for vengeance, comes up with a plan to see if he has been told the truth. “I will grounds/ More relative than this” (616-617): Hamlet needs to make sure that he is not acting rashly and so murdering a person innocent of his father’s death. (It would be as if Bruce Wayne questioned whether it would be a good idea to don the Batman cape.) Here’s a revenge hero questioning the grounds on which he should enact his revenge.
The one time Hamlet does act spontaneously comes in Act III sc. 4. After having staged the play within the play and upset the King, Hamlet goes to speak with his mother. Polonius having arranged the meeting hides himself behind an arras to eavesdrop on their conversation. However, when Gertrude cries out for help thinking that Hamlet is about to warn her, Polonius calls out for aid as well, revealing to Hamlet that someone else is in the room. Hamlet, not thinking about his actions, stabs at the arras and accidentally kills Polonius, hoping it is the King.
Gertrude: O me, what hast thou done?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the King?
Hamlet does not even know whom he has just stabbed! He merely reacts without considering the consequences and murders a person innocent of any crime. So his attempt to seek revenge results in ends that he does not foresee. Hamlet’s revenge results in a “kind of wild justice.”
Hamlet’s not the only character’s whose efforts to seek revenge result in outcomes they had not planned. Laertes serves as one of Hamlet’s foils, a secondary character whose purpose is to highlight a characteristic of the protagonist. In Act IV, sc. 5, Laertes stages an uprising to overthrow Claudius, who he believes is responsible for his father’s murder. As Laertes proclaims: “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged/ Most throughly for my father” (lines 135-136). Essentially Laertes here claims that he does not care what the results of his actions are as long as he get his revenge. As the plot unfolds, Claudius is able to manipulate Laertes into helping him take part in his scheme to kill Hamlet.
So as you can see from these examples, Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy shows revenge as resulting in consequences that go beyond just the hero’s efforts to fulfill the call to revenge.
*Shapiro, James. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2005.