Shakespeare‘s Hamlet is the most famous revenge play ever written. The story centers on murder and succession in the Royal Court of Denmark. But there is more afoot at Ellsinore. + Hamlet is more than a simple “revenge play”. *Themes such as political intrigue, madness and death envelope several characters throughout.
Intrigue commences before the play, with the poisoning death of King Hamlet and the succession to the Danish throne of his brother Claudius. As war with Young Fortinbras and Norway looms, Prince Hamlet feels the crown has been stolen from him with Claudius’ marriage to his mother Gertrude. Thus, the well-known revenge motive that permeates Hamlet’s thoughts the rest of the play. But Ian Johnston, in a 2001 lecture, refers to the Royal Court of Ellsinore’s “Machiavellianism”: In this court we are in a political realm based on duplicity, power and fear, and the outcome of the political actions is serious; the security of the kingdom. Everyone is constantly eavesdropping on everyone else.
Claudius killed King Hamlet and married his widow, Queen Gertrude to secure his throne. The relationship between Prince Hamlet and the new king is rife with bitterness. When Claudius inquires as to why Young Hamlet still mourns two months after the death of his father, he refers to his nephew/step-son as his “son”. Hamlet responds:
A little more than kin, and less than kind. (1, ii, 65)
The Royal Counselor Polonius is involved in several intrigues at the court. He works with Claudius to secure his power at the expense of Hamlet, and tries to dissuade his daughter Ophelia from a relationship with the prince he considers touched by madness. When Ophelia remarks that Hamlet has showed recent affection for her, Polonius scoffs:
Affection, pooh! You speak like a green girl
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance
Do you believe his “tenders” as you call them? (1, iii, 101-103)
Polonius’ son Laertes is also the object of his father’s suspicion; his father has spies track him on a trip to Paris and report back to the father on his activities. As with the fabled cat, Polonius is eventually killed by his curiosity. He is inadvertently stabbed to death by Hamlet while standing behind a curtain in Queen Gertrude’s bedroom, listening to a conversation between mother and son.
Other instances of political intrigue include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s mission to accompany Hamlet to England with instructions to have him killed by authorities there, the rumblings of war between Norway and Denmark and even “The Mousetrap”; a play staged by Hamlet for his mother and step-father/uncle in which he charges Claudius with the murder of the king.
Madness, real or imagined, is also a major theme. I doubt Hamlet’s ghostly vision of his dead father qualifies as madness, for he would have to share the affliction with the soldiers Marcellus and Bernardo, who reported seeing it first. But Polonius and Claudius were convinced the prince suffered from it, albeit to further their political goals. I would argue it was an act of madness, Claudius’ assassination of King Hamlet, that commenced the action of the play. He eventually admitted his guilt in prayer:
O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven
It hath the primal eldest cause upon’t
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not (3, iii, 36-38)
Ophelia was driven to madness by a combination of Hamlet’s rejection of her and her father’s death. In the company of the King and Queen, a disheveled Ophelia asks:
Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?
(4, v, 21)
She mourns for her father to the stunned Royal Couple:
I cannot choose but weep to think they should lay him i’th cold ground. My brother shall know of it (4, v, 68-69)
After a rambling, song-filled rant, she drowns herself.
Laertes, in mourning his father and sister, was justifiably struck with madness as he conspired with Claudius to kill Hamlet at the fencing exhibition.
The specter of death hovers over the play from curtain rise to fall. I argue that death overwhelms the better-understood revenge as the overriding theme. From the poisoning of King Hamlet to the bloody massacre at the end, ruminations about death, or its actual occurrence, haunt the major characters. Both kings are murdered, as are the title character and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The demises of Polonius, Gertrude and Laertes are accidental. The only melancholy character to die by her own hand is Ophelia. The fate of King Hamlet’s jester, whose skull was famously memorialized by Young Hamlet:
Alas, poor Yorick (5, i, 180)
Ian Johnston sees the characters as star-crossed: In the play, it doesn’t matter how people try to deal with life, they all fail. Life is too much for them. He sees only the gravedigger, the clown, surrounded by death on a daily basis, as able to handle its finality: He sings, he jokes, he turns what he has into a joyous acceptance of the world. He is the only person in the play with a creative sense of humor.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his famous criticism, points to the rich contrast between the clowns and Hamlet as two extremes! You see in the former the mockery of logic, and a traditional wit valued, like truth, for its antiquity, and treasured up, like a tune, for use.
Horatio’s eulogy of Hamlet has been repeated on countless occasions since the Bard’s time, famously at the death of John F. Kennedy:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (5, ii, 312-313)
In conclusion, there was plenty “rotten in Denmark”. But to call Hamlet merely a “revenge play” misses an important point of logic. Before revenge, just cause must be present. Without palace intrigue and the fateful decisions arising from its resulting paranoia and madness, there would have been no death to avenge. No “To be or not to be”. No Hamlet.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets, 1818. Retrieved from Internet website www.absoluteshakespeare.com April 18, 2007.
Ian Johnston, Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Revised 2001. Retrieved from the Internet website www.mala.bc.ca April 19, 2007.
Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, General Editors, William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Compact Edition, 1988. Oxford