Hamlet as a revenge tragedy

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Revenge in Hamlet

There are three plots in Shakespeare's Hamlet: the main revenge plot and two subplots involving the romance between Hamlet and Ophelia, and the looming war with Norway. The following is a guide to the main plot, with a look at all the significant events on Hamlet's journey for vengeance.

Introduction to the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

Thomas Kyd established the revenge tragedy with his wildly popular Spanish Tragedy (1587), and Shakespeare perfected the genre with Hamlet, which is likely based on another revenge play by Kyd called the Ur-Hamlet. Sadly, no copy of Kyd's Ur-Hamlet exists today.

Most revenge tragedies share some basic elements: a play within a play, mad scenes, a vengeful ghost, one or several gory scenes, and, most importantly, a central character who has a serious grievance against a formidable opponent. This central character takes matters into his own hands and seeks revenge privately, after justice has failed him in the public arena. It should be noted that Hamlet is the only protagonist in any Elizabethan revenge play who can be considered a hero, aware of the moral implications involved in exacting his revenge.

Characters Involved in the Revenge Plot of Hamlet


Key Revenge Plot Events

1. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo. Horatio begs the apparition to speak (1.1.127), but it refuses. Horatio reports the encounter to Hamlet.

2. The Ghost appears to Hamlet and they leave to speak in private (1.4.86).

3. The…


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