Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Revenge on the Revenge Play

Back in the day–by which I mean around the time I started this whole mess of a Project–I discussed a wonderfully nasty piece of work called Titus Andronicus. During that month, I made reference to the debt many of the Elizabethan playwrights owed Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman politician/philosopher, who also wrote some plays (though to call them plays is stretching the definition a little: his works were meant to be recited, not so much acted out). Back then I wrote

Some of his plays reworked stories of earlier Greek writers (like Sophocles), but in his hands, the plays had a greater focus on the terrible deeds that precipitate the tragic hero’s fall. Sometimes witches and ghosts were employed to bring about actions (or reactions) by the characters, often prompting them to revenge.

So what does this have to do with Hamlet?

Well, first of all, the play exhibits the major hallmarks of Senecan tragedy–revenge, blood-and-guts-and-high-body-count, the supernatural–as well as that of its descendant, the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, which often employed the idea of a play-within-a-play. In these plays (including Thomas Kyd’s influential The Spanish Tragedy), the climactic bloodbath usually took place at or immediately after the play-within-a-play.

Here is where Shakespeare gets his revenge on the revenge play. “The Mousetrap” occurs dead-center in the Second Quarto edition of Pelican Hamlet that we’re reading. Within 200 lines of the end of that play-within-a-play, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius and revenge his father’s murder. Of course, he doesn’t, does he?

How frustrating this must have been for the audience–especially the groundlings–who, having seen the Ghost, having seen Hamlet see the Ghost, having heard Hamlet swear to revenge the murder, having seen Claudius’ reaction to the play, AND having heard Claudius’ confession, THEN watch Hamlet enter. The prince “might do it pat” (III.iii.73).

But he doesn’t.

It’s bad enough there wasn’t a bloodbath at the play, but now this?

It’s revengus interrruptus.

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