”Hamlet” is one of the most famous tragedies in literature, but one where Shakespeare bends or outright breaks many of the rules of the genre. This lesson will examine ”Hamlet” as a tragedy and how it follows, and does not follow, the rules.

Tragedy as a Genre

When most people think of tragic plays, they think of William Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear are tragedies that end in the sad and often gruesome deaths of their main characters.

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However, if your only exposure to tragedy as a genre is through William Shakespeare, you might have some skewed ideas about what defines a tragedy. That’s because Shakespeare was a writer who liked to play with the genre rules. His plays follow some of the rules of a typical tragedy, but invert or ignore many others. No play better demonstrates this than Hamlet. When considered as a stand-alone play, Hamlet is one of the great works of English literature, a penetrating study of ambition, jealousy, and lust, and an exploration of the mental state of an endlessly complex young man. But when looked at in the context of tragedy as a genre, Hamlet is a peculiar tragedy indeed.

Classical Roots

Drama, the performance of a scripted story by a group of actors, traces its history back to Ancient Greece, where dramatic competitions were a major part of religious festivals. Many Greek plays featured ancient heroes such as Oedipus and Agamemnon, and focused on particularly terrible moments in these heroes’ lives. This helped the actors form an emotional connection with the audience and show how powerless humans were against the gods. It’s in this context that the tragedy was born.

Though tragedies had already been around for many years, they were not viewed as a distinct genre, or category of literature, until the Greek philosopher and part-time drama critic, Aristotle, expounded on it in his book, Poetics. In this book, Aristotle formulated a theory of tragedy, based on his observations of the most successful ones, that would be influential for centuries. Perhaps the two most famous tenets of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy were that:

  1. It focused on a great man brought down by a tragic flaw such as greed or jealousy
  2. It caused a catharsis, or emptying out of emotions, in an audience

In mimicking the Greeks, Ancient Romans continued to produce tragedies while introducing many new elements to the genre. Perhaps the most important was the invention of the subgenre known as the Senecan tragedy. Named for the playwright Seneca, this type of tragedy is distinguished by its focus on revenge and use of gruesome violence. By contrast, Greek tragedy typically kept its violence off stage.

Revenge Tragedy

In the burgeoning theater scene of London in the 1580s and 1590s, one of the most popular genres quickly became the revenge tragedy, which borrowed elements from both classic Greek and Senecan tragedy. Revenge tragedies typically focus on a flawed hero who takes revenge for a wrong done to him or his family, before eventually being killed himself.

After the massive success of The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, first performed in 1587, revenge tragedies became all the rage on the English stage, with many plays borrowing elements from Kyd’s work. In a lot of ways, The Spanish Tragedy set the template for the revenge tragedies that followed, including Shakespeare’s first attempt at tragedy, the violent and brutal Titus Andronicus.

Hamlet, by contrast, was written around 1600, a few years after the vogue for revenge tragedy had faded. Hamlet displays many elements of revenge tragedy, but also breaks the genre rules in some important and interesting ways.

Hamlet as Revenge Tragedy

It’s easy to say that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy because it’s about a character trying to exact revenge. In Hamlet’s case, he’s plotting to murder his uncle Claudius in retribution for Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father, which allowed Claudius to become king of Denmark and even marry Hamlet’s mother.

A classic staple of revenge tragedy is that the revenger is spurred to action because the corrupt society he lives in will not bring the villains to justice. In The Spanish Tragedy, for example, the hero, Hieronimo, is seeking revenge against the king’s brother. In Hamlet, the villain is the king, meaning Hamlet’s only hope for justice is to kill him.

As in other revenge tragedies, Hamlet is spurred to revenge by the ghost of the murdered victim. He uses a play within the play, appropriately called ‘The Mouse-trap,’ to expose Claudius. And, like other revengers including Hieronimo and Titus Andronicus, Hamlet seems to descend into madness as the play reaches its climax.

But here is where Shakespeare gets tricky. The subject of Hamlet’s madness has vexed readers and playgoers for centuries. Is he really mad, or just playing a part, the same way the actors in ‘The Mouse-trap’ are?

And the question of exactly how calculating Hamlet may be calls attention to how he differs from a classic revenger. Hieronimo and the other heroes of revenge tragedies are men of action, usually former soldiers. Hamlet is famously a man of inaction, a moody young scholar whose indecision makes him pass up a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius early in the play.

The setting of the play also highlights the differences between Hamlet and other revenge tragedies. Most revenge tragedies, like Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, are set in either Spain or Italy, warm-weather countries that would have seemed like exciting and dangerous locales to audiences in rainy England. Revenge tragedies set in warm-weather countries usually have hot-blooded main characters like Hieronimo. However, Hamlet is set in snowy Denmark and the coldness of the weather reflects the coldness of the play’s hero.

Lesson Summary

On the surface, Hamlet contains the elements of a classic revenge tragedy. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, was the first to formulate a theory of tragedy, a form of drama and literary genre that focused on a character’s tragic flaw and caused a catharsis in an audience. English revenge tragedies were based on tragic Greek and Roman plays, such as those written by Seneca. Their popularity originated with The Spanish Tragedy, which featured a hot-blooded main character and a warm-weather setting. By contrast, Hamlet is set in cold, snowy Denmark and features a moody and indecisive man of thought, instead of a brutal action hero. By understanding genre conventions and expectations, a reader can better understand what Shakespeare was doing when he created his most complex and beguiling hero.