Hamlet fits into the generic category of "Tragedy." More specifically, Hamlet is a classic "Revenge Tragedy," a popular genre in England during the late 16th and early 17th century that includes plays like Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1623). This genre is influenced by plays written by Seneca (c. 4 BC - 65 AD), who adapted Greek tragedies for the Roman theater. Lucky for you we've got two nifty checklists of the basic rules that "Tragedies" and "Revenge Tragedies" follow.
Secret Murder: Check. Something's "rotten in the state of Denmark" and we find out exactly what it is in Act I, Scene v – that's where we learn that the Old King Hamlet wasn't "stung" by a poisonous "serpent" like everyone thinks. Turns out, his snaky brother, Claudius poured poison in his ear while he was snoozing in his garden. (Yep, that's a biblical allusion to what goes down in the Garden of Eden alright. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.) What's worse, Claudius then helped himself to his dead brother's crown and his queen, Gertrude.
Murder Victim's Ghost Visits a Relative: Check. How do we know Old Hamlet was murdered by his brother Claudius? Because his ghost tells young Hamlet, that's how. (Plus, Claudius admits as much when he's kneeling in prayer in Act III, scene iii.) The ghost is pretty demanding, too – he suggests he's stuck in Purgatory and needs Hamlet's help if he wants out, so he asks young Hamlet to "remember" him and to "[r]evenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.25). In other words, the ghost wants Hamlet to kill Claudius so he, the ghost, can go to heaven. Seems like we're on the right track here but there's something kinda odd about a Purgatorial ghost making murder demands, don't you think? This probably has something to do with the fact that Hamlet's not quite sure the ghost can be trusted. Check out "Quotes" on "Religion" and "Revenge" for more on this.
Hero Wants Revenge: Check. Naturally, our boy Hamlet wants to take some serious revenge on his murdering, incestuous uncle. (He also wants to lay into his mom but the ghost orders him to leave her out of it.) Here's the thing that separates Hamlet from other "Revenge Tragedies" (and also just about every other play we've read): It takes Hamlet for-e-ver to exact revenge. Why? Check out "Characters" discussion of Hamlet or, our discussion of "Revenge" for some possible answers.
Plotting, Disguises, and Intrigue Ensues: Now that the ghost's out of the bag, let the plotting and intrigue begin! Hamlet's pretty sure he believes the ghost (he really wants to believe the ghost) but he needs to be certain so, he pretends to be a madman in order to find out. Hamlet's odd behavior then causes everyone else to try to figure out why Hamlet's acting so strange. Claudius asks Hamlet's childhood pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet, Polonius uses Ophelia as bait to spy on Hamlet, Polonius hides behind a tapestry in Gertrude's room and spies directly on Hamlet, Hamlet puts on a play about murder to see how Claudius reacts, and so on. That's a whole lot of plotting and intrigue so, check.
Madness (Real and/or feigned): Check. Check. If you've been paying attention you know Hamlet feigns madness. But, the play also asks us to think about whether or not he actually descends into real lunacy. Meanwhile, Ophelia clearly goes insane. We know you want more so check out "Quotes" for "Madness" when you're done here.
Rising Body Count: Check. The body count steadily rises throughout the play. First, Hamlet stabs Polonius while the old man is spying on Hamlet and Gertrude from behind a screen in Gertrude's bedroom. Whoops – he thought that was Claudius. Oh well. Next, Ophelia goes mad and drowns (it's not quite clear if it's intentional or an accident). Also, Claudius sends Hamlet to London to have him secretly murdered but Hamlet has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed instead. Plus, we're pretty sure Fortinbras's army has been killing people left and right, even though we don't see any of it on stage.
Major Bloodbath including Hero's Violent Death: Check. It's time for the audience to put on their rain-slickers because we're headed for a bloodbath. The eruption of violence begins when Claudius and Laertes arrange a "friendly" duel between Laertes and Hamlet. At said duel, Gertrude drinks a cup of poisoned wine that was originally intended for Hamlet. Uh oh. Laertes then pokes Hamlet with a poison-tipped sword and then Hamlet turns around and carves into Laertes with the same poison-tipped sword. Understandably, Laertes is upset and he knows he's done for, so he tells on Claudius for planning the whole thing. Naturally, Hamlet then stabs Claudius in the guts with the poison-tipped sword and makes him guzzle the rest of the poisoned wine. Everybody's dying, which has got Horatio feeling left out. But, before he can lick the almost empty cup of poisoned wine, Hamlet tells Horatio he's got to stick around so he can share Hamlet's story. Then Hamlet keels over.
The verdict? Well, let's see. The play looks like a "Revenge Tragedy" and it sure smells like a "Revenge Tragedy." So, we're thinking it's definitely….a Revenge Tragedy.
OK. But, what about how Hamlet fits into the larger and more general category of "Tragedy" (which also includes plays like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth)? What do all these plays have in common? Let's discuss:
Dramatic work: Check. Hamlet is a play alright.
Serious or somber theme: Check. Hamlet's distress over his father's death and his mother's "hasty" remarriage to his uncle has got our boy seriously depressed, which is why Hamlet runs around giving all those lengthy speeches about grief, death, and suicide. Plus, a ghost shows up and tells Hamlet to kill his uncle, who, it turns out, is responsible for murdering Hamlet's father. Sounds "serious and somber" to us.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. If you've been paying attention you know Hamlet's got to overcome some major "conflict" in this play. Plus, Hamlet really likes to think things through so it takes him a super loooong period of time to carry out the ghost's instructions for revenge. Procrastination, then, is Hamlet's weak spot. (Though, we gotta say, it's also what makes the play so awesome.)
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. After all his deliberation about death, suicide, and the legitimacy of the ghost's demands, Hamlet finally acknowledges that his fate has been "shaped" by some "divinity" (5.2.2). Just before his duel with Laertes (the duel that will end Hamlet's life), Hamlet decides to give in to what he calls God's "providence" (5.2.35). Hmm. Sounds like another way of saying Hamlet gives in to something like fate, no?
That's the destiny part but what about the downfall? Well, Hamlet winds up dead at the end of the play which is the worst "downfall" of them all, don't you think?
Here's something you ought to know. Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do. Here's one more thing that Shakespeare's tragedies seem to have in common: despite the death of individuals at the end, the plays' conclusions also seem to promise the restoration of political order. How's that possible in Hamlet if the entire royal court's been wiped out? Well, Fortinbras, Prince of Norway conveniently arrives and claims the Danish throne, which you can read all about by going to "What's Up With the Ending?"