Revenge Tragedy, Tragedy
Sure, "tragedy" is right there in the title. But Hamlet isn't just any tragedy—it's a classic revenge tragedy. Revenge tragedies were all the rage in England during the late 16th and early 17th century, influenced by Seneca's (c. 4 BC - 65 AD) Roman adaptations of Greek tragedies. A Renaissance man named Thomas Kyd is particularly famous for writing revenge tragedies, not just his Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) but maybe also a lost play that scholars call the Ur-Hamlet—a predecessor to Shakespeare's.
So, just what elements do we need to call this play a revenge tragedy? Lucky for you, we remembered our checklist.
Secret Murder: Check. Something's "rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.100) and we find out exactly what it is in Act I, Scene v —Old King Hamlet wasn't "stung" by a poisonous "serpent" after all. 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 not only to his dead brother's crown but also to 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" (1.5.31). 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 Ensue: 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. Obviously.
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. Put it on the pile. Next, Ophelia goes mad and drowns. Intentional? Accident? Who knows. 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' 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 (#1). Laertes then pokes Hamlet with a poison-tipped sword (#2) and then Hamlet turns around and carves into Laertes with the same poison-tipped sword (#3). Understandably, Laertes is upset, so he tells on Claudius for planning the whole thing. Naturally, Hamlet then stabs Claudius (#4) and makes him guzzle the rest of the poisoned wine.
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.
Okay. 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)?
Dramatic work: Check. Hamlet is a definitely a play.
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. Hamlet's major flaw of procrastination is in serious conflict with his promise/ need for revenge.
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 "shape[d]" by some "divinity" (5.2.11). 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" (5.2.234). Hmm. Sounds to us like another way of saying Hamlet gives in to fate.
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?"