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 Hamletís 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 Ghost reveals that he is, in fact, the ghost of Hamletís father. The revenge plot is established with the Ghostís utterance, "So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear" (1.5.7). He tells Hamlet that he was poisoned by his brother Claudius as he slept in his orchard and, if Hamlet is not already feeling the desire, the Ghost makes plain the demand: "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (25).
4. To be certain of Claudius's guilt, Hamlet decides to re-enact the murder of his father with the production of The Murder of Gonzago (known also as the play within the play or The Mousetrap). If Claudius is disturbed by the play it will reveal his guilt. In Hamlet's words:
The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king (2.2.606-07).
5. Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago and Hamlet and Horatio agree that the agitated Claudius has behaved like a guilty man during the production (3.2.284).
6. Hamlet has an opportunity to kill the unattended Claudius in his chamber, but, after soliloquizing on the matter, he decides not to take action because Claudius is praying. Killing Claudius in prayer would not really be revenge because he would go to heaven, "fit and seasoníd for his passage" (3.3.86).
7. Hamlet kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius as he hides behind a curtain. (3.4.22)
8. The Ghost appears again to Hamlet. He is angry because Claudius is still alive. He tells Hamlet he has returned to "whet thy almost blunted purpose" (3.4.111).
9. Claudius banishes Hamlet to England for the murder of Polonius (4.3.46). He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamletís actions (55) and makes plans to have Hamlet assassinated on English soil.
10. Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet reporting that he is returning to Denmark, thanks to pirates who had captured his boat and released him on the promise of future reward (4.6.11).
11. Claudius hears of Hamlet's return and he conspires with Laertes, Polonius's son, to murder Hamlet. Laertes will use a poison-tipped sword during a fight with Hamlet, and Claudius will have a poisoned drink at the ready (4.7.126-161).
12. Hamlet stabs Claudius (5.2.311) and forces him to drink the poisoned wine (316). The revenge plot is thus concluded. Hamlet himself then dies from the wound received during the fight with Laertes (348).
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/playanalysis/revengetragedy.html" >.