Revenge tragedies became very popular during 1600 at a time when theatre was of an unstable popularity and required the backing of men of influence to ensure it would continue. The theme of earlier revenge tragedies was the punishment of an evildoer through someone who had suffered because of him. The story source on which Hamlet was based had a dominating revenge theme. One of the basic elements of the revenge situation came to be the ghost: A clear image of a spirit left restless through waiting for vengeance against the person who had inflicted suffering.
Its role being to urge the avenger to action and vengeance then to be sought and carried out in a series of dramatic episodes. Hamlet has clear links with this type of revenge tragedy. Other plays relating to the revenge tragedy such as Kyds The Spanish Tragedy 91587) and the anonymous Locrine (1595) have characters avenging deaths of close relatives. But in both these plays material considerations prevent fulfilment whereas in Hamlet, conscience is what stops the vengeance taking place. Shakespeare chose a theme, which deals wit a duty higher than the others, a sons revenge for the murder of his father.
Shakespeare humanizes the play, gives the audience something to relate to loyalty between father and son. This is perhaps a component, which contributes to the success of Hamlet. Hamlet first learns of the real situation behind his fathers death when the ghost of his father visits him in Act 1, Scene V. He is told that his father was murdered. This confirms the suspicion Hamlet had before, and spurs him into thoughts of revenge straight away. Haste me to knowt, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge. (Lines 29-31).
This statement from Hamlet quite early on is a complete contrast to what action Hamlet does actually take and the time it takes him to act. He speaks here of wanting to take quick revenge but in fact Hamlet waits and seeks evidence to prove that Claudius was responsible for his fathers death. He spends the next four and a half acts deliberating over how and when he should take revenge, and seeks confirmation for himself of Claudius guilt by the use of the Mouse-Trap. This takes place in Act 3, Scene 2, when Claudius asks for light during the play at the point where, Gonzago pours poison into the Kings ear.
As Hamlet knows, this is very similar to the situation in which his father died. Claudius realises this as well and rises dramatically. This is confirmation enough for Hamlet and brings him to true recognition of his fathers death, yet Hamlet still hesitates to kill him. Hamlets revenge plan is hidden from the rest of the court. It is very much behind closed doors and it is only Horatio to whom Hamlet tells the whole story. The other two main revengers Fortinbras and Laertes are a great contrast to Hamlet in this way.
Laertes and Fortinbras vengeance is discussed throughout the play, and both are very open compared to Hamlet, although Fortinbras does hide his motives from his uncle. Both these characters have similarities in their situation to Hamlet but both go about their revenge in very different ways. Even after Hamlet is sure beyond any doubts that Claudius is the murderer, he hesitates to kill him. Fortinbras, on the other hand, has been taking action even before the play begins. When the play does begin we learn that Demark is in a state of alert.
The audience learn that the country has been preparing for a war, and from Horatio, the audience also learns that the young Fortinbras is getting ready for action against Denmark for the killing of his father and for the return of lands previously owned by Norway. This provides the audience with a lot of the background for the revenge theme and also suggests later events in the plot. From this introduction to Fortinbras we already get the impression that he is a soldier, a man of action, he doesnt delay his revenge but plots it and takes his opportunities whenever they arrive. His character is a contrast to Hamlet and Hamlet realises this.
In Hamlets Soliloquy in Act IV Scene IV, Hamlet is thinking about all the time he has wasted in not taking action. He sees how everything around him is taking shape, all except his own actions. The sight of Fortinbras determination to go against the Polish army for the honour of gaining such a small and trivial piece of land makes Hamlet annoyed with himself. After all, he is avenging the murder of his father and the disgracing of his mothers name, something much more important than a piece of land, yet he has not carried out his revenge, and has in fact, it seems, been putting it off.
How stand I, then, That have a father killed, a mother stained, Excitements of my reason and my blood, And let all sleep? (Lines 56-59). Hamlet is questioning himself and most importantly his actions, why has he just let things go? He knows he has had the opportunities, especially in Act III Scene III where he is in the position to kill Claudius. Hamlet finds the King kneeling-praying, and so has him at his mercy; but he does not kill him. Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now Ill dot and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged that would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. (Lines 73-78). At the beginning of his speech Hamlet is very dramatic, he has the confidence to kill Claudius on the spur of the moment. But as soon as there is time for him to think about what he is doing, like in this situation, his resolution fails and he makes excuses for himself. Hamlet feels his revenge will not be fulfilled if, murdering the King while he is praying sends his soul straight to heaven.
However, we can see this as just another reason for Hamlet to put off taking his revenge. It is the event taking place that turns Hamlets thoughts. He is ashamed, before his eyes are twenty-thousand men willing to fight and die for a piece of land virtually worthless, when he himself is unable to kill his fathers murderer even when presented with the perfect opportunity. It is this event that turns Hamlet, makes him form decisions and turns his thought into revenge. O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (Lines 65-66).
At the end of this soliloquy Hamlet decides that all he will think about is his revenge against anyone that has done injustice towards him, it is time to act. Though we as the audience perhaps see this as ironic as Hamlets actions often contradict his words, we perhaps still wonder whether he will actually take his revenge. This scene makes Hamlets personality clear to the reader. He is shown against another Prince who is the exact opposite of him in the same situation. Hamlet is not an impulsive character, if he had been he would have committed murder straight away, but this would have meant there would have been no play to speak of.
Hamlet cannot bring himself to do it, until now. Fortinbras pursuit of his goal has given Hamlet the example on how to act if an opportunity presents itself. Hamlet is so determined to do something he doesnt want to think about the consequences anymore. This eventual attitude of Hamlet is similar to how Laertes has been throughout the play, he acts almost immediately when finding out that his father has been killed, he is almost irrational, he is passionate with his accusations and threats, and like Hamlet a menace to Claudius at this stage in the play.
Unlike Hamlet, much like Fortinbras, Laertes is a man of action; he has no scruples and needs no corroborative evidence to support his courses of action. On his return to Denmark he is quickly standing before the King, accusing him of the death of Polonius. He wants immediate action and is determined to take revenge. How came he dead? Ill not be juggled with. To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil! (Lines 127-128). Here Laertes speaks boldly and passionately he will revenge!
He uses curses To hell, allegiance! that would have appeared very evil to Shakespeares audiences. Laertes goes on to say that as long as he avenges his fathers death he doesnt care what happens to him in life or death. This emphasis the strength in Laertes character, he is determined to take revenge straight away and speaks of it in a similar way to Hamlet when Hamlet learnt of how his father was killed in Act I, Scene V. O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain; smiling, damned villain! (Lines 105-106).