Hamlet and Revenge

A study of revenge and revengers in two Elizabethan tragedies:
Hamlet and Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy

by Heron McConnell

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William Shakespeare William Shakespeare
Thomas Middleton Thomas Middleton
Renaissance drama Renaissance drama

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not flx'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!

In this study of revenge and revengers in two Elizabethan revenge tragedies the two plays I shall look at are Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and The Revenger's Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton. I shall look first at the playwrights' handling of the characters of the revengers, and then at the treatment of the revengers by other characters in the plays.

Although having similarities in their underlying themes, and in their adherence to conventions, these two plays present contrasting pictures of the figure of the revenger; Hamlet offering a far more complex treatment of its main character, and The Revenger's Tragedy appearing, in comparison, limited by the author's social message, and lacking in realistic characterisation.

Hamlet and Vindice, the two revengers, have in common their tasks as revengers, but they have very different methods of dealing with situations, modes of thought, and instinctual behaviour. Middleton's Vindice is largely an allegorical character; his name and the names of other characters in The Revenger's Tragedy (e.g. Spurio, Ambitioso) are derived from Medieval morality plays; names which suggest the quality of near-farcical exaggeration which is a feature of The Revenger's Tragedy from the opening scene's remarkable similarity to a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins, to Vindice's simplistic association of lust with Judas and the Devil.

Hamlet, in contrast, is an individual with depth, who suffers from insecurity, and a sense of absurdity. As we see him at the beginning of the play he is suffering from melancholy, not only from the death of his father, but also from 'the moral shock of the sudden ghostly disclosure of his mother's true nature' [1]. Hamlet is psychologically real, and in my view while Vindice's vengeance is all expressed outwards, Hamlet, as a man and as a revenger, shifts from an external struggle for vengeance to an internal one.

Both revengers respond to, rather than initiate events, but Hamlet is much more an instrument of others than Vindice, who is full of zest. Both characters carry a burden of guilt. Hamlet's Oedipus complex, (Freud having informed us of the revenger's unconscious motives), is heavily aggravated by the absence of his father and excessive closeness of his mother, and this accounts for the refocusing of his patricidal wish onto Claudius, and shows how his need for revenge is internal, not purely a need to resolve dissatisfaction with the 'affairs of the world', as is Vindice's. Hamlet's needs are deep and complex, while for Vindice:

The smallest advantage fattens wronged men. [1.2.98]

Hamlet's 'internalisations' arise because he has identified his ego with his father - the lost 'object' - and is therefore suffering from a loss of ego. His inward suffering is further intensified by his conflicts with Ophelia and Gertrude, leading him to suicidal thoughts:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not flx'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! [1.2.129-132]

Hamlet is searching deep into his soul for explanations and resolutions, while Vindice simply waits for 'that bald Madam Opportunity'. [1.1.55]

Hamlet's delaying, compared to Vindice's incessant activity, shows that the two revengers are in a way opposite in their approaches to the problems confronting them, but their roles within the plots prevent them from taking entirely different directions. Hamlet and Vindice, and the other revengers in both plays, may be ultimately the agents of their own destruction, but we can see from Shakespeare's presentation of Hamlet (and Laertes) that he did not wish to portray revengers who slipped irrevocably into immorality:

The foul practice hath turn'd itself on me. [5.2.299-300].

Report me and my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied [5.2.321-322]

Hamlet retains some integrity, or at least sincerity of purpose, even at the close of the play, whereas Middleton's Vindice, Spurio, Ambitioso et. al. receive no such redemption, and the only possible purification or retribution for them is a general holocaust.

A parallel distinction between the characters is seen in the revengers' reactions to crises. Vindice's moral weakness is exposed when he allows his indignation about courtly manners and the faulty judicial system to metamorphose into the immorality of his own subsequent crimes. Hamlet's indignation, in contrast, is, for the greater part of the play, turned inwards. Right from his first soliloquy this is apparent:

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! . . . Am I a coward? . . . Why what an ass am I!' [2.2.530-562]

The keynote of Hamlet's character is his self-questioning, in contrast to the utter resentment and bitterness of Vindice. Compare Hamlet's self-castigating words above with Vindice's, 'In the midst of all their joys they shall sigh blood' [5.2.22], which could be taken as the keynote of Vindice's own tragic destiny - to be 'stained with a bloodlust exceeding the bloodlust of his opponent'.

In Act 2 scene I Vindice far exceeds his duties while testing his sister Castiza. In his search for truth he undermines his own; not only through his disguise, but also through his Machiavellian cynicism. In contrast to the introspective Hamlet, Vindice is an unremitting revenger.

Thou hast no conscience; are we not revenged?/ Is there one enemy left alive amongst those? [5.3.108-109]

The psychological makeup of the revengers not only shows Hamlet to be more fallible, more sympathetic, but also suggests that although the outcomes of the plots may be similar, the causes leading to them will not necessarily be similar.

Hamlet's delay is a perennial talking point among critics, and perhaps Shakespeare wanted to impress on us that action is the chief end of existence. For Hamlet, action is paralysed at its very inception:

The native hue of resolution/ is sickled o'er with the pale cast of thought. [3.1.84]

But is his anguish about his moral sensibility, or about the wound to his own ego?:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Hamlet may be free from the conscious contriving of Vindice, ('Tis now good policy to be from sight;' [2.3.27]), but like Vindice, Hamlet must disguise his true nature in order to perform his mission, and indeed survive, against overwhelming odds. He does this through his 'antic disposition', about which Polonius observes:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't. [2.2.203-204]

This 'antic disposition' becomes almost comic when, during the closet scene, Hamlet has difficulty in removing it again.

Vindice's disguise also serves his purpose, but he has far more control over it.

And therefore I'll put on that knave for once . . . for to be honest is not to be i'th'world. [1.1.93]

The causes of Hamlet's ambivalent attitudes can be partly explained by taking a psychoanalytic approach. We see Hamlet donning a hysterical posture; sexual alienation from Ophelia, rejection of the reproductive instinct, and delaying avenging his father because he himself has contemplated the same deed against his father. His way of remembering (this may be interchangeable with 'revenging' for one like Hamlet living entirely 'inside' himself) is seen, by Marjorie Garber [2] as being 'the dramatisation and acculturation of the repetition compulsion'.

The play within a play, the Queen's two marriages, the twin husbands, 'The counterfeit presentment of two brothers' [3.4.54], and the double murder of Hamlet's and Laertes' fathers all become examples of a transference-neurosis, the instigator of which is the ghost, or the phallic symbol: 'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard/ A serpent stung me.' [1.5.35].

Such an analysis gives an idea of the complexity of the decisions Hamlet the revenger has to take, which is in stark contrast to Vindice's world in which murders are convenient political expedients and appear to be almost the entire stimulus for the playwright's development of the plot. Middleton does expose hypocrisy, and does show everyone to be ambitious, but Shakespeare explores in much greater depth the underlying psychological reality behind the 'carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.' [5.2.363]

Middleton was indebted to Marston's The Malcontent for his picture of a world of artificial brightness, unnatural darkness and 'lascivious banquets (which) sin it selfe gilt ore'. In the 'accursed pallace' there is no remorse, and the aim of existence is reduced to the fulfilment of corrupt ambitions:

Were't not for gold and women, there would be no damnation. [2.1.250]

The disorder in Middleton's political and cosmic spheres is paralleled in Hamlet, but while Vindice commits murders in which lust and death unite, Hamlet apostrophises the dubious ghost which unremittingly demands a transformation from the 'memory of loss' to the 'Revenge of loss.' Maynard Mack has pointed out that the 'Ghost's injunction to act becomes (so) inextricably bound up with the character of the world in which action must be taken'.

Nietzsche once said: 'The past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present' [3]. Hamlet's memories are locked up and 'All the action in the external world will not rout out the tyrannical, unconscious fantasies of the primal scene, but turning bloody thoughts against his own mind might liberate him' [4]. Hamlet cannot, like Fortinbras and Vindice, kill off all father-figures in battle - his plight is internal and he must brood ineffectually: 'How all occasions do inform against me.' [4.4.32]. This seems to me to show that Hamlet is an observer rather than a participant in history's evolution until, that is, he moves into action by an act of self-naming with the signet ring:

This is I, Hamlet the Dane! [5.1.243]

Both plays end in horrifying purges, and Pyrrhic victories are the only vengeance available to the revengers obsessed with their 'pre-ordained' tasks, ('but heaven hath pleas'd it So/ That I must be their scourge and minister' [3.4.173-175]), but the contrasting presentations of the revengers arouses different responses in an audience. In The Revenger's Tragedy there are thirteen revenge actions, five without motivation, and it seems that Middleton's aim was to use revenge as a dramatic device to arouse revulsion. All his revengers become embodiments of hell.

Vindice may see no opportunity for legal recourse, but we wonder whether he actually wants to:

0 sweet, delectable, rare, happy, ravishing! [3.5.1]

This delight in revenge should arouse equal suspicion of Hamlet's underlying motives, but his are internalised, delayed, and he seems to try to work out the moral validity of revenge:

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell. [3.1.564]

And in his treatment of Ophelia we feel Hamlet is more masochistic than anything else:

We are arrant knaves, believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunn'ry [3.1.127-128]

Nevertheless, Hamlet does, in a way, descend into a hell of medieval vice (like Vindice). When we see him in the prayer scene Hamlet's behaviour externally is Christian, but internally he has become blinded by hatred, a pagan figure:

Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him; and am I then reveng'd,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No!
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent. [3.3.79-88]

But Hamlet does not commit premeditated murder (except in his excessive treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which Erlich [4] explains as Hamlet's need for the written word to be true), but his contemplation of murder makes him appear closer to Vindice than ever. It will only be much later, when Hamlet plays with Osric the courtier, that we see his wit without bitterness and satire without malice. The 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' do not matter when Hamlet has his eye on eternity: ('We defy augury . . . ')

Both Vindice and Hamlet move from a position of centrality to one of isolation as 'sick souls' infecting the state. In Hamlet we see that the 'exteriority of prose' is mingled with the 'interiority of verse' and this signifies Hamlet's isolation from his fellow Danes. We also see what has been termed the 'metatheatrical self-consciousness' which parallels Hamlet's self-consciousness - the play within the play - which can be seen as the turning point for Hamlet in this light.

Ironies abound in The Revenger's Tragedy; Lussurioso is imprisoned after trying to maintain his father's reputation; Ambitioso and Supervacuo forget to say who they want killed, and eventually achieve purification by killing each other. With so much irony the author cannot be said to be addressing real life, or showing heavenly judgement, although maybe he suggests a moral order of sorts in keeping with the Renaissance idea of life as a dance, a 'farandole'.

The political order is confirmed in neither play and Shakespeare and Middleton both use the revenger to undermine social superficialities, but Shakespeare also recognises the realities beneath the superficiality, for example the whims of Fortune, Sin etc. and the fact that man can fight against such influences, but not conquer them. Hamlet says, 'I do repent; but Heaven hath pleas'd it so.' [3.4.173]

Further characteristics of the playwrights' portrayal of the revengers can be seen by considering distinctive motifs and omnipresent images. In Hamlet the predominant metaphors are those of disease and decay: 'Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear' [3.4.64]; the ulcer motif shown by the poisoning of the King in the play within the play in the finale; the symbol of skin disease shown in the 'mole of nature' [1.4.24]. 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark', a general 'taint' expressed by sickness, lunacy, jealousy, and guilt turns all sour, and the perceptions of the revenger are seen to be in a similar vein:

do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. [3.4.151-152]

In Middleton's play we find imagery of burning, and of corruption of the state: 'Throwne Inck upon the forehead of our state' [1.2.4] We have the motif or the skull too - paralleling Yorick's skull - the scull of Gloriana, Vindice's love, which is apotheosised and could almost be a symbol for the play itself, or a motive for it.

Modern criticism offers several interpretations which contribute to an even more ambivalent evaluation of the revengers. In the light of Marxist criticism by Michael D. Bristol we are encouraged to see Hamlet and Claudius as two murderous clowns and death as an occasion for laughter as well as grief (consider, for example, the comic gravedigger). The 'antic disposition' is a carnivalesque disguise which helps Carnival's customary opposition to the established social order. The disruption of the natural order is something Hamlet tries to avoid but he must become part of it, and when he does so (by killing Polonius) he becomes part of a circular process by which 'life devours life and individual pretension is brought down to earth':

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a King and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. [4.3.26-27]

Religious interpretations offer a different perspective. Neither of the revengers is morally obliged to take revenge (although they may think that they are), but their actions are not seen in moral terms as crimes, but as evidence of the corrosive power of sin: 'A Hydra with many heads' (H. D. F. Kitto.) After Polonius's interference Hamlet's love for Ophelia is corrupted, as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the drama is seen as a contagion spreading, and spreading even into Hamlet's own mind, leading him into madness.

Feminist-psychoanalytic criticism seems to reduce Hamlet to a symbolic character, (like Vindice and Spurio) but does offer some useful ideas. Hamlet feels his inadequacy about being unable to rapidly avenge his father, and this inadequacy is all too acutely turned around upon himself, his resulting madness reaching, in my opinion, the very borders of what we know:

Imaginations are as foul
As a vulcan's stithy, [3.2.83-84]

Janet Adelman has stated that the 'this', of 'that it should come to this' [1.2.138], symbolises the Fall, or contamination by the sexual female within (i.e. Gertrude's sensuality). So Hamlet's priority is to free himself from this 'foul and pestilent congregation of vapours' by his own death, and not the deaths of others.

Hamlet's perception of women as sexually dangerous links well with the motives for revenge in The Revenger's Tragedy, i.e. Vindice's disappointment at his mother's vulnerability to bribery: 'I blush to think what for your sakes I'll do,' she says [2.1,24].

My emphasis so far has been on the authors' handling of their revengers, but perhaps it is also pertinent to mention how the revengers are handled by the other characters. Middleton's world is one of corruption and duality - parasites the lot, driven by lust and greed for social advancement. The reactions of Vindice's fellows are not unlike his own. It seems to me that the main figures of the play, due to their debased ambitions, want to maintain their position at whatever cost, and character portrayal stretches only a little beyond this generalisation. Even the Duke seems like Vindice: 'I'll try them both upon their love and hate'.[2.3.86]. The reactions to Vindice himself reveal only blindness and ignorance to the end: 'Pray heaven their blood may wash away all treason!'

Hamlet is not a fixed figure like Vindice, a 'malcontent', throughout, nor is he in literal disguise, and this enables Shakespeare to portray deeper and more realistic interactions than does Middleton. As long as Hamlet maintains a semblance of courtly manners and polite discretion he is treated well. He says:

I know my course . . . and the devil hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape. [3.1.578-580]

His periods of apparent dangerous and turbulent lunacy are watched carefully however, mistrusted by all except Horatio.

Where Vindice is destroyed by the other characters because he wishes to destroy them, Hamlet is damned by the other characters because of his honesty and his mistaken way of handling that honesty.

Hamlet is sent to England to be murdered, and here we see the knock-on effect of revenge:

Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliances are reliev'd. [4.3.9-10]

It seems that both Shakespeare and Middleton observe an aspect of the human condition through the revengers; 'Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me' [5], but the revengers have enormously different character traits, and inhabit very different realities. Vindice emphasises for us how a man can set in motion the forces which will eventually destroy him, while Hamlet moves from an external reality to an internal, essentially negative reality, but achieves a personal redemption:

The soldiers music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him. [3.2.381-382]

Here Shakespeare is saying that his revenger was saved, not because of, but in spite of his revenge, and thanks to his sound intentions in the face of a whimsical providence.


[1] Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy
[2] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare's Ghost Writers.
[3] Nietzsche. Use and Abuse of History
[4] Erlich, A. Hamlet's Absent Father
[5] Romans 7.17

Further reading:

Levin. Understanding Hamlet
Wofford S. L. ed. Criticisms in Hamlet
Dover Wilson. What Happens in Hamlet

© Heron McConnell, March 2001
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