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Hamlet, The (Tragic) Hero

REVENGE in Hamlet

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, raises a fundamental question of how Shakespeare intends his readers to regard the ethics of revenge. The moral angle of the story is unavoidable, for it underlies the question—Is Hamlet predicated on the assumption that the Ghost’s command is morally binding? Regarding this matter, most critics still hold that the average Elizabethan believed a son morally bound to revenge his father’s death. However, the view on revenge, being that of the average Elizabethan, is a case to case basis, for the average spectator at a revenge play was probably trapped in an ethical dilemma—a dilemma, to put it most simply, between what he believed and what he felt.

Revenge has indeed occupied a major area in our concerns that we often find it included in traditional lists of the sins. Timothy Bright’s list of the particular temptations Satan offers the melancholic is of special interest: “Of this kinde are certain blasphemies suggested of the Devill, and laying of violent hands of them selves, or upon others neither moved therto by hate or malice: or any occasion of revenge: of the same sort is the dispaire and distrust of gods mercy, and grace.” Having gained the position of at least one of the major concerns of scholars, of playwrights, it almost seems as if revenge was considered the eighth Deadly Sin.

The concept of revenge has been part even of the most frequently cited Scriptural texts: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This divine command echoes throughout Elizabethan literature—heard as a direct quotation in Hieronimo’s “Vindicta Mihi,” and was paraphrased in John of Gaunt’s “God’s is the quarrel.” Private men taking revenge is not merely, like Lucifer, seeking to rival God, but actually “usurping Christ’s office.”

The foremost argument versus revenge, therefore, is that by doing such act, the perpetrator is endangering his own soul. No matter how righteous the motive seems to be, the act of revenge would surely bring out the evil in him, both in the eyes of man and of God. It’s no different with “The end does not justify the means.” A revenger may honestly think he seeks justice, but the nature of revenge makes justice impossible.

Having revenge as a central theme in Elizabethan plays was at its peak between 1562 and 1607. Throughout Antonio and Mellida (1599-1600), Piero inexorably pursues Andrugio and his son, Antonio. In Antonio’s Revenge (1600), Piero then becomes a vengeful maniac ostensibly because he and his father have wooed the same woman who married  his father in the end. Monsieur, on the other hand, in Bussy D’ Ambois (1604),aims for revenge fuelled by his hatred of Bussy’s virtue. A list of revengers on the English Stage (1562-1607) also include Barabas of The Jew of Malta (1589-90) and Alexander in Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (1594-97).

HEROISM in Hamlet

Heroism in Hamlet has been up in the period 1599-1602, along with the plays Henry V, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida—all of each pose a question about heroism in one form or another. At the end of the period, we have Othello and King Lear which equally show the theme of greatness.

The “hero,” both literary and non-literary, embodies the ideals people are aspiring for in the more general view of life. Usually when these heroes make an important stretch of action meaningful to us, he is deemed with respect and is “awarded” a special kind of importance. The tragic hero, however, would seem to be a special kind of case of this “generic” kind of heroism. A.H. Thorndike simplifies the view of his (the tragic hero) function when he says that “a typical tragedy is concerned with a great personality engaged in a struggle that ends disastrously.” The tragic hero, in a way, is “like us” in a sense that he magnifies for us a life that is caught up into a larger and more violent course of action. He’s also “greater than us”, exhibiting an image of the fullness of human capacity. Eventually, we come to accept the fact that even in this fullness humanity can only resist fate and not conquer it; but the vitality in which our tragic hero resists fate is what puts him up there in the pedestal.

But what qualities make a man seem “important” enough to us to have this effect? The conception of heroism is subjective. It depends upon different actions and different ages—that is, we have to take into consideration the domineering viewpoint during a specific age or period. In tragedy, it is fair to measure the heroism of the “hero” or the protagonist not just in terms of the challenges the play itself puts forward, but also by the adequacy of these challenges to represent the worst that life can offer—if these challenges are reflective of life’s worst case scenarios. It’s as if we are measuring not how many challenges there are, but how the tragic hero did came to face all of these. In the period of Shakespeare’s writing about Hamlet it is the question of this general adequacy that seems to be at stake. There are three principal traditions of heroism, actually, revolving within the poet’s mind, under the pressure of an increasingly vivid sense of evil and these are 1.) The power to command and control human affairs; 2.) Goodness (however defined); and 3.) Force of personality.


Hamlet, our tragic hero, has never ceased to “haunt” us with his mystery and bravery as he continues to be “reinvented” in many different forms. Some of which are through…














…AND EVEN IN POPULAR CULTURE! Would you believe Hamlet and everyone else in the palace is now into social networking? Well, check this out…

In the end, G.K. Hunter in his The Heroism of Hamlet maintains that “I have presented Hamlet as a hero whom we admire because he keeps facing up to and (however desperate) maintaining some control over the flux of action that he stirs around him, though sometimes he maintains it only by the inner turbulence of madness.”



Bloom, Harold, ed. Hamlet. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Print.

Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Hamlet. Frome and London, Great Britain: Butler & Tanner, 1963. Print.

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1967. Print.




“SAMPLE LEARNING GUIDE TO: HAMLET.” Teach With Movies. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.teachwithmovies.org/samples/hamlet.html&gt;.


“SAMPLE LEARNING GUIDE TO: HAMLET.” Teach With Movies. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.teachwithmovies.org/samples/hamlet.html&gt;.


“Hamlet Poster – Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery.” IMP Awards – All the Latest Movie Posters. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.                                 <http://www.impawards.com/2000/hamlet.html&gt;.


“Sundance Hit ‘Hamlet 2’ Debuts In Theaters August 22.” Starpulse.com- Your Entertainment Destination. 18 May 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.



“Hamlet in Iraq by Rodrigo | Politics Cartoon | TOONPOOL.” Toonpool.com – The Free Community for Cartoon Pictures & Caricatures. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.toonpool.com/cartoons/Hamlet in Iraq_31837#>.


“Hamlet by Giulio Laurenzi | Politics Cartoon | TOONPOOL.” Toonpool.com – The Free Community for Cartoon Pictures & Caricatures. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.toonpool.com/cartoons/Hamlet_21215&gt;.



Juvakka, Maria. “Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Literature11 / FrontPage. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://literature11.pbworks.com/w/page/18014165/Shakespeare’s-tragedies&gt;.


Hansen, Louise. “David Warner in Hamlet (1965) Directed by Peter Hall.” Lycos Tripod – Tripod. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://membres.multimania.fr/cinephilia/hamlet/hamlet2.html&gt;.


“In Search of Shakespeare . “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark” | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/works/work167.html&gt;.


“Hamlet: Northern Ballet Company.” Shake & Tumble. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://shakespearean.tumblr.com/post/1531993435/hamlet-northern-ballet-company&gt;.

“Popular” Culture

“Hamlet Across New Media.” Advertising Lab. Ed. Ilya Vedrashko. 20 Mar. 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://adverlab.blogspot.com/2009/03/hamlet-across-new-media.html&gt;.





University of the Philippines, Diliman

Categories: Multimedia Essays
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  1. November 22, 2011 at 11:21 am
  2. December 6, 2011 at 11:07 pm

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