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A Kind of Vengeance: Images of Classical and of Divine Revenge in Hamlet* "This is what is so very strange", wrote a critic of Hamlet, "that it should be difficult, or should have become difficult, to grasp the central drift of a play that has always been popular and successful".1 There seems to have been an early version of Hamlet as a straight revenge play on the Senecan model (commonly referred to as the Ur-Hamlet), with "the ghost which cried... like an oister wife, Hamlet, revenge".2 However much Shakespeare revised the play, this theme remained in the public memory, and the Senecan in Hamlet was parodied by Shakespeare's contemporary Chettle in The Tragedy ofHoffman. I have suggested in another paper that the central drift of the play may indeed be revenge, but on the Christian, not the Senecan model - the theme Vindicta mihi, words quoted by Kyd's Horatio in The Spanish Tragedy, but there dismissed as soon as uttered. I referred in that paper to the scenic form of the graveyard scene, which mirrors the opening of the Last Judgement plays in the mystery cycles.3 Here I wish to examine briefly how Shakespeare usedfirst,themes of earthly revenge, and second, the theme of God's vengeance - that is, the Second Coming - in the later redactions of his masterpiece. In Shakespeare's principal known sources, the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, Hamlet exacts his revenge publicly, afterwards defending his action before the people of Denmark and ascending the throne.4 In Shakespeare's version Hamlet dies and leaves to others the defence of his actions and the government of the kingdom, the play ending in outward confusion and uncertainty. Death stops Hamlet from defending his revenge publicly; but before that, something has stopped him from exacting it privately. There may be a key to this in the shifting imagery of Shakespeare's ghost In Saxo and Belleforest Hamlet's revenge is undertaken without prompting from a ghost and it is therefore likely that Shakespeare worked originally from the Ur-Hamlet figure for his ghostly summoner to vengeance. The Ur-Hamlet is lost, but there are indications of a version earlier than Shakespeare's in Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished), a German play apparently translated from an English original and taken to Germany early in the seventeenth 'Quotations from Hamlet are from the New Shakespeare edition, ed. J. Dover Wilson; 2nd edn., Cambridge, 1936. ,«,,-, *A J A Waldock, "Hamlet": A Study in Critical Method, Cambridge, 1931, 7. 2 Thomas Lodge, Wits Miserie, 1596, quoted by J. Dover Wilson, ed., Hamlet, (New Shakespeare), xix. 3 King Hamlet's Two Successors, Comparative Drama 15, 1981, 120-138. 4 See Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7, London, 1973, 60S., 81ff. 128 C. Guilfoyle century.5 This work gives the outline of Shakespeare's play, but also contains material clearly from another source; further, it is entirely without the mysterious, the symbolic, the reflective content of Hamlet (including the soliloquies and the graveyard scene). It therefore provides an interesting impression of what Hamlet may have beentikebefore Shakespeare worked on it - in other words, the Ur-Hamlet. Der Bestrafie Brudermord may, as has been suggested by certain scholars, have been based on the Ur-Hamlet, but it seems more probable that it drew both on the earlier version and on Shakespeare's play, cut to the bare bones of the action.6 The ghost appears in a perfunctory and sometimes farcical role, in the mannerridiculedby Lodge, and is a pale reflection of the Senecan ghosts, "identified as pagan, if they are identified at all",7 whom Kyd and others had presented on stage; but the ghost of King Hamlet was to go far beyond these. In deepening the complexities of thefigureand of Hamlet's reactions to it Shakespearefirstintroduced certain subtleties in his use of classical imagery, and then with the use of Christian imagery indicated the course of divine vengeance outstripping the conventions of classical revenge. Samuel Johnson, another critic who experienced confusion over the central drift of the play, wrote "The apparition left the regions of the dead to little...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 127-134
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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