A Revenge Drama for an Uncertain Time

By Elizabeth Williamson, Dramaturg

When Shakespeare sat down to write his Hamlet, he was writing within the form of the revenge drama (a tragedy whose hero is driven by the need for revenge for an injury— usually the death of a close relative), one of the most popular forms of Elizabethan theatre. Seneca’s tragedies, which were the main classical tragedies known in Renaissance England, were translated and regularly produced in London, and were responsible for the development of the Elizabethan revenge drama; Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and The Revenger’s Tragedy by Tourneur (or Middleton – the attribution is uncertain –), with their ghosts, tyrants, and the importance of revenge as driving motive, were all highly influenced by Seneca.

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1590) was the most popular play of the genre before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and was clearly a major influence on the later play. The Spanish Tragedy opens with a Ghost, and its hero is driven into melancholy by the murder of his son. Between spells of madness, he discovers who the murderers are and plans a revenge which involves staging a play in which he casts the murderers; during the play’s action he kills them and then himself. An earlier play called Hamlet, which was probably performed in 1589, and which (although it’s lost to us) many scholars have attributed to Kyd, probably followed the standard revenge plot pretty closely; indeed, it seems to have been a byword for overly dramatic revenge tragedy: Thomas Nashe satirically referred to “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.”

In writing his Hamlet (probably around 1599-1600), Shakespeare was most likely referring to this earlier version of the play; he also was undeniably familiar with The Spanish Tragedy (Hamlet’s use of a play-within-the-play especially recalls Kyd.) But while Shakespeare took on all of these conventions from earlier revenge tragedies, and took most of the story as it had existed in the source materials, he uses the conventions of the revenge tragedy to conduct a much wider examination into questions of mortality, public and private morality, political machinations, and the nature of art.

In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro writes “In Hamlet, Shakespeare once again found himself drawn to the epochal, to moments of profound shifts, of endings that were also beginnings… Born into a world in which the old religion had been replaced by the new, and like everybody else, living in nervous anticipation of the imminent end of Elizabeth’s reign and the Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare’s sensitivity to moments of epochal change was both extraordinary and understandable.”

The country had peen Protestant for fifty years, since Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, left the Catholic Church. Among his transgressions, from the Catholic point of view, were both marrying his dead brother’s widow and putting her aside for another queen. In 1599 there were still, however, many Catholics living in England and hiding their religion. Shakespeare himself had been brought up by a Catholic father, who feared that, dying without the proper rites, he might end up in Purgatory. This uncertainty is echoed in Hamlet.

The question of who would succeed Elizabeth was of paramount importance. The Catholic leaders of Europe hoped for a new monarch of their own faith, while in England Essex seemed to be taking matters into his own hands. England was also fighting on two fronts – both with Spain and Ireland. The country which had been so carefully ruled by Elizabeth for four decades was suddenly facing a highly uncertain future, and the rest of Europe was watching eagerly to see which way the country would go. This anxiety over succession is reflected from the first scene of Hamlet to the last.