The Revenger’s Tragedy

Illustration from Thomas Kyd’s Play The Spanish Tragedy (1587)

I have just re-read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in honor of the Bard’s 455th birthday. Although it has been several decades since my last approach to the play, I was surprised how familiar the language was. Apparently, over the years such expressions as “the dead vast and middle of the night” and “I am but mad north-north-west—when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” have become part of my speech and writing.

This time, however, a new thought struck: The play is not just about Hamlet’s dilatoriness in revenging the death of his father by his uncle (who thereupon married his mother, the queen). It is also about the difficulty of straightforward revenge. And that despite the fact that revenge plays were a popular genre. Even Shakespeare, early in his career, came out with Titus Andronicus (ca 1590), in which there is rape, murder, cannibalism, and oodles of blood. Then, in 1606 came Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare shows that the road to revenge can be rocky. The last scene in Act V begins with the Prince telling his friend Horatio:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutinies in the bilboes. Rashly,
And prais’d be rashness for it,—let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall; and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

The Graveyard Scene from Grigory Kozintsev’s Russian Film of Hamlet (1964)

This realization on Hamlet’s part after his many hesitations earlier on shows that he has learned a lesson from all his agonizing:

HORATIO.
If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

HAMLET.
Not a whit, we defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

I wonder how many discoveries await me on re-reading Shakespeare’s plays. I think perhaps it’s worth the effort to make the effort.