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William Shakespeare



Elizabethan plays in general were loosely structured. They adapted the basic five-act form of ancient Roman tragedy, which had been revived by Italian scholars of the early Renaissance and brought back to London by English aristocrats traveling in Italy, to the needs of a commercial and popular theater.

The basic elements of a revenge tragedy were very simple. There had to be a hero, who had been violently wronged and was justified in seeking revenge. His revenge had to be aimed at an opponent, or antagonist, equal to him in power and in cunning, or the play would degenerate into a mindless series of victories for the superhero, and so become monotonous. The action had to be carried on in an atmosphere of gloom and terror, preferably with supernatural elements. A woman the hero loved had to be involved in the action, if possible as an innocent obstacle to his achieving his goal of revenge. And there had to be a counterplot (or subplot), started by the antagonist to defend himself, which would engulf the hero just as his vengeance was accomplished. In that way the hero would achieve what has come to be called "poetic justice" on earth, and at the same time be punished by Heaven for his sin of committing murder.

You can see that this simple structure is still very much with us in the violence of movies, television, and comic books. One reason we consider Hamlet better than these popular entertainments is that Shakespeare made his own variation on the form, fulfilling all its demands and at the same time rising above it through his brilliant use of language and his creation of complex characters. By making his hero a philosopher who doubts and mocks himself every step of the way, Shakespeare is able to prolong the suspense and devote the first three acts to the question of whether Hamlet will or will not take revenge. When Hamlet finally takes a decisive action, at the end of Act III (where the structure is expected to rise to a climax), it turns out to be a fatal misstep. Instead of killing Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius. This act engulfs him in the counterplot of Claudius and Laertes, which holds our attention until the play's violent end. Hamlet's hesitation allows Shakespeare to explore the meaning of revenge on both the philosophic and the psychological level, and to connect that act with the much larger question of the meaning of life.

To make sure we never forget that Hamlet's story is that of a father, mother, and son, Shakespeare contrasts it with the subplot of Polonius and his children. Both the plot and the subplot are fused together at the climactic moment when Hamlet kills Polonius. This act ultimately results in Hamlet's death at the hands of Laertes, another son avenging his father. And both stories are framed in the story of Fortinbras, who avenges his father's defeat at the hands of King Hamlet by taking over the Danish throne when Hamlet dies.

Shakespeare's superiority in such matters as moral and psychological subtlety is pointed up by his ability to contrast the way two characters respond to the same event or carry out the same action. Hamlet is so structured, for example, that we are forced to compare Hamlet's use of the play to entrap Claudius with Laertes's invasion of the palace with an angry mob; or Hamlet's confiding in Horatio with Claudius' efforts to manipulate Polonius. Shakespeare also uses the play's structure to contrast a character's behavior with what we know of his thoughts and feelings, or to show him behaving differently in different situations. For instance, compare Hamlet's speeches to the ghost with his conversation immediately afterward when Horatio and Marcellus find him; or compare Claudius' public behavior in Act IV, Scene iii, with his "Do it, England" soliloquy right after. Because Hamlet himself is a wit and a maker of ironies, Shakespeare often uses him to point up these contrasts verbally and so intensify them, just as his mordant jokes heighten the atmosphere of gloom rather than dispelling it. As you explore Hamlet in more and more detail, the way Shakespeare balances and arranges the elements of its story will become more visible to you- and more exciting as well, since very new facet of the structure you find will reveal another nuance of Shakespeare's vision, another aspect of the seemingly infinite range of his poetic mind.  


[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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