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No surprise, this final Act of Hamlet is as mysterious, ambiguous, and controversial as those that precede it. The play begins rather straightforwardly, if ironically, as a revenge tragedy – Old Hamlet’s ghost spurs his son to revenge – and it would seem that Act Five, like the Act Fives of all major revenge tragedies preceding Hamlet, should fulfill this initial plotline. Indeed, in Act Five Hamlet kills Claudius – finally. But he does so in such a roundabout, half-cocked, off-hand way, we wonder whether this really counts as revenge. The death of Claudius certainly lacks the poetic justice that vengeance seems to require. What on earth is Shakespeare trying to do with this strange play – why doesn’t he give it a proper ending?
Shakespeare’s abandonment of the central focus on revenge, then, perhaps amounts to his finally agreeing with his protagonist, so to speak. Hamlet has been, from the very first moments of the play, reluctant to carry out the absurd and generic task that is his as a character in a revenge tragedy – “The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” Shakespeare has purposefully miscast his hero and given us a character whose accomplishments are intellectual and verbal, not violent and physical. By the final Act, it seems as though the playwright has finally given up trying to tie his hero down to conventions. Hamlet has forced Hamlet off the rails, taken it from a simple and predictable genre play to something inscrutable, massively significant, and, for lack of a better term, post-theatrical.