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By drawing our attention away from revenge, Greenblatt’s interpretation shares some affinities with René Girard’s pioneering interpretation in A Theater of Envy (271-289). For Girard, the problem of the play is not Hamlet’s delay, but precisely the question of revenge. Whereas for most critics, Greenblatt included, revenge is an unaccountable holdover from the revenge tragedy tradition, Girard, from his anthropological perspective, sees revenge as another version of the sacrificial, the translation of resentment into action. While revenge might cloak itself within a façade of necessary justice, from an ethical point of view the need for violent personal retribution is banal and ultimately puerile.

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The problem with Girard’s interpretation, however, as Eric Gans points out, is that the elimination of revenge is a utopian solution to the problem of conflictual desire, a solution inappropriate to a modern world which feeds on the social energies released by competition (rivalry) and desire (Chronicles #141). Girard sees Christianity as a revelation of the victimary (and hence unjustifiable) basis of the sacrificial, both in ritual and classic tragedy, a moral revelation which demands the radical renunciation of revenge. But insofar as the structure of mimetic desire is inherently sacrificial (the satisfaction of triangular desire would mean the sacrificial destruction of the human obstacles to that desire), the apocalypse entailed by satisfied desire can be only deferred indefinitely. As the very basis of culture, desire, and hence the possibility of violence, cannot be coherently refused, only sublimated and thus deferred. Gans writes, “In the last analysis, Girard no more than the other critics can consonance Hamlet’s indefinite delay. The difference, and it is entirely to his credit, is that where our pseudo-Nietzscheans impatiently urge Hamlet to wreak vengeance on the patriarchy, Girard wants him to follow the Christian road of renunciation” (Chronicles #141).


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Under this definition, revenge is in effect a universal problem for human culture, not simply a theme of Elizabethan drama. Girard’s “Fundamental Anthropology” is grounded in his theory of mimetic or conflictual desire. In this view, what distinguishes the human species are our mimetic tendencies. In evolutionary terms, mimesis or imitation is an adaptive learning behavior, a form of intelligence, but mimesis, when transferred to desire and the appropriation of desirable or “sacred” objects, leads to conflict–just as Hamlet, for example, comes into conflict with Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. Our mimetic heritage is distinctly ambivalent: it creates a temptation to violence, but it also serves as the basis for language or representation itself, the distinctly human form of mimesis or imitation.