Is Hamlet a Tragic Hero? – Essay Example

Is Hamlet a Tragic Hero? – Essay Example

Is Hamlet a Tragic Hero according to the Aristotelian Definition of Tragedy?

Aristotle is famed for his careful and detailed examination of the dramatic arts. One of the most influential aspects of his analysis concerns his thoughts about the particular dramatic form of tragedy. According to the Aristotelian definition as presented in the Poetics, the crucial figure of tragedy, namely, the tragic hero, must satisfy a specific characteristic template in order to realize the full potential of the genre. Aristotle writes in the Poetics the following, that the tragic hero “is such a one as is not preeminent in virtue and righteousness; who falls into adversity not because of vice and villainy but because of some fault in character of judgement: and who is one those who are in high repute and in great prosperity, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and the leading men of such families.” (31) This quote from the Poetics is traditionally interpreted as yielding four characteristics of the tragic hero: goodness, realism, consistency and appropriateness. With these definitions of the tragic hero in mind, it is now possible to investigate Shakespeare’s classic of Hamlet according to this conceptual framework: how does Hamlet satisfy these delimited requirements which are constitutive of the tragic hero?

Hamlet appears to satisfy the criterion of goodness in Aristotle, insofar as his expressions of self-doubt and self-questioning correspond to the notion that tragic heroes themselves possess some fundamental ethical commitment in terms of their character. In Hamlet, this ethical commitment can be taken in terms of his continued questioning of his surroundings, as he seeks to uncover if such an ethics is in fact possible. Although Hamlet is not a perfect and secure character who is entirely sure of his actions and his doings, this can be interpreted as his search for some ethical notion of the good. In the most famous monologue in Hamlet, the latter clearly expresses this profound issue of doubt: “To be, or not to be, that is the question; Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind, to suffer.” (Shakespeare, 66) Here, Hamlet questions life itself: in where lies its point? He is not a clearly confident character, sure of the justification of his actions. Rather, he completely remains in doubt of the reasons behind his own existence, interrogating in a self-conscious manner his own limitations. Yet this very questioning of the existence demonstrates a commitment to a notion of the good, since it is precisely Hamlet’s quest to search for some purpose and meaning in life that propagates his tragic character. This is a self-reflective hero, thus corresponding with Aristotle’s definition, insofar as he continually reflects on notions of the good.

In regards to the second criterion, Hamlet’s ultimate existential crisis is not the result of these flaws, despite the fact that he possesses them: rather he is conspired against, and this leads to the tragic outcome of Shakespeare’s narrative. This gives a feeling of realism, as one is not presented an idealized view of royal family life, but the aristocratic class is rather constituted by a clear struggle for power and hegemony. The entire narrative of the play revolves around the death of Prince Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, the latter having been murdered by his uncle Claudius. In dialogue with a spirit, Hamlet understands how his life has been tragically impacted by the actions of others. The Ghost communicates to Hamlet the misfortune that has befallen him at the hands of others: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural.” (Shakespeare, 35) The unnatural nature of murder that the ghost stresses emphasizes that Hamlet’s traumas have come from the outside: they are not self-caused, but have resulted in the deliberate schemes of others. Accordingly, following Aristotle, Hamlet does not create his own hell, but finds it engendered by others: this creates a realistic situation that can be easily embraced by an audience who understands that political life is one composed of a struggle for hegemony.

Approriateness is demonstrated in the notion that Hamlet fulfills a certain conception of what a hero is: he is appropriate to the role. This is certainly the case in Hamlet, since he is informed by notions of justice and ethics, underlying a heroic status that is easily identified by the audience. Hamlet embodies the avenging hero, an archetype common to both heroic and tragic narratives. Hence, Hamlet declares: “A villain kills my father; and for that/I, his sole son, do this same villain send/To heaven.” (Shakespeare, 105) The actions of Hamlet are appropriate to a heroic figure, who when faced with profound instances of injustice, does not merely accept this situation, but rather attempts to act. This act is, in the case of Hamlet, the explicit intervention against conspiracy and non-ethical appropriations of power.

Lastly, Hamlet is clearly the product of a royal family and his story concerns the elites of society. This characteristic can be considered in terms of consistency: insofar as a powerful member of society may be such a tragic hero, the point is that tragedy cuts across all social classes: accordingly, it is something fundamentally human and once again engenders empathy from the audience. According to Polonius, “Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star.” (Shakespeare, 55) Although the prince occupies a magisterial status, following his comparison with a “star”, the fact that he also experiences tragedy shows the universality of the human condition. No one is separated from the possibility of tragedy, and this creates a bond with the audience in the universality of such potential suffering. Consistency of the tragic hero is demonstrated in the consistency to a greater image of human life as inseparable from instances of despair and existential crisis.

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