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Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy

The tragedy of Hamlet has remained a mystery to many people. Over the years, many people have questioned if the Hamlet fits the description of a tragedy outlined by Aristotle in the poetics. In a classic tragedy, there is a noble and heroic protagonist whose destruction is caused by a flaw in his character. Aristotle further defines a classic tragedy as one that ends in a tragic death of the protagonist. Although this is often the case, the hero experiences an awareness, which makes him and the audience more perceptive and aware. By looking at the Hamlet, one does not fail to notice that it fits the description outlined by Aristotle of a classic tragedy.

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Aristotle further describes a tragic hero to be someone who has royalty blood in him. This becomes important so that the hero can suffer the predicament of falling from glory. To begin with, Hamlet is born in a royal family. On top of this, he had been crowned as the prince of Denmark something that made him royal. After he kills Polonius, he is exiled in to England, which can be defined as a fall from grace to grass. This is a clear description of a tragic hero.

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must also set out on a journey. This can be a real journey or one that is just symbolic. This is evident in the play. In the first instant, Hamlet travels to England in exile. Even though the journey is not by his own volition, it is a journey nevertheless. After the ghost reveals to him the events surrounding his fathers death, Hamlet sets out on a symbolic journey to avenge this death. This gives him an opportunity for self-rediscovery. This literal and symbolic journey taken by Hamlet makes the play fit the description of a tragedy as outlined by Aristotle.

After Hamlet has encountered the ghost, he sets out on a mission meant to kill the king. To the reader, this mission is so clear that we expect him to kill the king upon their first encounter. Even after he is presented with a good opportunity to do so, Hamlet does not exact out his revenge. Though the reason for this is not given, we are left to conclude that this indecision is caused by Hamlet’s character. He seems to be weak willed and appears undetermined.

This is not just a character he has suddenly attained but it is something that appears to be inborn. Therefore, we can conclusively conclude that Hamlet is a tragedy of fault. The protagonist seems to carry in him a burden that is too big for him. Despite his attempt at bravery, he is weak willed and unable to make some important decisions. Again, this is a flaw in his character.

When Hamlet learns in a dream that he is supposed to revenge the death of his father, he promises to pursue this revenge without any delay. In fact, Hamlet lets go of everything else in his life to devote his time and energies in exerting this revenge. To Hamlet, even his life’s dreams and destiny cannot be compared to this new pursuit. Immediately after this discovery, Hamlet is at a loss on why he has to be the one chosen to exert this revenge. This is the first indication we get that Hamlet has a weakness in his character. Instead of seeking for ways to kill the person who cut short the life of his father, Hamlet begins to wonder why a sane person can carry out such an act.

To a scrutinizing eye, this is something meant to procrastinate his mission of revenge. This is something that even Hamlet cannot seem to comprehend. Upon realizing that he is dreading carrying out his mission, he comforts himself by saying that he is no coward. However, we his audience know better than to believe his words. Hamlet postpones this mission further by seeking to verify the words of the ghost. However, the trap that he sets to confirm this soon ‘snaps’ but he still cannot make a meaningful decision.

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Even though Hamlet learns that his mother was a co-conspirator in his father’s death, she dissuades him from killing her. Although we might all conclude that Hamlet is overtaken by love for his mother, this is something that does not befit a hero. A true hero should not let emotions come in the way of his mission. Upon learning of his mother’s role in the death of his father, he knows that he has to punish the perpetrators regardless of their identity. When he gets this opportunity to “drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day”, (III 2) he fails to master the courage needed to achieve this. At this moment, his mind seems to be a battlefield. On one hand, he knows that he has to avenge the death of his father while on the other he has no courage to do it.

“Soft! Now to my mother. O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever, The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom: Let me be cruel, not unnatural; I will speak daggers to her, but use none; My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites; How in my words soever she be shent, To give them seals never, my soul, consent!” (III 2)

This pretense to “speak daggers at his mother but act none” makes us see the coward whom Hamlet is. In order to hide his true feelings from his mother, he decides to pretend that he is insane. However, the desire to carry out this revenge remains a strong force in his life.

Immediately after this episode at his mother’s house, another opportunity presents itself for revenge. This time, it is only Hamlet and the king in an enclosed temple where there is no route for escape. Coincidentally, Hamlet goes behind the king and draws his sword ready to strike. In a real life event, this is the moment when we all draw our breath and close our eyes in anticipation of seeing fresh blood. However a few moments later, Hamlet brings us back to reality by claiming that “now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t: and so he goes to heaven… (III 3) This statement not only makes the audience release its breath but leaves it in stitches as well. Always having excuses to justify his procrastination, he tells us that he fears killing the king in a moment of repentance.

“Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed. At gaining, swearing, or about some act that has no relish of salvation in’t, then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn’d and black as hell, whereto he goes. My mother stays: This physic but prolongs thy sickly days”. (III 3)

Although this is a plausible reasoning, we are all left wondering if Hamlet would really kill the king if given the right opportunity.

Soon after this, Hamlet kills Polonius while the latter is hiding behind a curtain. In fact, Hamlet only ‘makes a pass’ with his sword and in the process kills Polonius whom he presumes to be the king. Hamlet is so sure that it is the king in the “trap” that he does not bother checking to verify this. When Hamlet tries to kill the king in this instant, he does not observe his oath that he would do the act when the king was sinning.

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This is a line of thought that now seems to be forgotten. What this means is that Hamlet was not genuine in his first attempt at procrastination. In fact, nowhere else in the tragedy does Hamlet seek to kill the king while he is in the process of committing iniquity. This points out clearly that the decisions taken by Hamlet are erratic. A very logic thought that comes to us is that the killing of Polonius was not an act of bravery but rather a coincidence.

Perhaps, we can even deduce that Hamlet was ready to kill the king in this new incidence since the two were not face-to-face. The other thing that comes out clearly from this action is that the acts taken by Hamlet were senseless and haphazard. The death of Polonius, which in the first place is a mistake, fits the description of a tragedy in that it is an event that Hamlet could not control.

If hamlet had been genuine about his desire to kill the king while he is the process of committing iniquity, it is only right that we see this promise being fulfilled at least in one scene. At one time, the ghost appears while hamlet is talking to his mother. Even Hamlet himself knows that he has erred by procrastinating the revenge and consoles himself by saying that he is no coward. In the monologue that follows his meeting with Fortinbras, he says that even being exiled to England would come as a respite. In order to prove that he is no coward he promises “O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV 4) This is a promise that we do not see Hamlet fulfilling in the next chapters of the play.

In incidents where we find Hamlet sitting in the graveyard, he does not even talk of revenge. This recurs while talking to his friend Horatio. Even during the duel, there is no talk of revenge making us wonder what Hamlet’s motivation is. In the following chapters of the Hamlet, the idea of revenge seems to be completely forgotten by the hero. His promise to think of nothing but blood does not even feature anywhere until the last chapter of the book.

This again proves that Hamlet is a character who even though noble has a weak spirit. This aspect clearly fits a classic tragedy as outlined by Aristotle. In the events that follow the death, the destructive situations brought about by this flaw are evident. As outlined earlier, it is Hamlet’s weakness and lack of a strong will that make him not to kill the king in the first encounter. This indecision later on causes the death of Polonius, his daughter and a host of other people including Hamlet himself.

In the event that Hamlet had been decisive and killed the king at the first opportunity he had, he would have saved himself and others a lot of trouble. First, Polonius was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. His death just occurred because the king had sent him to investigate the plans that Hamlet had concerning the king. This could not have happened if Hamlet had killed the king when he found him praying at the temple. The death of Ophelia is also another tragedy that is brought about by Hamlet’s weak character. Her death that comes as a direct result of her father’s demise and Hamlets indifference toward her shows that this is something that could have been avoided had Hamlet taken a decisive action at the his first opportunity at action.

The same cause of events brings about an enmity between Hamlet and Laertes. It is this enmity that later causes Hamlet’s death. Gertrude’s death is also a product of Hamlet’s indecision and weak character. If Hamlet had been courageous, he would have killed the king at the first opportunity he got hence entangling himself from the shadow of the ghost. The death of Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes and even Hamlet himself shows a stream of circumstances that Hamlet could not control since his weak character had caused them. These circumstances make Hamlet a real tragedy. Critics of the Hamlet as a tragedy should look at these circumstances and realize that it fits the description of a tragedy.

Another incident that is hard to control is the killing of the king himself. In the whole of the play, we had been expecting the king to be killed at any moment. However, his death in a way seems to be accidental. By looking at the events preceding the death, we can only think of a child who is holding a weapon but needs the intervention of a parent to guide its sharp point to its target. Although we all agree that in killing the king Hamlet avenges the death of his father and mother and even himself, we are left wondering exactly how it happened. The writer of the Hamlet does not let the death happen according to plan but it can only be seen to be an accident of some sorts. The right procedure would have been one where the king is killed in a premeditated attack.

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By closely looking at the king’s death, we are left with no doubt that his death is beyond Hamlet’s control. It is clear in our minds that when Hamlet went to the duel he had no plans to kill the king. This is going by his words that he would plan to kill the king when “his soul is black”. If Hamlet had stuck to his plan, it is highly unlikely that he would have ended up killing the king. In the story, numerous procrastinations are witnessed. These procrastinations show us that Hamlet was not responsible in the killing of the king in the final act. The death of Polonius, his daughter, the queen and even Hamlet himself are events that are beyond the reach of Hamlet. This makes the play to fit the description of a tragedy as outlined by Aristotle.

Finally, the Hamlet fits the description of a classic tragedy from what happens at the end of the play. In a classic tragedy, although the hero dies he experiences a perception that makes him and the audience more aware of their surroundings. As the play ends, Hamlet dies along a host of other characters. By this time, it is clear that Hamlet knows his death is approaching and fast at that. Just before the duel, Hamlet is seen to admonish himself for not having carried out the revenge earlier on. “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?” (V 2)The audience is also aware of this fact.

At this time, Hamlet does not have time to think of revenge, which was his initial mission. By killing the king, Hamlet is merely driven by anger toward the poisoning of his mother. In the play, we see Hamlet saying, “Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?” Follow my mother”. (V 4)This is evident to the audience.

Again, Hamlet knows and so does the audience that he only has a short time to live owing to the poison that is in his blood. It is this knowledge that drives Hamlet to kill the king before he dies. During the final act, there is no mention of the former king and therefore everyone knows that the present king is not killed for his old sins. It this final act, it is the heroes death and the awareness that he is about to die by both himself and the audience that makes the Hamlet a classic tragedy. In the final act, both the hero and the audience are more perceptive and aware of the looming death of the hero.

Conclusion

The Hamlet is a classic example of a tragedy. The events that take place in the play make fit in Aristotle’s description of a tragedy. Even at the start of the play, the protagonist seems to be having a flaw in his character that makes him to fail in making decisive actions. This flaw causes him to get involved in circumstances that neither he nor the audience can control. At the end of the play, the hero dies but not before experiencing awareness that he is just about to die. This awareness and perception is also present on the audience. This scene fits the description of a classic tragedy as outlined by Aristotle. Therefore, this should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hamlet is a tragedy.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 9). Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, December 9). Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy. https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/

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"Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy." StudyCorgi, 9 Dec. 2021, studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy." December 9, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/.


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StudyCorgi. "Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy." December 9, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy." December 9, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/shakespeares-hamlet-as-a-tragedy/.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as a Tragedy'. 9 December.

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