Webster’s dictionary defines tragedy as, “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror.” A tragic hero, therefore, is the character who experiences such a conflict and suffers catastrophically as a result of his choices and related actions. The character of Hamlet, therefore, is a clear representation of Shakespeare’s tragic hero.
As the play’s tragic hero, Hamlet exhibits a combination of good and bad traits. A complex character, he displays a variety of characteristics throughout the play’s development. When he is first introduced in Act I- Scene 2, one sees Hamlet as a sensitive young prince who is mourning the death of his father, the King. In addition, his mother’s immediate marriage to his uncle has left him in even greater despair. Mixed in with this immense sense of grief, are obvious feelings of anger and frustration. The combination of these emotions leaves one feeling sympathetic to Hamlet; he becomes a very “human” character. One sees from the very beginning that he is a very complex and conflicted man, and that his tragedy has already begun.
Hamlet’s anger and grief- primarily stemming from his mother’s marriage to Claudius- brings him to thoughts of suicide, which only subside as a result of it being a mortal and religious sin. The fact that he wants to take his own life demonstrates a weakness in his character; a sense of cowarness, his decision not to kill himself because of religious beliefs shows that this weakness is balanced with some sense of morality. Such an obvious paradox is only one example of the inner conflict and turmoil that will eventually lead to Hamlet’s downfall.
In addition to this internal struggle, Hamlet feels it is his duty to dethrone Claudius and become the King of Denmark. This revenge, he believes, would settle the score for his mother’s incestuous relationship and would reinstate his family’s honor. These thoughts are solidified in Act I, Scene 5, when his father’s ghost appears and informs Hamlet that is was Claudius who murdered him, and that Claudius deprived him “of life, of crown, and queen” (line 75). This information leads to Hamlet’s promise to kill Claudius, while not punishing his mother for their incestuous marriage. His statement, “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain” (lines 102-103), demonstrates his adamant decision to let nothing stand in the way of his promise for revenge.