Hamlet is Not the Protagonist

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Hamlet is Not the Protagonist

Upon reading Hamlet or watching a rendition of the great Shakespearean tragedy, the casual audience member might be tempted to view the character Hamlet as the virtuous individual who encounters grief because of a tragic flaw. This is after all, the formula for any modern tragedy. In fact, the presumption is accurate with one exception. Hamlet is not a virtuous individual.

While the play revolves around Hamlet, Hamlet is not the protagonist. Rather, he is like the main characters in The Day of the Jackal or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in that he is really the antagonist or contra vida with which the audience finds itself sympathizing. This is most clearly evidenced in the ease with which Hamlet is able to kill innocent characters and subsequently disregard his actions. Examples of this are the time he kills Polonius and then lightheartedly criticizes himself for killing the wrong person and the time he sends his innocent childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths because their disloyalty displeased him. In addition, Hamlet also dismisses the death of his love, Ophelia, when she drowns in the river.

The reason Hamlet is this way is that he has lost faith in humanity; as G. Wilson Knight puts it, "He has seen through humanity." He sees the reality of the world to be that evil rules. Because of this, Hamlet becomes a cynic, in that he is critical of the motives of others. One example of this is the time when Hamlet scoffs at Laertes' show of grief for the death of Ophelia as he dives in the grave after him. He does not believe that the sentiments expressed by Laertes are sincere.

For these reasons, Hamlet's "inhuman cynic...

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...audius is guilty.

Although Hamlet is obviously the main character of the play, he is not the protagonist that one would expect. He shifts to the dark side when he vows to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet had a tragic flaw, his inability to act when it was most important for him. However, it was not because of this tragic flaw that he encountered grief. His flaw only brought him death. Without it, he would still be a miserable, slightly insane cynic unable to find happiness. While Hamlet is obviously a tragedy, Shakespeare did not follow the tragic formula exactly. Perhaps this is why the play is so popular and is considered his greatest work.

Works Cited

Knight, G. Wilson. "The Embassy of Death." The Wheel of Fire. London: Methuen & Co., 1954.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992.
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