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An Examination of Hamlet as a Tragic Hero
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.
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Now that Hamlet has made his promise, one begins to see how the events unfolding around him occur as a result of other character’s actions. The opening of Act III, for example, shows all of the characters linked to Hamlet working against him. Ophelia meets with him so Claudius and her father can spy on him and observe his mental state; his mother, Gertrude, agrees to talk with him so Claudius can continue his watch; and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pledge allegiance to Claudius and agree to observe (spy on) Hamlet. Slowly, everyone Hamlet had been able to trust and rely upon has begun lying and deceiving him.
In contrast to these occurrences, Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” shows him contemplating the idea of loyalty, acting upon one’s morals and their relation to fighting against the challenges of evil. As the tragic hero, one sees Hamlet’s constant dedication to maintaining a set of moral standards (which is in great contrast to the actions of the other characters). By this point in the play, Hamlet has become well aware of the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying for Claudius. This knowledge allows him to manipulate the situation and provide Claudius with false information. He is also suspicious that Ophelia’s interest in him is not genuine. As for his mother, Hamlet is cautious, but remembers his promise to the Ghost.
As Act III progresses, one sees Claudius’s plot against Hamlet continue, while Hamlet appears to procrastinate about seeking his revenge. This reinforces Hamlet’s tragic character flaw; his repeated inner conflicts about loyalty, mankind, life and death have usurped his time and kept him from focusing on what he vowed to do early in the opening act. He knows that no one is truly on his side, yet he uses every opportunity to promote his “false” mental illness instead of searching for the fastest way to avenge his father’s murder and his mother’s marriage. This fact is best illustrated in Act III, Scene 3, when Hamlet sees Claudius contemplating his brother’s murder and whether or not he could ever receive penance. Instead of taking the opportunity to kill him, Hamlet chooses to wait. Since his father was murdered without being able to cleanse himself of his sins, he believes that Claudius must die in a state of sin as well.
As Hamlet alternates between his examinations of morality, pretending to be mentally ill, searching for the “perfect” opportunity to kill Claudius, Claudius has successfully manipulated the other characters onto his side. The combination of Hamlet’s procrastination and Claudius’s need for power is pushing Hamlet, as well as the play closer and closer to its tragic ending.
Act III, Scene 4 begins the spiral of tragedy for the play’s main characters. With Polonius hiding behind a curtain as Hamlet meets with his mother, her fear causes her to cry out for help. Hamlet reacts by drawing his sword and stabbing it at the curtain. Hoping it is Claudius, he pulls the curtain back to reveal Polonius. The first of the King’s supporter’s (and thus Hamlet’s enemies) is dead. He begins criticizing Gertrude, and is suddenly interrupted by the Ghost’s appearance. Hamlet, remembering his promise not to hurt his mother, informs her of Claudius’s plan and how he will seek revenge. This scene exemplifies how Hamlet’s actions are dictated not by his own choices, but by the actions of the other characters. One almost seems to feel that although Hamlet is acting in a vindictive manner, he remains a constant victim of circumstance.
When Claudius learns of Polonius’s murder, he sets into action his plan to get rid of Hamlet once and for all; he is to be beheaded upon arriving in England. When Hamlet learns of this plan, he falsifies new instructions ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed instead. The fates of two more of Hamlet’s enemies are sealed. Meanwhile Ophelia (a pawn in all of this), is overcome with sadness over her father’s death, and has drowned. Although it is not stated, one infers that she has committed suicide. She is the fourth of Hamlet’s adversaries to die.
When Claudius learns that Hamlet is returning to Denmark, he devises a new plan for killing Hamlet. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, will fight him in a fencing match. Hamlet will either die by the unblunted tip on Laertes’s sword, or by the poisoned wine he will be offered following the match. When Hamlet returns, he accepts the challenge. During the match however, he and Laertes end up getting stabbed by the sharpened sword. At the same time, Gertrude sips from the poisoned cup. Just before she dies, she announces that she has been poisoned. Laertes then announces that both he and Hamlet are near death from the sword stabbing, and that Claudius is the one who instrumented the entire situation. Hamlet then stabs Claudius, who dies as his sins are announced to all of the onlookers. After Hamlet and Laertes die, Fortenbras enters from battle and learns of all that has taken place. Upon hearing the entire story, he makes sure that Hamlet receives full honors in death. This scene (Act V, Scene2) represents the climax of the play and seals the fates of all remaining characters, including Hamlet, a tragic hero.
Hamlet, although a complex and unique character, clearly represents the tragic hero. As is the play’s protagonist, he evokes sympathy from the audience/reader from the opening scene. His tragic flaw was twofold: (1) he was adamant about avenging his father’s murder and his mother’s incestuous marriage; (2) this desire caused him to became so enveloped in his inner conflicts, he allowed the actions of other characters to dictate his fate. Also, Hamlet’s suffering seemed very authentic; it became stronger as it mixed with his growing determination to seek revenge upon Claudius. Finally, as one watches his tragic downfall spiral towards its conclusion, one cannot help but wish that Hamlet could have lived and become King of Denmark.