Why Hamlet is a Tragic Hero and the Play a Classic Tragedy

Why Hamlet is a Tragic Hero and the Play a Classic Tragedy

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Dear Kylie,

I noticed your submission to Culture Magazine, regarding Shakespeare’s great play “Hamlet”. Having recently studied “Hamlet” in Year 12 English, I think I can help answer one of your questions. You asked why is Hamlet regarded as a tragic hero and the play a classic tragedy?

Before I can answer your question, you must first understand the difference between the meaning of tragedy today and what is meant by tragedy in drama. Whereas a tragedy in life may be considered something such as a death or accident, in drama a tragedy in drama is much more. In a tragedy, although the hero may be in conflict with an opposing force, the cause of his downfall falls ultimately on himself. This is usually because of a character defect – a “tragic flaw” which causes him to act in a way which ends up bringing about his own misfortune, suffering and ultimately death. “Hamlet” is very much a tragedy, but it is also different, being a revenge tragedy where the hero is driven by the need for revenge, not unlike a modern day horror movie. Prince Hamlet is a tragedy of character where it is himself that brings his downfall, not fate.

Well Kylie, a tragedy is usually a story of one person, with both the hero victims in the play usually of a high standing of society. This is especially the case in “Hamlet”, with his victims being King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Polonious, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all being linked to the Royal Family of Denmark. A personality fault (the tragic flaw) causes the hero to act in a manner which brings about his own misfortune and eventually death, during which he lets the audience know he is dying by delivering a final speech. In “Hamlet”, it is his tragic flaw of his indecisiveness and inability to act, which brings his own suffering and misfortune. Had he been able to kill King Claudius in the beginning none of the suffering would have occurred. He also delivers his final speech telling the audience of his death, “I am dead Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!” he exclaims after being poisoned by Laertes envenomed rapier.

In a tragedy the pity and fear (known in drama as pathos) is ultimately replaced by an uplifting and suffering (known in drama as catharsis) Hamlet’s acts cause suffering but in the end ultimately achieve learning. Hamlet’s ultimate death teaches the country of Denmark about Claudius’s murder and brings them under the reins of a new ruler Fortinbras of Norway.

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A tragic hero must not be purely good or purely evil. If he were purely good we would not understand his actions and if he were purely evil we would expect them. Hamlet is not purely good or purely evil, he is mixture or good and evil. He was intelligent, witty and cheerful and delighted in “flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table in a roar” in the beginning, but he was also in a state of melancholy and irresolution for much of the play. The hero in a tragedy is unable to resist the force. Hamlet cannot live knowing Claudius murdered his father and will either take his life or his own. The story focuses on the troubled part. In “Hamlet” this is mostly about his mental state with the famous “To Be, Or Not to be” being an expression of his thoughts on suicide.

In “Hamlet”, as in all tragedies, the tragedy is in the suffering and the whole story, not in the death. We feel pity and fear for the hero, because we feel sorry for his cause and we fear what will happen if he does not carry out his actions. In tragedies, the flaw dominates the hero. In “Hamlet” this is the case for much of the play, he does try to kill the King earlier on but in a mistake of judgement murders Polonious instead, but from this accident he carries on his procrastination and hurts and causes

In a tragedy the suffering affects many innocent people, not only the hero. In Hamlet the suffering goes on to affect Queen Gertrude, Laertes and Ophelia and eventually leads to the death of all of these characters as well as Polonious and Prince Hamlet. It even, in the end affects the whole of Denmark, as the throne is taken by Fortinbras of Norway. In the beginning Marcellus says “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and nothing could be more true with the murder of King Hamlet. The suffering in a tragedy is exceptional and unexpected. Before the murder of King Hamlet Denmark was in all its glory, occupying part of Norway and Hamlet was a happy scholar at the University of Wittenberg. Everything changes due to Claudius and this brings on Hamlets madness.

Tragedies generally have to do in part to the supernatural. In “Hamlet” the supernatural is the ghost of King Hamlet who tells Hamlet of his murder by the hand of Claudius. Many other revenge tragedy ingredients exist, such as mutilation and carnage, tales of revenge and murder, a play within a play, sensational happenings and of course a bloody end. “Hamlet” is also in part a detective story, with Prince Hamlet trying to find out the murder of his father in order to bring him to justice when he gets the players to act out a play to see if the King reacted “I’ll have grounds more relative than this: the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

As you can see Kylie, “Hamlet” is clearly a revenge tragedy, following all of the revenge play traditions. Hamlet the Prince of Denmark is clearly the tragic hero, with all of the suffering in the play due to, in some part, his tragic flaw.

Kylie, I hope this answers your questions and that it provides you with the help you require.

Yours faithfully

Chris Saunders
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