Hamlet Tragic Hero Essays

Free Essays - Hamlet as a Tragic Hero

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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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  This vow can be labeled as Hamlet’s tragic decision, and sets into motion the beginning of his downfall.
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.


 



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Hamlet as a Tragic Hero


William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the English language,
wrote a total of 37 plays in his lifetime, all of which can be categorized under
tragedy, comedy, or history. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare's most popular
and greatest tragedy, displays his genius as a playwright, as literary critics
and academic commentators have found an unusual number of themes and literary
techniques present in Hamlet. Hamlet concerns the murder of the king of Denmark
and the murdered king's son's quest for revenge. Its main character, Hamlet,
possesses a tragic flaw which obstructs his desire for revenge and ultimately
brings about his death. This tragic flaw makes him a tragic hero, a character
who is destroyed because of a major weakness, as his death at the end could
possibly have been avoided were it not for his tragic flaw. Hamlet's flaw of
irresolution, the uncertainty on how to act or proceed, is shown when Hamlet
sees a play and the passion the actors had, after Hamlet's third soliloquy, in
Hamlet's fourth soliloquy, and in Hamlet's indecisive pursuit in avenging his
father's death.
First, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown when he sees a play and
the passion one particular actor had. A group of players has arrived and Hamlet
arranges a personal viewing of The Murder of Gonzago with a small portion of his
own lines inserted. Hamlet then observes one portion of the play in which one
of the players put on a great display of emotion. Hamlet, besieged by guilt and
self-contempt, remarks in his second soliloquy of Hamlet of the emotion this
player showed despite the fact that the player had nothing to be emotional about.
Hamlet observed that he himself had all the reason in the world to react with
great emotion and sorrow, yet he failed to show any that could compare with the
act of the player. Hamlet calls himself a "rogue and peasant slave" and a "dull
and muddy-mettled rascal" who, like a "John-a-dreams", can take no action.
Hamlet continues his fiery speech by degrading himself and resoluting to take
some sort of action to revenge his father's death.
Next, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown after his third soliloquy, the
famed "To be or not to be…" lines. Hamlet directly identifies his own tragic
flaw, remarking of his own inability to act. Hamlet, unsure whether or not the
his uncle Claudius was responsible for his father's murder, schemes to have The
Murder of Gonzago presented to the royal court, with a few minor changes, so its
contents would closely resemble the circumstances behind the murder. Reflecting
on his own guilt, he talks of death, referring to it as the undiscovered country,
and then continues by riddling his own feelings. He declares "conscience does
make cowards of us all" and that the natural ruddy complexion of one intent, or
resolute, on an action is "sicklied" over with the "pale cast of thought". This
makes an individual second guess his own actions and often times take no action
at all, due to his own irresolution. These statements not only applied to what
had occurred up to that point but also foreshadowed what was to occurr.
Next, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown during his fourth soliloquy.
Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, and his army have passed by Hamlet and his
escorts. Hamlet sees the action Fortinbras was taking in fighting and then
examines Fortinbras's efforts and bravery in an attempt to rekindle his own
desire for revenge against Claudius for his father's death. Hamlet remarks how
everything around him attempts to "spur my dull revenge", yet he takes no action.
He notices how he thinks "too precisely on an event" and that he has "cause,
and will, and strength, and means" to get revenge and how the evidence pointing
to Claudius as his father's killer is as evident as earth itself. Hamlet
finally decides "my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" He has finally
decided he must take action against Claudius in some form or fashion.
Last, Hamlet's indecisive pursuit in avenging his father's death is shown
as evidence of his tragic flaw. Hamlet encounters numerous opportunities to
kill Claudius, yet he always comes up with some excuse preventing action. After
first hearing of the crime from his father's ghost, Hamlet immediately sets out
to take action. Hamlet then began to think that perhaps his father's ghost was
conjured by the devil in an attempt to make Hamlet become irrational and kill
Claudius, who might happen to be innocent, which would forever damn his soul.
Hamlet then schemes to determine Claudius's guilt through the play. Claudius
views the play and becomes very uncomfortable with the situation to the point of
stopping the play and leaving. This confirms Claudius's guilt to Hamlet, and
Hamlet again sets out to avenge his father's death. Hamlet then catches
Claudius in prayer, a rare time he will find Claudius alone. Hamlet, again,
begins to think how Claudius will have had his sins forgiven and that he wants
to damn Claudius's soul. Hamlet resolves to wait and kill Claudius at another
time. Claudius, through all of this, realizes Hamlet knows of his crime and
plots to have Hamlet killed by first sending him to England and then having him
murdered. Hamlet escapes this ploy and Claudius plots again to have Hamlet
killed in a fencing match. At the fencing match, Hamlet is wounded by a
poisoned strike with the foil. Hamlet, in a dying act, kills Claudius by making
him drink poison. Hamlet's flaw of irresolution essentially destroyed him, as
his failure to act in previous situations led to his own death.
Hamlet's irresolution is obvious in his actions after viewing the emotion
of the actors, after his third soliloquy, in his fourth soliloquy, and in his
indecisive pursuit of revenge for his father's death. Hamlet was able to avenge
his father's death, but his own death due to his irresolution labels him as a
tragic hero. The Tragedy of Hamlet masterfully shows how the inability to act,
however noble the intentions, can be detrimental to character.

 

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