Intelligent philosophers create timeless philosophies that ring true to every generation. Aristotle created criteria to define specific characters in a tragedy. His definition of a tragic hero applies to the main character Hamlet in the tragedy Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Hamlet fits Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero because he has a fatal flaw and excites pity and fear in the reader. This clear match is shown throughout the play.
There are several instances of Hamlet hesitating to make important decisions. He is unable to move forward with his actions because he has a fear of the unknown. This inhibiting fear is the character’s fatal flaw. To illustrate, Hamlet spends a considerable amount of time debating whether he should seek revenge on his uncle out of respect for his late father. This difficult decision started to break Hamlet down. When he finally decided that killing Claudius was the right thing to do, after much thought and agony, he approached Claudius as he was praying to take the king’s life. He halts and asks himself, “To take him in the purging of his soul
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?”(3.3.90). Hamlet thinks that if he kills Claudius when he is praying he would go to heaven(Liang 1). Not knowing what truly happens after death restrained Hamlet from doing what he thought was right. But, if Hamlet wasn’t indecisive, he could’ve taken his uncle’s life at this moment and saved himself from tremendous pain later on.
Aristotle defined this unfortunate characteristic as Hamartia, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero, as Samuel Henry Butcher stated. Hamlet’s fear becomes fatal when it grows into crippling indecisiveness and starts to contemplate suicide. In his renowned soliloquy, he searches for an answer to the question “to be or not to be”(3.1.64). He ponders on the aspects of living versus cutting his life short and ending his pain. He worries, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come”(3.1). Hamlet cannot bear the thought of continuing to live in pain but does not know what to expect in the afterlife. He can not bring himself to make a decision because no one knows what happens after one dies. He dives deep into his inner thoughts and displays dread for continuing to live without knowing what will occur in the future.
In the middle of his soliloquy, he quickly changes gears when he sees Ophelia. Abruptly, he confronts her telling her that he “…did love [her] once” then suddenly declares to her “I loved you not”(3.1.129). Even when speaking to the girl that he once loved, he cannot pick whether he wants to lie to her or tell the truth. His comments become vulgar when he advises Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery”(3.1.131). At this point in the altercation, Hamlet is tormenting the innocent girl by encouraging her to become a nun instead of having children like herself. Additionally, he threatens that “If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry”(3.1.146). With the utmost bitterness, Hamlet speaks down to Ophelia as if he had never cared for her. His feelings change once again when she dies. By her grave Hamlet exclaims, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love”(5.1.285). He alternates from love to hate and back to love, but can not make up his mind.
Furthermore, another trait that belongs to tragic heroes is the ability to make the audience feel a certain emotion. The unfortunate course of events in Hamlet’s life evokes pity in the audience(Oxford University Press 156). Even at the start of the play, the audience is sympathetic to the poor boy that lost his father. This feeling further increases as the audience finds out that Hamlet’s uncle married his recently widowed mother and steals his crown. The audience’s pity continues to get stronger when Hamlet’s father confesses the truth behind his tragic death.
The ghost of King Hamlet tells his son, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown”(1.5.46-47). Therefore, he reveals that he was not bitten by a snake as people thought. His malicious brother poured poison into his ear and killed him. To make matters worse, not only does Hamlet have to live with his murderous family member, but he carries the weight of deciding if he should get revenge on his uncle for his father. All of these disturbing occurrences excite pity in the audience.
As Samuel Henry Butcher explains, this process of stimulating emotions in the audience was defined by Aristotle as “katharsis, as sort of a homeopathic practice”. Katharsis is a prominent characteristic of a tragic hero which further proves that Hamlet is, in fact, a tragic hero(Oxford University Press 144). During each act of the play, the audience is guided through many heart-wrenching emotions as Hamlet is faced with harsh circumstances.
Some may say that Aristotle would not categorize Hamlet as a tragic hero because he never learns from his mistakes. Most noble heroes, as Aristotle and Leon Golden described, grow from their past and become wiser. Hamlet’s story is nearly reversed from this; he becomes weaker and seems to go mad as the tragedy unfolds. In 5.2, Hamlet even speaks about himself saying, “His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”. This strange dialogue shows Hamlet’s decline. He blames his irrational actions on his “madness”. It can be argued that Hamlet has gone mad or is just putting on a show, but either way, it illustrates his poor choices in behavior.
Overall, Hamlet’s character is distinctly a tragic hero, in Aristotle’s definition. The two main components that Hamlet shares with the definition are Hamartia and Katharsis. It is apparent that his indecisiveness led to his downfall and his tragic life strikes the audience with pity. Shakespeare’s tragedy and Aristotle’s definition are a superb fit.
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