Tragic Hero? THAT is the Question
An essay by Sara Capanna
For Prof. Feenstra’s course entitled Drama
Tragedy is a genre of theater that has existed for thousands of years. Like the name suggests, happiness is not a prominent feature in these productions. The protagonists of these plays are known as tragic heroes. But what constitutes a tragic hero? In the words of Joseph Kelly, a tragic hero is defined as follows: Someone who begins in a state of prosperity, comes into contact with a force much larger than he is, and then, for the tragic part, undergoes a reversal. In other words, the hero falls from his place of prosperity to a place of poverty. The main effect that the hero should have on the audience is one of pity and empathy. They should see themselves reflected in the hero’s struggles. Finally, the most prominent feature of a tragic hero is his tragic flaw. This is something about his character that is doomed to be the source of his downfall (xxv-xxviii). So, when it comes to tragic heroes, they usually tend to stand out. Romeo Montague is a hopeless romantic who ends up falling hopelessly in love with the daughter of rival family, the Capulets, and commits suicide when he hears about her supposed “death”. Oedipus’ pride stood in the way of him discovering the truth about his past and Macbeth’s megalomania caused him to kill innocent people. And then, we have Hamlet, one of the more complicated protagonists. Hamlet is, without a doubt, a tragic hero, but is he the classic tragic hero? The answer is not so simple.
As far as prosperity goes, Hamlet is certainly in that state. He is the prince of Denmark, next in line for the throne. He is wealthy and powerful, is loved by the entire kingdom and is in love with a beautiful woman. What more could someone ask for? However, all of the above are material possessions. In his emotional state, he is anything but prosperous. At the beginning of the play, the first words out of his mouth, the second that he is alone, away from the members of the royal court, are:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.129-134)
He talks of how he wishes his religion did not condemn “self-slaughter” or suicide, and that he wishes that he himself would just waste away. He finds the living world unbearable. This is the first of many times in which Hamlet contemplates suicide. And he is very justified in his feelings. His father has been dead only two months and his mother has remarried with his uncle. Then, to add insult to injury, his mother seems to have moved on from the apparently strong bond she had with her first husband, going so far as to tell Hamlet that, “[…] ’tis common-all that lives must die/Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.72-73). Hamlet is horrified at these words that are obviously not from a grieving widow. So, from this time forth, his view on women has been soured and that will carry into his relationship with Ophelia. So, in this case, the term “prosperity” is debatable.
Hamlet’s tragic flaw is, without the shadow of a doubt, his procrastination. It all begins when his father’s ghost comes to tell him that he has been murdered. Hamlet’s response is, “Haste me to know’t, that I, /[…] may sweep to my revenge (1.5.29-31). Hamlet appears to enthusiastically take on the duty that any loving son would and finish off his father’s murderer, his uncle, Claudius. However, as the play unfolds, it is plain to see that Hamlet does not want to have to kill Claudius. He is a man of words and analysis who keeps generating excuses, trying to avoid his dark duty. At one pivotal moment, Hamlet finds Claudius alone, confessing his sins, specifically how he murdered his brother. It is almost like Fate physically put a window of opportunity before Hamlet; that is how perfect the timing is. Frustratingly, just as Hamlet is about to avenge his father, he stops himself. He re-evaluates the situation saying, “Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge/[…] and am I then revenged/To take him in the purging of his soul/When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?” (3.3.79-86). Hamlet knows full well that it does not matter one bit if he were to kill Claudius during his confession. He has already committed the capital crime of murder and, according to Catholicism, is bound for hell. Unlike his foil, Fortinbras, he is not violent by nature, nor is he a man of action, who keeps postponing this inevitable act of vengeance.
Oedipus, the classic example of a tragic hero, experiences a “reversal” at the end of the play. He falls from his status of prosperous king to blind beggar. He also finally accepts his fate and admits to fulfilling his own terrible prophecy. Even though he is bound to have a miserable rest of his life, he has regained some of his nobility with the new knowledge of himself. In Hamlet’s case, he experiences the ultimate reversal: Death. He plummets from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Even if he had not died, he probably would have spent the rest of his life rotting in a jail cell for regicide. So, yes, Hamlet shares the fate of the typical tragic hero. Another similarity they share is their acceptance of their fates. Just before the fateful fencing match with Laertes, Hamlet tells Horatio that, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow/If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come; it will be now/ […] The readiness is all” (5.2.205-208). After constant delays, Hamlet is finally ready to accept the fact that he will die. If it does not happen now, it will happen in the future. He reconciles himself to the fact that he cannot run from his demise and he must avenge his father before that can happen.
The pity that the audience/reader should have for Hamlet is unbelievable. They see this young man, distraught over his father’s death, hastened with a task to avenge said father, while slowly descending into madness over the whole situation, and ends up dying over it. There are moments where Hamlet deserves a good few slaps across the face and to be told to just kill Claudius. However, that is the struggle that makes him so relatable. If the audience cannot pity the tragic hero, then he is not a tragic hero at all.
The pressing question stands: Is Hamlet a classic tragic hero? He follows the basic definition of a classic hero: going from prosperity to poverty (in a sense), having a tragic flaw and eliciting the appropriate sympathy. However, he adds a few twists and turns to these qualities, with his emotional analyses and complicated state of mind. So what is the definitive answer? There is none. The final answer is left to the reader/audience member to decide.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1600. In The Seagull Reader: Plays. Second Edition. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York: Norton, 2009. 56-182. Print.