Hamlet Is Not a Tragic Hero
Do you think William Shakespeare's character, Hamlet, is a tragic hero? This literary analysis examines how he becomes more corrupt throughout the play and loses the potential to become a hero.
Many critics believe that Hamlet, from William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is the epitome of a tragic hero. However, one could argue that Hamlet is no more than an ordinary man who becomes corrupted and evil throughout the play, retaining only a few of his original heroic characteristics. A tragic hero can be defined as “a privileged, exalted character of high repute, who, by virtue of a tragic flaw and fate, suffers a fall from glory into suffering” (DiYanni). Tragic heroes have qualities that rank them above the average person, but these special characteristics are not enough to save the hero from fate:
What makes them tragic figures is that they have qualities of excellence, of nobleness, of passion; they have virtues and gifts that lift them above the ordinary run of mortal men and women. In tragedy these attributes are seen to be insufficient to save them either from self-destruction or from destruction brought upon them. And there is no hope for them. (Glossary of Basic Literary Terms)
Hamlet has several flaws, like a tragic hero, but he is not characterized as excellent by any means. At times, Hamlet even possessed qualities of a villain. He reacts to his fate in a way similar to the way one would expect a normal, non-heroic character to react. In addition, Hamlet’s fate is not inevitable, but is rather a culmination of his many mistakes and blunders that result from his constantly increasing corruption. Although Hamlet has the potential to be a tragic hero, his fellow characters in the play corrupt him and cause him to become evil, therefore rendering him unfit for the title of “tragic hero”.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is characterized as a normal, young adult who is mourning the death of his father. He has several friends, including Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, in addition to his girlfriend, Ophelia. As the son of the late king, Hamlet is a prince and next in line for the throne. This literal nobleness and fortune seems to qualify him as a perfect candidate for a tragic hero. In addition, Hamlet is well educated and attends college in Wittenberg before the play begins. The reader can assume that Hamlet is a logical, rational man at the start of the play. He is curious and skeptical of his father’s ghost: “Where wilt thou lead me? Speak, I’ll go no further” (I. v. 1). Although Hamlet is passionate about his ghost-father’s orders, he questions the validity of the ghost’s claims, for fear it may be the devil trying to influence him. In an effort to reveal the truth about King Hamlet’s death, Hamlet devises a plan:
I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks.
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I know my course. (II. ii. 573-577)
Hamlet’s clever plan to reveal Claudius’ guilt shows his quality and virtue, as well as his admirable self-control against acting rashly. Although this initial introduction to Hamlet provides the perfect recipe for a tragic hero, he eventually falls from his virtue into a spiral of corruption.
Hamlet’s corruption stems from the influence of other characters in the play. Hamlet’s sadness over his father’s death is caused by Claudius, who poisoned King Hamlet. Not only must Hamlet deal with the death of his father, but he is also greatly distraught because of Gertrude’s hasty marriage to Claudius. He spends several months grieving in a depression, which he attempts to explain to Claudius and Gertrude:
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. (I. ii. 77-83)
In this extreme display of emotion, Hamlet recognizes that his sadness is not only shown in his physical appearance, but that it runs much deeper than anyone can see. Claudius insensitively advises Hamlet to suppress his “unmanly grief” (I. ii. 94). Claudius’ selfish, manipulative attitude nearly causes Hamlet to take his emotions too far. Hamlet contemplates suicide, and insists that his life is meaningless:
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! (I. ii. 129-132)
Suicide, along with murder, is one of the ultimate forms of physical corruption. Hamlet’s willingness to take his own life demonstrates the extent to which Claudius’ evil nature affects Hamlet.
Hamlet’s corruption is furthered by the meeting with his father’s ghost. The ghost claims to be the late king of Denmark and Hamlet’s father. He refuses to speak to anyone but Hamlet, and when they are finally alone, the ghost tells Hamlet his side of the story. He asserts that Claudius poisoned him, and he is outraged at Claudius’ incestuous moral corruption. The ghost demands that Hamlet take action: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not. / Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (I. v. 81-83). By commanding Hamlet to kill Claudius as revenge for Claudius’ crimes against Hamlet’s family, the ghost plants the seed of active violence in Hamlet’s mind. This idea, composed of revenge, hatred, and aggression, festers in Hamlet’s mind, corrupting his initially kind, thoughtful, and peaceful nature.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also damage Hamlet’s initial virtuous character by betraying him as friends. The two minor characters are summoned to Denmark by Claudius, who seems to be the ultimate coordinator of all things evil. They are sent to spy on Hamlet for the king and queen, and they willingly carry out their deceitful duty without any misgivings:
But we both obey
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent,
To lay our service freely at your feet
To be commanded. (II. ii. 29-32)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s eagerness to betray their former friend highlights their moral corruption. Hamlet easily sees through their disguises and realizes that two of his best friends are working for the man he hates most, Claudius. As Hamlet begins to realize that he cannot trust anyone, he becomes even more emotionally corrupted: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, / I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II. ii. 364-365). Hamlet admits that he is going crazy, driven by his outrage and growing corruption stemming from his surrounding friends and family.
Hamlet cannot be considered a tragic hero not only because of the corruptive influence that he receives, but also because of his response to this surrounding evil. Rather than ignoring the corruption that is all around him, or recognizing the evilness and vowing not to let it affect him, Hamlet internalizes the wickedness and allows it to prevail within his character. The most prominent example of Hamlet’s depravity projected onto his friends and family is the murder of Polonius. While Hamlet is entreating his mother to break up with Claudius, he stabs Polonius, who is hiding behind a curtain. Gertrude is appalled by Hamlet’s murderous act: “Oh, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” (III. iv. 28). Hamlet does not apologize or express horror at his own lack of sound judgment, indicating both moral and physical corruption. Rather, Hamlet uses this as an opportunity to criticize his mother: “A bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother” (III. iv. 29-30). Although Hamlet claims to love his mother, he is very cruel to her, which seems unfair because Gertrude has always loved and stood up for Hamlet. This malicious manner towards Gertrude indicates deep emotional corruption, which causes Hamlet to berate his own mother, who cares for him dearly.
The callous characteristics that Hamlet portrays are also depicted in Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia. Hamlet is even crueler to Ophelia than he is to his mother: “If though dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. / Be though as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not / escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go” (III. i. 136-138). Hamlet tells his own girlfriend that she is unfit for marriage, and that she will have a bad reputation wherever she goes. He also insinuates that she should never have children, because they would be sinners (III. i. 124). Through his merciless insults and the murder of Polonius, Hamlet causes Ophelia to go mad and eventually commit suicide. The indirect murder of his girlfriend further exposes the deterioration of Hamlet’s character, turning him into a villain himself.
Horatio, who stands in sharp contrast to Hamlet, depicts a real hero, rather than a fallen hero who has succumbed to the evil pressures around him. Throughout the play, Horatio never wavers from his place by Hamlet’s side. He is a good listener, an honest man, and a concerned, loyal friend who truly cares for Hamlet. Horatio tells Hamlet about the king’s ghost, but tells him not to get too excited before he gets all the facts:
Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you. (I. ii. 192-195)
Horatio is reasonable and sensible throughout the entire play, begging Hamlet to follow the virtuous traits he once possessed. Just before the swordfight with Laertes, Hamlet reveals that he has an ominous feeling about the near future. Horatio wisely advises Hamlet to follow his instincts: “If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their / repair hither and say you are not fit” (V. ii. 205-206). Hamlet refuses to heed Horatio’s advice. He foolishly values his pride over his life, and insists that he will fight, even if it leads to his death. Horatio’s constant levelheaded and reasonable character highlights Hamlet’s increasingly rash and reckless behavior.
Hamlet begins the play as a possible tragic hero, but as he interacts with corrupt characters, his traits become more and more tainted until his potential for heroism disintegrates completely. Although Hamlet is depicted at first as a seemingly normal, though depressed, man, he is influenced by his relationships with Claudius, the ghost, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern until his old virtues are no longer recognizable. His evil actions, whether with Polonius, Gertrude, or Ophelia, further ingrain the corruption within him. Horatio’s steady, honorable personality emphasizes the demoralization of Hamlet’s character. By the end of the play, Hamlet no longer has any traits of a hero, but rather seems to be more of a villain, full of immoral, evil thoughts and devoid of his former inner goodness.
DiYanni, Robert. "Glossary of Drama Terms." Online Learning Center. McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2002. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072405228/student_view0/drama_glossary.html>.
"Glossary of Basic Literary Terms." Fortune City. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://members.fortunecity.es/fabianvillegas/drama/glossary-t.htm#flaw>.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. John Crowther. New York: SparkNotes, 2003. Print.
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