The assessment that Hamlet’s
He faces the sorrow of a dead father and the shock and disbelief at the speed of his own mother’s remarriage. The appearance of the ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state” and for these combined reasons it is evident that “time is out of joint”. It seems that the uncertainty, which appears to be a fundamental backbone of the play, not merely reflects the tempest of Hamlet’s psychological state, but also perfectly reflects the difficulty evident in the task of assessing the nature of tragedy in relation to ‘Hamlet’.
In making the assessment that Hamlet’s task of revenging his father’s murder is the fundamental driving force of his character, it seems that one is only touching the surface. He seems to be a lost individual, extracted from all familiarity and safety, and placed, by both Shakespeare and fate simultaneously, in a situation, which causes him to question the very fabric of his reality. He is constantly attempting to question the reasons for his situation, the morality of the task he sees as a duty, perhaps because of his romantic image of the ‘feudal revenge code’, and furthermore the complexities of his own mental state.
The interrogative state is Hamlet’s natural and habitual register of language; “to be or not to be that is the question”. Most of his soliloquies are shaped by it, his dialogue is punctuated by it and thought processes dominated by it. Whilst this is obvious, there is an additional element; one of the most interesting aspects of the character Hamlet, in terms of both his internal struggle and the role he has in the play, is the bizarre position he is in.
Pushing ‘tragedy’ and the concept of a ‘tragic hero’ aside, he is the play’s hero (although this in itself is questionable) yet he differs greatly from the conventional image of a protagonist in that he appears to spend the majority of the play watching, dwelling on others and distancing himself not only from them, but also from himself; the play itself becomes a reflection of Hamlet’s mind and his internal workings guide the mood of the play.
When Orphelia elaborates on Hamlet’s commentary on the play he has put on, “you are as good as a chorus, my Lord”, she brings attention to the meta-theatrical nature of ‘Hamlet’, significantly interlinking his own thoughts with the overall air associated with the external happenings alongside it. The chorus, which in Greek tragedy, elaborates on the themes of the play and also anticipates future events, does so with an important element of empathy, linking the audience to the play more extensively, and thus Orphelia’s comment closely embodies the engaging relationship between Hamlet and audience and the plot itself seems to be subservient.
It seems that in order to ascertain to what extent ‘Hamlet’ is a tragedy, one must also determine what is Hamlet’s own tragic nature and in what sense he is heroic and thus might be referred to as a tragic hero. By differentiating and comparing Hamlet to the characters of some of Shakespeare’s other ‘tragedies’ one can gain a greater insight into this question. ‘Macbeth’ is considered a tragedy, and it seems to me that the play’s protagonist is very much a tragic hero.
In Macbeth’s case, his fatal flaws are his impressionability, greed and most importantly his “vaulting ambition” and hubristic character. While a statement such as this can appear to be oversimplifying the character’s fundamental nature, it seems that such traits are clearer and more real than those so-called ‘flaws’ evident in the character of Hamlet; it is difficult to see how delaying is an inherent character flaw. Clearly his ‘error’, if this is the nature of Hamartia, is his misinterpretation of the witches’ predictions.
There is no direct antagonist in the play, but Macbeth is influenced to murder by both the Witches and Lady Macbeth to an extent, and thus there is an element of fate and inevitability that seems to lead Macbeth to fulfil his role as a tragic hero. We see the degeneration of a valiant soldier, ‘Noble Macbeth’ to a vicious murderer, ‘this dead butcher’, because of both his character flaws and mistakes. Shakespeare marries this rise and fall with Catharsis, purging the audience’s emotions through a mixture of pity and fear for Macbeth throughout the play.
Macbeth’s suffering is portrayed through his constant anguish and terrible guilt and eternal battle with his conscience; Macbeth’s guilty soliloquies clearly reflect recognition of his own misdeeds and the ‘error’ of his ways. This, in addition to the final twist in the play seems, in a sense to be God’s retribution. This nemesis, the betrayal of Macbeth’s trust and predictions, culminating in his eventual death, brings the tale to a conclusion as a tragedy. It is not as easy to refer to Hamlet as a tragic hero.
His heroic nature perhaps lies in that the audience is given a glimpse of his potential. Hamlet is a Renaissance intellectual, scholarly and shows a great knowledge of literature. He is a good swordsman, a philosopher and a scientist and he frequently refers to conventions, which deal with the nature of humanity, the mark of his scholarship at Wittenberg University. Hamlet, as the future king, is also a figure of great hierarchical prominence, and this significantly emphasises his potential.
Shakespeare informs the audience of Hamlet’s intelligent and analytical nature through speeches referring to humankind’s inherent weaknesses, “So oft it chances in particular men… by their o’ergrowth of some complexion”. Here he elaborates on man’s tendency to lean towards one particular emotional state at the exclusion of others. Any sense that he is perhaps a youth, who, having had the luxury of receiving it, is merely parroting pompous wisdom, evaporates when one acknowledges that his highly philosophical nature is equally evident when he is alone, it defines self-analysis.
“The vicious mole of nature (in men)” is often taken as a definition of the ‘tragic flaw’, which is determined at birth by nature or fate. Characters such as Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, have distinctive character flaws, which stand out and clearly define their fates. It is rather difficult to make sense of the complexities, which define Hamlet’s thought process, and it seems that no such character flaw truly exists. Hamlet is constantly questioning his apparent inaction and criticises himself for “thinking too precisely on th’event”.
He doubts many aspects of his character; his overly-analytical nature, his sanity, his morality and, most importantly to him, his ability to revenge. Having declared that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past… and thy [the ghost of his father] commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain”, he angers at his inability to force himself to become the revenger he wishes he could be.
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