To what extent does Hamlet meet the expectations of a traditional tragic hero?
The term ‘tragic hero’ dates back to ancient Greek literature. The traditional tragic hero, especially one such as Hamlet, can often be debated to whether they were in fact ‘heroic’ enough to meet the standards we expect from a tragic character such as him. According to Aristotle a tragic hero should be of noble stature, in Hamlet’s case a prince. Secondly, a tragic hero should be far from perfect and should possess a tragic flaw, also known as the hubris, which will inevitably lead to the characters downfall, the harmartia. Finally, the hero gains an aspect of self awareness which enables them to understand that their doom and their fate was a result of their own actions and they willingly accept this. Since the time of Shakespeare, the flaw of a tragic hero has generally been regarded to result in the hero’s death, or in fact a fate worse than death. However, to the audience, the suffering of the hero is meaningful because although their suffering is a result of their individual actions, it may not be fully deserved. In this essay will be discussing how Hamlet meets and fails to meet the expectations of a traditional tragic hero, taking in to account his characteristics, his hubris and other characters which provoke and clarify Hamlets traits, such as Laertes and Claudius.
I would argue that one aspect of Hamlet’s character which does not fulfil the expectation of a traditional tragic hero is cowardice and his inability to commit his act of revenge. Despite his adamant feelings towards avenging his father, who he believed was murdered by the new King; Hamlet takes so long to do anything about it that his cowardice, which prevents him from making a move, in fact results in becoming one of the factors which lead to his downfall. Therefore, it could be argued that his inability to take action could be his hubris. It already appears to the audience as if Hamlet is a weak character, and had acquired a coward’s way of thinking. In Act one Scene two, he says “or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon gainst self-slaughter.” This implies that he wishes ‘self slaughter’ was not a sin, and that his belief in God, the ‘Everlasting’ is holding him back from escaping everything and taking his own life. It could be argued that the act of suicide shows the audience his weak side, as taking your own life is considered to be a coward’s way out. It could also exploit his cowardice in relation to his weak state of mind and his inability to get over his father’s death. However, it could also be argued that his cowardice resides in the form of lying to himself, or perhaps just the audience. He uses his religion to cower behind, making excuses which encourage him to stay alive as if the ‘Everlasting’ would disapprove. This could also demonstrate a powerlessness within him that prevents him from making decisions for himself, linking back to his inability to commit his act of revenge which leads to his downfall. In Hamlets ‘to be or not to be’ speech, in Act three Scene one, he uses he refers back to the afterlife again. “No traveller returns, puzzles the will...Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”. Hamlet seems to have conveniently forgotten about his father’s ghost when he refers to no one ever returning from the dead “no traveller returns”, this could indicate his weakness, to the audience it would also appear as if Hamlet is making excuses for himself, ignoring the reality of his situation. It seems he tries to reassure himself and validate his actions by saying “conscience does make cowards of us all”, arguing that the only reason we bare the horrible things in life is because we are afraid of what comes after death. He uses personal pronouns such as ‘us’ to imply everyone acts the way he does. This reassurance of himself again indicates a significant weakness in Hamlet and his insecurities. It could be said that according to Aristotle’s theory Hamlet is still fulfilling the tragic hero role, as this along with other things could be his weakness.
Hamlet’s hubris could also be argued to be his lack of actions. However, what makes this so significant is the fact that Hamlet acknowledges this himself and knowingly dislikes himself for it. In Act two Scene two, Hamlet says “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore unpack my heart with words.” Hamlet expressed his hatred for himself, referring to himself as an ‘ass’ and a ‘whore’, the lowest type of a woman, emphasising his self pity. He says ‘Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell”, demonstrates Hamlet’s awareness of his lack of action and he emphasises the importance by using ‘heaven and hell’ to refer to his prompters’, which could also refer to his dad, which to the audience would suggest Hamlet is aware he should be doing something, yet is still cowering behind his insecurities. He suggests he is a man of only words, “unpack my heart with words”. This could refer back to Aristotle’s theory and could seem momentous as someone of such noble stature such as Hamlet, should not be considered to be so untraditional of a man and to possess only ‘words’, not courage and action. This could arguably imply Hamlet is not worthy of the high status of which he is labelled, therefore creating a lack of fulfilment of the tragic hero status. In Gertrude and Hamlet’s Act three Scene four it is debateable to whether Gertrude recognises these traits within her son and in turn believes he is not worthy or ready to be the King of Denmark thus providing her with an excuse of such a hasty marriage to Claudius. Gertrude says “alas, he’s mad.” This suggests Gertrude has no faith in her son, and believes him to be ‘mad’ which has only negative connotations. She also says “O gentle son”, which could suggest she is just as aware of Hamlet’s un-manly nature as the audience is. This cowardly nature we witness within Hamlet through the eyes of his mother and the audience does not meet the expectations of a traditional tragic hero, if not quite the opposite.
However, it could appear as though Hamlet never intended on taking action against the King Claudius. Hamlet holds very strong opinions to his mother’s hasty second marriage which has provoked hatred towards the King. He says “oh much wicked speed to post” and “With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” This illustrates his frustration and anger towards his mother and her ‘wicked speed’ to re-marrying. He also meets his father’s ghost who in time appears to confirm his suspicions about his uncle and his poisoning of the King Hamlet. To the audience this would seem to be a perfect combination of events that would encourage great motivation and emotional hatred to take hasty action and almost urgently suppress those feelings by taking revenge. However Hamlet seems to have a different approach and says, “that I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge”. This appears quite odd and the comparisons Hamlet makes seem to cancel each other out. The words ‘meditation’, ‘love’ and ‘sweep’ all hold connotations of tranquillity and composure. These words make Hamlets threat of ‘revenge’ seem pathetic and unbalanced, as well as highly unlikely. Neither the words used in this quote nor the overall sentence seem to be an obvious analogue for brutal or remotely decisive action. This could arguably prevent us from holding a grudge against Hamlet for his inability to take action, as he seems to be quite confused within his own mind and could be so quite possibly insane that in fact whilst toying over the wholly appealing idea of avenging his father, he has no such intensions whatsoever. This self doubt that Hamlet seemingly expresses could appear to be another characteristic a traditional tragic hero would not ordinarily possess. Yet, according to Aristotle it could be said that Hamlet’s hubris is his self doubt, implying that Hamlet would more or less be an example of a confused tragic hero, whose hubris does lead to his tragic downfall.
Another factor that contributes significantly to Hamlet not appearing as much of a tragic hero is the direct contrast the audience is exposed to between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes seems to possess characteristics of which Hamlet is lacking, and is seen as a more favourable traditional tragic hero. These are mainly courage and confidence, and the ability he has to take immediate action against Hamlet. Laertes displays this when he instantly takes action after being informed of his father’s murder and proposes and dual between Hamlet and himself. In Act four Scene seven Laertes sounds very self assured and says “but my revenge will come” and “I will do’t”. This direct language arguably makes the audience feel very convinced by Laertes, in contrast to Hamlet’s dithering language and misguided intentions. Laertes makes his way back to Denmark immediately taking intense action and arrives ready to dual within the space of a mere three scenes. This motivation and strive for accomplishment that Laertes seizes emphasises what Hamlet is lacking and makes Hamlet seem insignificant and an unworthy hero. It also arguably shows that Hamlet has been dragging out his act of revenge against Claudius for far too long, not making any progress whilst Laertes charges back to avenge his father instantaneously. This suggests that Hamlet is not at all fit to meet the expectations such as strength, courage and amiability that we would expect a traditional tragic hero to have, bringing him under the expectations we hold for a tragic hero.
However, Laertes actions do implicate a positive light upon Hamlet. Laertes seems very sure of himself and very rash in his decisions and at first this would seem to be down to mere courage and would make the audience feel in awe of his motivation. Nevertheless, it could be said his confidence is created by the unfair advantage he knowingly holds against Hamlet, the poison on the end of his weapon which convinces himself has can’t be beaten. Hamlet however does not attempt to cheat in any way, or be unfaithful in his actions. This on its own demonstrates a confident and noble side to Hamlet that the audience hadn’t really witnessed before. This arguably exposes Laertes as more of an untrustworthy character, putting Hamlet is a more trustworthy and self assured position. This worthiness that Hamlet demonstrates links back to Aristotle’s idea of nobility, of which the tragic hero must contain, which Hamlet demonstrates in his dual with Laertes flawlessly. This could convince the audience that Hamlet is in fact a worthy traditional tragic hero.
Overall, I would say that Hamlet does not meet the expectations of a traditional tragic hero. Whilst the order of events in which Hamlet does eventually meet his harmartia match specifically with the terms to which Aristotle states, Hamlet possesses far too many un admirable traits within his character to seem worthy enough of being a tragic hero. Hamlet’s impulsiveness, cowardice and un avoidable mad state of mind seems far too unstable for Hamlet to be a hero. Whilst occasionally displaying noble traits he is drowned in the amiability of Laertes, and his positive characteristics. Hamlet does forgo a tragedy and that he could arguably meet the expectations of Aristotle in terms of weakness, but I feel that he has many elements within his personality that contribute to his unrealistic hero qualities and more than one hubris and this makes him an unrealistic hero, or in fact too human. This prevents Hamlet from meeting the audiences expectations, such as bravery, enthusiasm , and success his needs, in order to be considered a traditional tragic hero.