__________________ ____________________  

Hamlet As A Tragedy


One of the foremost Elizabethan tragedies in the canon of
English literature is " Hamlet" by William Shakespeare and
one of the earliest critics of tragedy is Aristotle. One
way to measure Shakespeare's work, "Hamlet", is to
appraise it using the methods of classical critics to see
if it meets the criteria for a tragedy.
Hamlet is one of the most recognizable and most often
quoted tragedies in all of English literature. Aristotle,
who is concerned with the proper presentation of tragic
plays and poetry, defines tragedy as:
"...a representation of an action that is worth serious
attention, complete in itself, and of some amplitude; in
language enriched by a variety of artistic devices
appropriate to the several parts of the play; presented in
the form of action, not narration; by means of pity and
fear bringing about the purgation of such emotion."
(Aristotle 38 - 9)
Shakespeare uses character, plot and setting to create a
mood of disgust and a theme of proper revenge, as opposed
to fear and pity, hence Aristotle would have disapproved of
Hamlet as being a tragedy. It is the above mentioned
elements; character, plot and setting, used in a
non-Aristotelian way, that makes Hamlet work as one of the
English language's most renown tragedies.
By proper revenge, we refer to the Elizabethan view that
revenge must be sought in certain cases, for the world to
continue properly. This is the main plot of Hamlet. In
Poetics, Aristotle defines for us, the element of plot and
shows us how he believes it must be put together. He also
believes in various unities which he states are necessary
for a proper tragedy. Aristotle believes in what he calls
"Unity of plot" (Aristotle 42 - 3). This "Unity" leaves no
room for subplots, which are crucial to the theme of
Hamlet. Without the subplot of Laertes' revenge and the
subplot of Fortinbras' revenge, we are left with a
lugubrious play where the ending, although necessary, is
pointless. The three sub-plots together as a unit, allow us
to understand what Shakespeare thought of revenge. 
Another of the ways Aristotle defines plot in tragedy as
"The noble actions and the doings of noble persons"
(Aristotle 35). By this definition, Hamlet should be a
noble person, who does only noble things. Aristotle would
have objected to Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius during
prayer which forms the turning point of Hamlet. This is
significant because if he were to have achieved his revenge
at that point, Claudius' soul may have been clean. Hamlet
wishes to get revenge when Claudius' "Soul may be damned
and black / As hell, whereto it goes (Shakespeare 3, 3, 94
- 5). By waiting for the right time, Hamlet loses his
chance to achieve revenge. This ignoble act does add to the
theme of proper revenge, not in the primary plot, but when
all three revenge sub-plots are considered together. 
Aristotle also believed in heroes that are "First and
foremost good (Aristotle 51)." Although Hamlet spends much
time deliberating good and evil, and what the greatest good
is, when it comes time, he cannot act. Laertes does act,
but he acts rashly, and cannot perform good either.
Fortinbras is the type of hero that Aristotle would have
preferred, although from Fortinbras' point of view the play
is not tragic; instead it is a comedy where all of the
other characters run about and in the end through no fault
of his own, Fortinbras receives the kingship of Denmark.
The plot events with which Aristotle disagrees give meaning
to Hamlet's theme.
Shakespeare uses the plot to help create the mood of Hamlet
by incorporating subplots and by having his tragic hero do
things which are particularly unheroic. Hamlet's treatment
of Ophelia is particularly barbaric. By the same token
Ophelia's unstinting devotion to her father, and by that,
her poor treatment of Hamlet, causes us to question which
of the two is not the worthier, but the least evil. Both of
their actions invoke disgust. Aristotle would have objected
to Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia because of his
aforementioned belief in the character attributes of the
hero. The only characters who act particularly heroic are
Horatio, who is devoted to Hamlet, and Fortinbras. These
two characters are the only ones who survive. The rest of
the characters are left dead and bleeding. 
As another classical critic, Horace, wrote in Ars Poetica
"I shall turn in disgust from anything of this kind that
you show me (Horace 85)." When we see the bodies lying on
the ground at the end of the play we realize the futility
of Hamlet's actions and that evokes disgust. It is the
evocation of this emotion that Aristotle would have
disagreed with.
Shakespeare's character's in Hamlet illustrate the theme of
the drama, however Aristotle would have disagreed with
Shakespeare's choices. To understand character in terms of
theme one must compare the characters. Samuel Johnson calls
Hamlet "through the whole piece an instrument rather than
an agent". This is giving too much credence to the
soliloquies, when Hamlet ponders, and gives too little
credence to the fact that he sent Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern to their deaths without hesitating, and the
fact that he was the first on the pirate ship when attacked
on the high seas. It is the type of revenge that Hamlet
insists on that shapes his character and forces the
bloodshed at the end of the play. 
This contrasts with a play of which Aristotle did approve.
In Oedipus the King, Sophocles has created a character who
tries to do the greater good, and in doing so finds that
his fate has been damned from the start. Hamlet has the
chance to do good, in this case revenge a murderer, but he
lets passion sway his reason. This "madness" is what leads
Hamlet astray, leads him to kill Polonius, leads Ophelia to
commit suicide and leads to the carnage of the final scene.
Rather than learn from experience, Hamlet follows his own
Aristotle had no room for noble characters with no
amplitude and therefore he would have disliked most of the
characters in Hamlet, except for Horatio and Fortinbras. In
contrasting Fortinbras , Hamlet and Laertes we have three
men of noble birth, all of whom have a legitimate reason to
seek revenge. The main difference is the way that each
seeks his revenge. Laertes seeks revenge in a rash and
illicit ways and he dies. Hamlet seeks revenge in an
ignoble way and he dies. Fortinbras seeks a Christian
revenge and is successful. In this way Shakespeare's
characters further the theme of Hamlet in a
non-aristotelian way.
The characters that Shakespeare has chosen for Hamlet are
not the type one would find in a typical Greek tragedy, the
kind of tragedy that Aristotle was used to criticizing.
Oedipus the King, includes a number of elements that
Shakespeare does not use in Hamlet. The chorus is used as a
character in Oedipus the King to allow us a sympathetic
view of Oedipus, in his time of travail. Oedipus has
accepted responsibility for his fate and blinded himself.
The audience feels sympathy and therefore feels pity. No
such sympathy is given to Hamlet. It is not the fact that
he does not have some sympathetic qualities; rather he has
too few sympathetic characteristics which we wish to
Hamlet wants to do the right things, but it is the way he
does them that makes us dislike him. Hamlet also spends
much of his time deliberating rather than doing. Almost
every character in the play is a doer. The only two
characters with any sort of joie de vivre are the clowns
who are also grave diggers. The irony is that the
characters who most enjoy life are those who face death on
a regular basis. This juxtaposition not only foreshadows
the conclusion of the play but also adds to the mood of
One of the elements contributing to mood is character,
however it is used in a non-aristotelian way.
Aristotle ignored the concept that a play could take place
in many different settings and still retain meaning. In his
elements of tragedy Aristotle mentions "Plot, character,
diction, thought, spectacle and song. (Aristotle 39)." He
does not include setting as a separate entity. It is
implicit, however, in his conception of "Unities" that more
than one setting was not acceptable. One example may be
found in Oedipus the King, where all of the action takes
place in one setting, and where the geographical setting of
the play, in terms of a historical context, does not in
itself add any meaning. Aristotle did, however, believe in
"Unity of Time", where each action follows the previous
action, and builds to form a single "thread" of action. We
would include the time in play as part of the setting.
Another axiom of Unity of time is that one stage minute
equals one real minute. It is only by ignoring Aristotelian
convention in setting, specifically unity of time, that
Shakespeare can properly tell his story. 
Hamlet takes place entirely in Castle Elsinore and on its
grounds. The first scene takes place at approximately
midnight as does Act 1,nScene 4. Shakespeare completely
ignores the Aristotelian convention of "Unity of Time". It
is only by ignoring this convention that Shakespeare can
allow Hamlet to have the scene with the ghost, a twenty
minute scene, that Shakespeare elongates from midnight to
dawn. By the same token it is this elongation that allows
Hamlet to talk with the ghost and gives the ghost a
dramatic reason, the dawn, to leave the stage. This allows
Shakespeare to develop his plot and therefore to develop
his theme. These temporal manipulations do not end here.
Hamlet leaves for England by boat, is waylaid by pirates
and returns to Elsinore between Act 4nScene 3 and Act 5 
 Scene 1. This allows Laertes to return and demand revenge,
Ophelia to go mad and kill herself and Hamlet to return
just in time for the funeral. 
Without this compression of time, Shakespeare could not
have fitted in the plot points he needs to build the theme
of revenge. Laertes leaves Denmark in the second scene of
the first act, and returns in the fourth act and demands
revenge for the death of his father, Polonius. Shakespeare
has, again ignored the time frame of the play in order to
facilitate the plot. It by ignoring the temporal aspect of
setting that Shakespeare has the room he needs to develop
the plot , and therefore the theme of Hamlet.
Shakespeare uses Castle Elsinore and environs to depict a
sordid and depressing place where incest and murder are a
part of normal life, where revenge is commonplace
motivation, and where the feigning of madness is a normal
strategy to dissemble ones feelings. This is the setting
for Hamlet. Shakespeare created this setting to tell us a
story of revenge gone wrong. He also created a mood of
disgust. When at the end of the play, things are brought to
their right order and Fortinbras becomes king, we look back
and see the depraved way of life that existed at Castle
Elsinore and its logical conclusion, a room littered with
bodies and Fortinbras taking his lawful place as king, we
feel disgust and its purgation.


Quotes: Search by Author