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Home:Hamlet Analyzed In Terms Of Aristotle's Poetics


Analyzed In Terms Of Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics is considered the guide to a well
written tragedy; his methods have been used for centuries.
In Aristotle's opinion, plot is the most important aspect
of the tragedy and all other parts such as character,
diction, and thought stem from the plot. Aristotle defines
a tragedy as "...an imitation of an action that is serious,
complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language
embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the
several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in
the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear
affecting the proper purgation of these emotions" (p. 22). 

Shakespeare's Hamlet follows this definition for the most
part, and even though it is not always in agreement with
Aristotle's guidelines, it is still a great and effective
tragedy. Aristotle states that tragedy is "an imitation of
an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain
magnitude" (p. 22). Hamlet is an excellent example of this.
The play centers around Hamlet's quest to avenge his
father's death; this is a serious action. It is also
complete in the sense that all the loose ends are tied
together in a sensible, believable manner. Hamlet is able
to avenge his father's death by killing his uncle. 

Shakespeare also follows Aristotle's idea of the tragedy as
it is of a certain magnitude. The characters are supposed
to be the most perfect people to whom the audience can
still relate. Hamlet is a wealthy prince, however he deals
with the same problems as the common man. He is confused,
paranoid, and angered about the circumstances surrounding
his father's death. He is also unsure of himself and does
not know how he should handle the situation. The audience
can relate to this uncertain feeling and they are able to
empathize with Hamlet. 

Aristotle believes that in order for a tragedy to be
effective, it must convey pity and fear. He defines pity as
a feeling that is aroused by "unmerited misfortune" (p.
27). Hamlet undoubtedly suffers this unmerited misfortune.
He has done nothing to bring about his father's death. To
make the situation even more painful, his mother has
married his uncle whom he suspects is responsible for the
tragedy. These circumstances illicit pity from the
audience. The fear of impending evil is also prevalent in
the play. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that the
king is plotting to kill Hamlet and Hamlet is planning to
kill the king. Hamlet's plot is what Aristotle considers
complex. It is accompanied by Recognition, which is "a
change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate
between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad
fortune" (p. 26). The Recognition occurs when the play
within the play is staged for the king. The play is a
reenactment of what Hamlet believes happened to his father.
His uncle is so upset and flustered by the play that he
runs from the room. This action indicates to Hamlet that
his suspicions were correct and his uncle is indeed
responsible for King Hamlet's death. Hamlet later finds the
king in a church praying and is tempted to kill him there,
but decides against it because he will go to heaven since
he is praying. From this, the audience is able to infer
that Hamlet will attempt to kill his uncle later in the

Aristotle also stresses that diction is important to make
the tragedy believable. Shakespeare utilizes diction
perfectly and everything his characters say is appropriate
for them to be saying. For instance, the king speaks like a
king; he always dodges like a true politician. There is an
obvious and necessary difference between the way he speaks
and the way the gravediggers speak. The gravediggers are
common men and therefore, speak as thought they are common

There are some aspects of Poetics that Shakespeare does not
follow. For instance, Aristotle states that in a great
tragedy, there should be unity of time, place, and action.
By this he means that the action of the play should take
place in the amount of time it takes to perform it. It
should occur in one setting, and there should be one main
plot or action. Shakespeare breaks all these rules. The
play spans over a significant period of time and the action
occurs in various settings ranging from the palace to a
plain in Denmark. Finally, there are several plots taking
place simultaneously. For instance, as Hamlet is struggling
with the death of his father, Ophelia is going insane
because Hamlet is not returning her love or showing any
interest in her. The audience feels pity for Ophelia
throughout her ordeal. 

 Shakespeare's Hamlet is a great and effective tragedy
which follows most of the guidelines set by Aristotle in
Poetics. There are some aspects of Poetics that Shakespeare
does not include or follow, however the play still affects
the audience in the desired manner. In reality, Hamlet
would not have the same impact if it followed all the
guidelines. For instance, the whole aspect of the subplot
about Ophelia's insanity adds so much to the play.
Shakespeare broke some of Aristotle's rules and still wrote
an effective tragedy that has been appreciated by audiences
for centuries. 


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