‘Hamlet’ as Tragedy


When writing about ‘Hamlet’ as part of a Literary Genre essay, you will need to explain why it is a Tragedy. It is not sufficient to say simply ‘because everyone dies’. Tragedy, in its classical sense, is more complicated than that. There are certain criteria that must be fulfilled before a play can be classed as a Tragedy.

1. Central Character a person of status

The tragic hero must be an exceptional being – a person of high degree or public importance. His actions and sufferings must be of an unusual kind. Hamlet is an important person. He is a prince, sone of the previous king. Claudius declares him to be the  next in line:

‘You are the most immediate to our throne’ (Act 1 Scene 2)

His position to the state is so important that he cannot marry whoever he likes:

‘his will is not is own . . . on his choice depends

The safety and the health of the whole state.’ (Laertes to Ophelia, Act 1 Scene 3)

2. The events of the play must be important and serious

This is obvious in ‘Hamlet’ – the fate of the state hangs in the balance. There can be comic relief, as with the many puns and the scene with the gravediggers. However, this does not diminish the overall mood of the play.

3. The Tragic Hero has a fatal flaw

In all Tragic Heroes, we see a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in one particular direction; a fatal tendency, interest or passion (Hamlet – procrastination, Othello – jealousy, Lear – pride, Macbeth – ambition). In the circumstance we see the hero placed, his tragic trait is fatal to him. He errs by action (Othello, Lear, Macbeth) or omission (Hamlet) and this error, joining with other causes, brings him to ruin. The Tragic Hero is genrally good and wins our sympathy. It is vital that he has greatness, so that in his error and downfall we are still aware of the possibilities of human nature. A Shakespearean tragedy is never totally depressing. At the end, we do not feel that man is a poor, mean creature. He may be wretched or awful, but he is never small.

Hamlet is well aware of his own shortcomings. He scorns himself for being ‘John-a-dreams’ (Act 2 Scene 2). He realises how ‘the stamp of one defect’ can bring a good person down (Act 1 Scene 4 line 21). However, Hamlet also fits the bill in terms of the hero having good qualities. He is brave (e.g. the solo attack on the pirate ship), and excellent swordsman (is winning when injured at the end), has broad interests (great interest in drama as shown by his conversation with the players) and he has the admiration of the general public (‘the great love the general gender bear him’ – Claudius Act 4 Scene 7 line 18).

4. Role of Fate

In some ancient tragedies the hero’s destruction is caused by Fate – forces outside the control of the hero, and so in a sense the hero can’t be blamed, isn’t responsible. However, in Shakespeare the hero makes choices that cause his downfall. Hamlet is conscious of the role of Fate in his life. He won’t allow his friends to keep him away from seeing the ghost: ‘My fate cries out (Act 1 Scene 4 line 83). Just before the sword fight he seems resigned to what fate has in store for him:

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

Rough-hew them how we will’ (Act 5 Scene 2 line 10)

and later ‘Let be’ (Act 5 Scene 2 c.217).

Yet fate doesn’t prevent him from killing Claudius when he had a chance (when Claudius seems to be praying) – he chose not to do it.

On the other hand, if he had been less resigned to Fate and more suspicious, he might not have bee tricked in the sword fight. Fate always seems to take a hand and restore stability – so we have Fortinbras set up to rule Denmark and presumable restore order. The state isn’t left leaderless.

5. Tragic Catharsis

The central impression is one of waste. It is an Aristotelian term used to describe the ‘pity and fear’ felt by the audience at the end of the play. These feelings are united with a profound sense of sadness and mystery in the face of such waste.

However, at the end, the restoration of stability provides a sense of safe relief. Also, the state has been purged of evil – justice is done, Claudius, the villain, is dead.

As Hamlet says himself to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ (Act 2 Scene 2).

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