Aristotleian Tragedy in Hamlet and Macbeth

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Hamlet and Macbeth Analyzed as Aristotelian Tragedies

Aristotle's Poetics is considered the guide to a well written tragedy; his methods have been used for centuries. Aristotle defines a tragedy as "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… in the form of an action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions" (House, 82). The philosopher believes the plot to be the most vital aspect of a tragedy, thus all other parts such as character, diction, and thought stem from the plot. Aristotle affirms, "the principle of tragedy – the soul, if you like – is the plot, and second to that the characters" (Whalley, 27). William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth essentially adhere to this definition. While both plays are not always in agreement with Aristotle's guidelines, they remain distinguished and effective tragedies with regard to the philosopher's criteria.

Aristotle states that tragedy is "an imitation of an action that serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude" (House, 82). Further "the most tragic situations arise between friends or between blood-relations, that is between those in whom are found the affections and loyalties which characterize the good" (House, 84). Hamlet is an excellent example of this. The play centers around Hamlet's quest to avenge his father's death, this being a well-defined, serious action. It is also complete is the sense that all the loose ends are tied together is a sensible, believable manner. In Act 1, Scene 5 the Ghost of old Hamlet reveals the truth about his death to his son when he states, "But know, thou noble youth the serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown" (38-30) Hamlet realizes that he is able to avenge his father's death by killing his uncle. Shakespeare abides by Aristotle's idea of tragedy given that this tragic situation has come between family members.

While the tragedy in Hamlet is within the family, the tragedy in Macbeth is between friends and counterparts. While extremely ambitious to be king, at the onset of the play Macbeth is a loyal servant to King Duncan of Scotland. However, upon hearing his prophecy to become king from three witches, Macbeth's increasing ambition defeats his good nature. Aristotle describes the action of a tragedy like so, "the action is human, the energy is human… the action is plotted and prepared by the maker" (Whalley, 23). This is apparent when Macbeth utters to himself, "Let not light see my black and deep desires" (51) making known his intentions to murder the king. His action is premeditated and is aggravated by his human emotions, ambitions and greed. Subsequent to the action, the character is a central element in a tragedy. According to Aristotle, the character "must be true to life" and "natural" and is supposed to be a perfect person to whom the audience can still relate (House, 91). Hamlet is a wealthy prince, however he deals with the problems similar to the common man. He is confused, paranoid, and angered about the circumstances surrounding the death of his father. He is also unsure of himself and how he should handle the situation. His inability to act on his father's extortion has him reluctant to kill King Claudius. Hamlet's lack of confidence and anxiety is evident at the end of Act 1, Scene 5 when he cries, "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that I was ever born to set it right" (190-191). The audience can relate to this uncertain feeling and they are able to empathize with Hamlet. Aristotle also describes the tragic character as a person "of a certain kind or quality; that, if part of the horror is seeing a man broken, it must be a strong man" (Whalley, 25). At the onset of the play, Macbeth is returning from suppressing a revolt against King Duncan in an engagement in which he fights with great valor. However once his ambitions take over, his strength is diminished. Macbeth...
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