“What a piece of work a man is,” says the title character, Hamlet, of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare 2.2.327). Men are pieces of work, and some men like to make pieces of work, like Shakespeare and his numerous plays, and other men like to give their opinion on pieces of work. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about poetics, but more specifically he wrote about tragedy. Aristotle’s book, Poetics, defines tragedy as “an imitation, not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear” (Aristotle 686). Not only did Aristotle define tragedy, but he also defined the tragic figure in tragedy. A perfect example of the tragic figure is Hamlet, a melancholic grieving prince who has recently lost his father. After the death of his father, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, takes the throne and marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The play begins with the late King Hamlet appearing to young Hamlet as a ghost. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius is responsible for old Hamlet’s death and that Hamlet needs to kill Claudius to avenge old Hamlet, and release him from Purgatory. Hamlet then “vows to give his life to the duty of revenge; the rest of the story exhibits his vain efforts to fulfill this duty” (Bradley 21). Hamlet eventually succeeds in killing Claudius but ends up dying in the process. Thus, Hamlet shows the signs of a tragic figure. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet displays the characteristics of a classic tragic hero.
To begin, Aristotle’s classic tragic figure must have four defining characteristics. First, nobility comprises the first characteristic that a tragic hero must have. To have nobility, the character must be “manly,” because “it is not appropriate [for] a female character,” to be tragic (Aristotle 698). The tragic figure must also have a high ranking position in his society, be well liked, and he “shall be good,” and have a high moral fiber that elicits sympathy from the audience (Aristotle 689). All of this will lead to the public opinion that he is “better than the ordinary man” (Aristotle 689). Regardless of the fact that he is noble, and viewed as of higher order, the tragic hero must have a tragic flaw. The flaw will usually be revealed early to the audience but is denied by the tragic hero. This flaw is a natural part of their personality that causes them to make an “error in judgment” (Aristotle 687). The error is most clear when the act is done “knowingly and consciously” by the character (Aristotle 688). This flaw in personality causes the character to be responsible for his reversal of fortune. This reversal of fortune is called Peripety by Aristotle and is “the change […] from one state of things within the play to its opposite” (Aristotle 686). During the Peripety, the tragic hero will be seen “falling from happiness into misery,” in order to “move [the audience] to either pity or fear” (Aristotle 687). The hero will make a decision that will eventually cause his destruction that was the result of a combination of free will and fate. As a result of the Peripety, the tragic hero will experience a realization of the truth and a downfall from his high position. During the realization the hero experiences “a change from ignorance to knowledge,” and as a result of this change, will probably experience some form of mental suffering which will probably be “destructive or painful [in] nature” (Aristotle 687). This realization, however, comes at a price which is their downfall, during which they will experience long suffering or self torture. This will accompany death. Therefore, Aristotle’s aforementioned characteristics are the defining components of the ideal tragic hero.
First of all, in order to be a classic tragic hero, Hamlet must be noble. As a part of the nobility of the classic tragic figure, Hamlet exemplifies the high ranking male requirement. At the beginning of the play, when Hamlet is first...
Cited: Aristotle. Poetics. The Works of Aristotle Volume II. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.
Bertram, Joseph. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevingtion. New Jersey: Prentice-Halls, 1968.
Bradley, A.C. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevingtion. New Jersey: Prentice-Halls, 1968.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Winders, P. Understanding Hamlet. Ontario: Pergamon Press, 1975.
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