How is Hamlet a tragic hero?

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A tragic hero is more than just the hero of a tragedy who dies in the end. When we identify a tragic hero, we look at a character who loses everything and everyone close to them over the course of the play, usually because of one of their own flaws, or hubris.

Hamlet has many strong character qualities. At the beginning of the play, he's loyal to his father and vows revenge for his death. He feigns insanity to convince the people around him that he is crazy while he investigates the ghost's claims that Claudius is the killer.

However, Hamlet's once-noble intentions fall apart as his desire for revenge consumes him and as each event is linked to his inevitable death. We see him mistakenly kill Polonius and simply shake off the murder:

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell.
I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune.
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.
His cold and harsh language towards Ophelia could be the cause of her madness and even suicide; he convinces her that he never loved her and warns her not to become a "breeder of sinners" (act III, scene 1). Once he realizes that she is dead, he sees what he has done, but it is too late to stop, and he continues his downward spiral by accepting a duel with Laertes. This duel has nothing to do with his revenge, but he is tricked into accepting the duel: Osric details just how good Laertes is at fencing, but he says that he believes Hamlet is better.
The duel serves as Hamlet's final action. Before he is killed by Laertes's poisoned sword, he kills Laertes with the same sword. His mother dies by accidentally drinking poison—the poison Claudius intended for Hamlet—and Hamlet both stabs his stepfather and forces him to drink poison.
As a tragedy, we know from the beginning of the play that things will not end well for our main character, but as a tragic hero, we can link his decisions and events to clearly lead to his inevitable death.
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What makes Hamlet a tragic hero?

The essence of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is its ability to arouse pity and fear in the mind of the spectator. No one in 2300 years has arrived at a better definition. Hamlet's character is one that satisfies this formula, though perhaps in a way that diverges from other tragic characters in literature. Therefore, there may be more controversy in our critical view of Hamlet than in, for instance, figures such as Oedipus or other Shakespearean heroes such as Othello, Brutus, or Antony and Cleopatra.

In Hamlet, we see a man suffering. From his words, especially in his soliloquies, he is a man to whom life is alien in some sense. Hamlet asks why one should bear all the suffering that life entails and not simply end it all. One gets the impression this is a problem Hamlet experiences independently of the murder of his father and his inability to avenge it. There is a rage within him against the whole world, which he takes out on an innocent person such as Ophelia as a form of displaced aggression. His violent actions and the frenzy of emotion in which he is locked are both pathetic and terrifying. Even if Hamlet alone does not arouse this reaction in us, the mayhem he causes will do so—the fact that virtually all the important characters in the play are killed off.

If there is a controversy about him, it involves Hamlet's inner soul. A tragic hero, again going back to Aristotle, is usually a great man who has a flaw and who has made a mistake. Hamlet's mistakes are many. His hitting out against people who have done him no harm, all ostensibly in order to carry out a plan of revenge against his father's killer, has a quality of randomness about it. One never knows if he is shamming insanity as an element of this plot or simply because it is in his nature to rebel against the norms of society, for which he has contempt. Is this, in fact, the soul of a hero and a great man or merely that of one always dissatisfied, with an unquenchable anger at the world? His greatness seems to consist more in his intelligence and eloquence than in any act he has ever done or could do. Perhaps this quality is the answer to his character's riddle. Hamlet arouses our empathy because he suffers and expresses his reaction to that suffering in a manner with which we, as audience and readers, identify. This, arguably, is the key to his greatness and his fitting the definition of a tragic hero.

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What makes Hamlet a tragic hero?

Tragedy of Hamlet

Hamlet is certainly one of the best tragedy plays by William Shakespeare. To place Hamlet in the category of a tragic hero, we must analyse his character and actions as per the definition of the real “tragic hero” as given by Aristotle.

1. A tragic hero usually has a good, noble birth.

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. So definitely there is no doubt that he enjoys a high birth status.

2. He is good, intelligent, virtuous and dignified but only has one tragic flaw known as Hamartia.

Tragic flaw or Hamartia is the most important of all features attributed to a tragic hero. We respect Hamlet for he decides to take revenge against his father’s murderer, which shows his love and makes him a heroic character. His plan to catch Claudius and Gertrude red handed also goes successful. But Hamlet has a tragic flaw. He can’t act. He seems to be trapped with unrealistic ideals that prevent him to take concrete actions. He procrastinates more than requisite. He appears to be a man of just words and no action. He is unable to accept his father’s death. Too much thinking and grieving takes him far from reality.

3. It is this Hamartia that leads to the tragic hero’s downfall or even death, called as Peripeteia. But he has the potential and opportunity to reverse or avoid this.

We notice, Hamlet does get plenty of opportunities to kill Claudius. The circumstances require him to act immediately. But the delay and indecisiveness from his side eventually lead to his downfall. The audience feels had Hamlet killed Claudius before, he would have survived in the end. In this way Hamlet himself is to be blamed for his death, something which fits him perfectly into the seat of a tragic hero.

4. He encounters self-realisation, self-knowledge, and self-awakening post his wrong actions.

Its only when Ophelia and Gertrude die does Hamlet understand their and, for that matter, his love for them. He accuses Gertrude to be cold and disloyal, but regrets when he she drinks poison to save him. But definitely it too late by then. We find Hamlet is self-critical in his soliloquies. He understands he too is to be blamed.

5. But gets more punishment than what he actually deserves.

We understand the foreseen disaster Hamlet’s lack of action could cause. But this would lead to his death in the end (from the poisoned sword) is unbalanced.  He certainly suffers more than what he deserves.

6. Gains sympathy and pity of the audience, invokes Catharsis.

Though there is some relief that Claudius is too killed, as the audience, we highly sympathize and mourn Hamlet’s death.

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What makes Hamlet a tragic hero?

Aristotle stated that the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition about human nature and fate.  This sort of recognition is termed " a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."

Tragically, Hamlet comes to this awareness of a bond of love with both Ophelia who truly loves him and whom he realizes he did love as well as with his mother, who drinks the poison intended for her son so that he may live.  Only as she dies does Hamlet realize her loyalty; before he accuses her of unfaithfulness to his father and his memory.

Hamlet's awareness of a bond of hate comes in his recognition of his repulsion for nature and man:  In Act II, scene II, Hamlet remarks that the "majestical roof of the sky "fretted with golden fire" is nothing but "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors" to him.  Man, "noble in reason, infinite in faculties, an angel in apprehension (learning), a god:  the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals" is nothing but a "quintessence of dust" to him.  In his melancholia Hamlet feels only disgust with nature and man.

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What makes Hamlet a tragic hero?

Firstly, a tragic hero typically begins in a place of nobility and falls because of his tragic flaw. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His noble status is the first indicator that he is a tragic hero. Hamlet then fakes his madness in order to discover his uncle's fatal lies. Hamlet's excessive pride, or hubris, first leads to Ophelia's death (when he refuses to break from his madness to comfort her), and eventually leads to his own death and the death of many people around him.

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In Hamlet, what are some traits that make Hamlet a hero?

Well, we have to qualify Hamlet as a hero...he is a tragic hero. A traditional hero would have saved the girl and not leave the land strewn with bodies...

Even so, Hamlet, the character, meets Joseph Campbell's definition of a hero. Here is a (very) basic overview of the steps of a hero's journey (as defined by Campbell):

1. Quest: The hero realizes he has special duties or responsibilities. Hamlet, of course, realizes it is his duty, and his alone, to avenge his father's murder by killing Claudius. 

2. Discovery: The hero discovers his strength and weaknesses. For Hamlet, his strength and his weakness is one in the same: his intellect. He can create complicated scenarios and look at situations from every possible angle, yet his thinking also hold him back from action.

This weakness is most apparent in Act 3, when Hamlet comes upon Claudius in prayer. It would have been the perfect opportunity to take his revenge, yet Hamlet stops and reasons. He muses:

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season'd for his passage?

No! (3.3.80-87)

Ironically, Claudius had NOT been in confession. Thus it would have been the ideal opportunity yet his intellect prohibits action.

3. Sacrifice: the hero loses something dear to him. In this case, the dear thing Hamlet loses is Ophelia. He is distraught over her death and after losing her, the tragedy picks up speed.

4. Conquest: the hero overcomes death or his fear of mortality. Here, of course, it is the latter. But, in my opinion, when Hamlet is on the verge of death and he says, in awe, "O I die Horatio!" he seems genuinely surprised even as he is accepting his fate. Here, at last, is a situation his intellect is useless against. Hamlet sees there is no way out. He appoints Fortinbras, the man of action, as his successor. 

Finally, in Campbell's hierarchy of the heroic journey, there is a messenger who will tell the tale of the hero. The only person of the inner circle alive is Horatio and his close bond with his friend assures that the hero's story will stay alive. 



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What qualities of the tragic hero does Hamlet have?

There is a related discussion topic which you might find useful as well, it's linked below.

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What qualities of the tragic hero does Hamlet have?

I would simply add to this excellent answer that Hamlet has a good reason for being undecided, at least in the earlier part of the play: his chief source of information is a ghost, and he has no way of checking its credentials. The ghost might be the spirit of his father, or it might be a demon sent from Hell to deceive him. Even if it is the former, blood revenge is emphatically not a New Testament Christian value, and so the right of the ghost to command that Hamlet kill its murderer is in question.

From this perspective, we might say that Hamlet is a tragedy because the protagonist has no available course of action that produces morally unambiguous results. The "tragic flaw" is not so much his indecision as his inability to access enough reliable information to make a good decision, combined with the moral imperative he do something about the situation. If he kills Claudius at once, he may be acting under demonic deception and damning himself. If he tries to gather further information, as he does, his actions may spiral out of control (as they do), resulting in the deaths of many others (Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, and his mother to begin with). No wonder the poor fellow considers suicide.

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What qualities of the tragic hero does Hamlet have?

Aristotle's Poetics outlined the qualities of the tragic hero that we still refer to today:

  • The tragic hero has a noble stature and a high position in his culture.
  • The tragic hero, is great, but not perfect. The audience relates to him as a human being.
  • The hero's downfall is the result of a "fatal flaw" in his character. It is the result of free will, not of an accident or mere fate.
  • The hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the "crime."
  • The hero's fall is not pure loss. The is an increase in awareness, a gain in self-knowledge, or some sort of discovery on the part of the tragic hero.
  • Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression.  Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the "unhealthy" emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis (which comes from watching the tragic hero's terrible fate) cleanse us of those emotions.   

Hamlet, of course, is a prince and therefore of high status. Critics generally agree that his "tragic flaw" is indecision, as he cannot bring himself to avenge his father's death in a timely manner.

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