Aristotle's Poetics is a work that, in ancient times, described the elements necessary for dramatic writing -- both Comedies and Tragedies. For a Tragedy, which the play Hamlet is, Aristotle required the following (from Enotes):
In the English translation of Aristotle's definition, tragedy is an "imitation" of a "serious and complete" action, with a "definite magnitude," or theme, that is "humanly significant." Tragedy employs "pleasing language" or "enhanced utterance;" it is characterized by action rather than narration; and it achieves "through pity and fear" what is known as "catharsis" or "purgation."
Enotes also provides a nice list of characteristics of a tragic hero. The tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, is a character who is noble by birth, but who undergoes a downfall that, when witnessed by the audience, arouses their "pity and fear" and leads to a "catharsis," as described in the above quote. Here are some of the qualities of a tragic hero that might be attributed to Hamlet:
- The [tragic] flaw is, most frequently (esp. in the Hellenic dramas) Hubris.
- The hero discovers that his downfall is a result of his own actions, not by things happening to him.
- The hero sees and understands his doom, and that his fate was revealed by his own actions.
- The hero's downfall is understood by Aristotle in his Poetics to arouse pity and fear that leads to an epiphany and a catharsis (for hero and audience).
- The hero learns something from his/her mistake.
- The hero is faced with a serious decision.
- The suffering of the hero is meaningful, because although the suffering is a result of the hero's own volition, it is not wholly deserved and may be cruelly disproportionate.
- There may sometimes be supernatural involvement.
Please follow the links below for more on Poetics, the tragic hero, and Hamlet as a tragic hero.