To what extent does Hamlet correspond to Aristotle's notion of tragedy?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A tragedy, Aristotle wrote, is the imitation in dramatic form of an action that is serious and complete, with incidents arousing pity and fear; this drama, then, effects a catharsis of such emotions.  Pleasurable and appropriate to the situation, the language of a tragedy is often elevated and poetic.  Generally, there are six criteria for an Aristotelian definition of tragedy:

  1. The tragic hero is a man of noble status.  Certainly, Hamlet is such a man as the Prince of Denmark.  Critic Harold Bloom writes that Hamlet "transcends his play" as he seems from a realm far beyond the rancid atmosphere of Elsinore. 
  2. The tragic hero is good, though not perfect, and his fall results from his committing "an act of injustice" (hamartia) either through ignorance of from a conviction that some greater good will be served. This hamartia stems from some excess of virtue--a nobility of chracter that makes the protagonist unfit for life among ordinary mortals. Hamlet's soliloquies reveal intelligence and integrity as he reconsiders regicide based upon the wishes of a ghost, and he finds the actions of his mother base.  In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche perceived Hamlet well, describing him not as the man who thinks too much; rather, he is the man who thinks too well.  Repulsed by the hypocrite Polonius, Hamlet stabs him through the curtain behind which he has been eavesdropping in Act III.
  3. The hero's downfall is his own fault.  Hamlet chooses to fight Laertes in order to clean the corrupt court.
  4. Nonetheless, the hero's misfortune is not wholly deserved. Clearly, Hamlet is, as Aristotle states, "better than ourselves."  He deliberates throughout all his soliloquies.  When he watches Fortinbras, the "delicate and tender prince/Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed," Hamlet is moved to save Denmark by dueling with Laertes, but fate intervenes with Claudius who has poisoned the tip of Laertes's sword.
  5. The tragic fall is not pure loss.  As the entire court of Denmark lies dead in the castle, the "tender" prince has taken the reign of the country.  After bequeathing the reign of his country to Fortinbras, Hamlet says, "He has my dying voice."
  6. Although tragedy arouses compassion and awe, the audience does not become saddened.  For, there is a "catharsis," an emotional release at the end. Knowing that the wicked are dead and a noble prince rules, the audience is relieved.

Without question, Shakespeare's Hamlet, his most famous and intriguing play as its protagonist possesses an intriguing individuality, meets the requirements of Aristotle's definition of tragedy.

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