What made Hamlet the tragic hero of the play? 

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ssengupta eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to Aristotle, one of the earliest theoreticians of literature, a tragic hero is tragic when he starts a chain of action in the play that somehow emanates from a characteral flaw in his otherwise noble character. To be tragic, Aristotle also said, a character had to be from a princely family or at least from the nobility. It was important for the tragic hero to belong to a socially high family, and have plenty of great characteristics because otherwise his eventual fall would not evoke "pity and terror" in the viewers of the tragic play.

Applying the above characteristics it is clear that Hamlet qualifies as a tragic hero. He is the prince of Denmark; he is noble, good and just and very well loved by the people of Denmark. And he has a tragic flaw. What makes this play so interesting is that critics have argued since the eighteenth centruy as to what Hamlet's trgic flaw is.

Up until the early twentieth century, thanks to that great Shakesperean critic A.C. Bradley, Hamlet's tragic flaw has been his tendency to doubt everything. His father, King Hamlet, comes to him as a ghost and tells him that his brother, the prince's uncle, has murdered him in his sleep. But should he believe a ghost? He hates his uncle for having married his mother so soon after his father's death. But is that fault wholely his uncle's? Was his mother not to blame as well? He is in love with Ophelia? But should he trust any woman after what his mother did?

Throughout the play we see Hamlet vascilating, now deciding to kill Claudius, his uncle and thus avenge his father's death, and now putting it off for the lack of certain proof or the most oportune moment. In the end, according to Bradley, Hamlet succumbs mentally and physically to his own doubts. Though he does kill Claudius, he his himself killed by Ophelia's brother Laertes.

So then why does this make Hamlet tragic? Contemporary critics say that Hamlet's tragic flaw is NOT his tendency to doubt; in fact, he doesn't have a tragic flaw at all. Thus, in defiance to the tradition Aristotelian criticism, modern critics say that Hamlet is tragic because intellectually and philosophically he was far above the other characters in the play, so that he is isolated completely and desperately in his bereavement. He loved his mother, but even his mother, without his knowledge, had been in an adulterous relationship with her brother-in-law and marries the murderer soon after her husband's murder. Hamlet can derive no comfort from her.

Hamlet's disillusionment with every institution in Denmark -- royalty, paternalism, motherhood, marriage and love -- makes him unfit for any kind of relationship with the other characters in the play. The only one he trusted was his friend, Horatio.

Critics have tried to show how Hamlet's distrust in people led him to distrust language itself, since our primary means of communication is language. Thus, he goes about being the "punning, cunning Hamlet" playing with words, feigning madness, cruelly rejecting Ophelia's love, killing Polonius, Laertes and Claudius, all because of his inability to come to grips with ways of the world. Something rotten was in the state of Denmark, it is true; but something rotten also was in his outlook toward people. His love for his mother turned to hatred; and with it his love for Ophelia was destroyed.

In the end Hamlet couldn't stand words. His mother and uncle lied. Polonius was pompous, and Ophelia, mad.

The rest was silence.

mkcapen1 | Student

"Hamlet" is the tragic hero in the sense that he begins the play in anger and grief over his father's murder.  His mother, who he loves and not always as mother, marries his father's murderer.  Hamlet remains depressed manic and distraught through-out the play.  In Hamlet's time he would have been expected to avenge his father's death.  Because of this he is already predestined to face violence and later his own death.  Hamlet is haunted by his father's ghost.  This places even more pressure on him to avenge his father.  He is unable to love women and is bitter towards them.  He treats Ophelia with cruelty.  Hamlet is a tragic hero because there is no hope other than doom for him.