In what major ways is Hamlet a late Renaissance hero in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet?  In what major ways is Hamlet a late renaissance “hero” quite different from classical heroes like...

In what major ways is Hamlet a late Renaissance hero in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet?


In what major ways is Hamlet a late renaissance “hero” quite different from classical heroes like Odysseus or Achilles?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When studying Shakespeare's Hamlet, we look to Hamlet as a tragic hero. The guidelines for a tragic hero are based on Aristotle's model. The tragic hero must be a "great" man (a mighty warrior, respected leader, member of nobility, etc.), he must die, and his death must be his own fault—caused by his tragic flaw. His fall is the result of "an error of judgment."

Hamlet is considered a tragic hero—he is a great man. Claudius admits to Laertes near the play's end, that Hamlet is well-loved by the Danish subjects. He does die at the end (as is the case with almost every major character). His tragic flaw is indecision, and it is Hamlet's inability to kill Claudius when the moment presents itself that allows Claudius to conspire with Laertes, and bring about not only Hamlet's death, but Gertrude's, Laertes' and his own.

The heroes of Homer's time are somewhat different, although they are still imbued with noteworthy and admirable qualities. Homer looks to the following criteria to gauge whether someone is "good." These characteristics include that a man must be of noble birth, he must be wealthy, and he must have physical strength. The man must have honor; others must think well of him. A hero, specifically, must have a concern for others: the suffering of others is not something a Homeric hero could ignore, and he must be sympathetic to the plight of others. "Reputation and material honor" are extremely important.

  • A hero is never expected to sacrifice his reputation or material honors for others
    • That would diminish his honor
    • Which would diminish his ability to protect and further his followers
  • Why are Homeric ethics reasonable?
    • Wealth, honor, status, power are all achievable.

In studying these details, we see strong differences.

In ancient Greek myth, heroes were humans...of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves. The prime example is ...Achilles in the English tradition. This, the greatest hero...was the son of Thetis, a sea-goddess known for her far-reaching cosmic powers.

With Achilles, honor comes from compiling material goods: trophies, rewards, etc. Achilles is also considered honorable in his concern for others which was also expected of Homer's hero. Achilles is concerned for Patroclus, but is also accused of having little or no concern for his army. Achilles falls short of being a great hero based on his treatment of Hector's body: he will be punished for this. Reputation was also very important, as well as valor in battle.

Hamlet is very different from Homer's heroes. First, his honor does not rest on Homeric values: material goods are not important to him, and he seems rather indifferent to the suffering of others, in particular Ophelia. Hamlet does have the good opinion of others. He is of noble birth; wealth is not brought into question, but— the sense that someone must be wealthy to be good does not apply to the play Hamlet. Hamlet's honor rests instead on honoring his promise to his father by avenging Old Hamlet's death: not on earning prizes and rewards. Hamlet is a decent young man who becomes embroiled in the politics in court, wanting only to avenge his father's dead.

Whereas Achilles has earned the label of "hero" by accumulating material goods, there is some dissension as to whether he is well-thought of. Hamlet, on the other hand, tries to be a man of his word, especially in honoring his father's last request.