What makes Hamlet a tragic hero?

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.