In what ways is Hamlet heroic in Shakespeare's play Hamlet?
Although not all of Hamlet's actions are "heroic," he is by definition a tragic hero. A tragic hero is defined as " a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat." ( see links below) Aristotle often described the tragic hero as one of noble birth who was destined to fail as a result of his own fatal flaw. Yet this character wins the admiration of the reader as he battles the cosmic forces that are set against him. Hamlet's character fits several of the defining traits held by a tragic hero.
Hamlet is of noble birth and the audience sympathizes with his plight. He has just lost his father, is conflicted about his desire for revenge, and has begun to question his own sanity. Hamlet's anger towards the murderous Claudius is justifiable. Yet it is not his anger which causes his downfall. Instead, Hamlet's fatal flaw is inaction. Throughout the play, Hamlet has several opportunities to enact his revenge yet chooses not to. In fact, in Act 1 sc. 5, Hamlet states "Haste me to know't, that I , with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge." Despite his desire quickly revenge his father's death, Hamlet does not kill Claudius for four more acts.
Another example of Hamlet's procrastination is in Act III sc. III. In this Act, Claudius prays for the forgiveness of his sins. Infuriated by this, Hamlet waits with a knife prepared to murder Claudius. He states, " Now might I do it pat. Now he is a-praying. And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven. And so I am revenged.--That would be scanned." However, like in many of his soliloquies, Hamlet doubts his own judgement once again. Instead of following through with decisive action, Hamlet's inconsistent wavering leads to his own eventual downfall. In conclusion, Hamlet is not heroic because he is a fearless warrior but because he fights, although unsuccessfully, to alter his fate.
In his criticism of Hamlet, renowned critic Harold Bloom writes,
No other single character in the plays, not even Falstaff or Cleopatra, matches Hamlet's infinite reverberations.
Perhaps it is because of these "reverberations," the tremendous scope of Hamlet's character as he echoes so many human traits, that raises the question of his heroism. For, Elsinore is too small a "mousetrap" for one so grand and charismatic as Hamlet, except for the fact that he returns to it voluntarily. And, thus he is the tragic hero, for like his counterpoint, Fortinbras, Hamlet chooses to avenge his father's honor and sacrifices his life in the heroic effort.
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,...
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men...
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot....(4.4.55-64)
Declaring himself in Act V as "Hamlet the Dane," after having defined himself in the graveyard scene as he comes forward to protest Laertes's actions, saying, "Yet have I in me something dangerous," Hamlet unselfishly avenges his father's death against Laertes and Claudius who have plotted against him, bequeathing his kingdom to the "gentle prince," Fortinbras. Indeed, there is a "divinity that shapes our ends" as Hamlet tells Horatio. And, Hamlet, who transcends the range of the human senses, is truly a hero because
- He is a person of noble stature
- His actions have lasting results
- He possesses virtue which proves fatal
- He has errors in judgment at times
- He sometimes has distorted perceptions of reality
- He suffers inwardly and outwardly
- He elicits pathos from the audience
- He dies.