Hamlet as Tragic Hero

Like Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes (Macbeth, Othello, Brutus, and Lear), Hamlet is destroyed not by circumstances but by a flaw in his own character. Introspective and indecisive, he is unable to function effectively as he struggles with a conflict that defies a solution consistent with his sense of honor and morality and with the expectations of his society. Hamlet is honor-bound to avenge the murder of King Hamlet. As the prince of Denmark, he cannot ignore regicide, the most heinous of crimes, and he cannot accept the presence of a usurper on the Danish throne. Additionally, as a son, he must avenge his father’s murder; Hamlet’s rage—and the mores of his society—demand revenge. His course of action seems clear: He must kill the vile Claudius. Hamlet’s religious faith, however, makes his course of action anything but clear, since it forbids murder. Ensnared by his social position, the demands of his conscience, the demands of society, the canons of his faith, and his own thirst for justice, Hamlet is trapped. Even suicide offers no escape, since “self-slaughter” is also a mortal sin. When Hamlet agonizes, “To be or not to be--that is the question,” he finds no acceptable answer.

To let Claudius live is morally wrong, but to kill him is morally wrong, too, and a threat to Hamlet’s own soul. Consequently, Hamlet thinks rather than acts, torturing himself with memories of his beloved father and thoughts of his mother’s incestuous marriage to Claudius. He examines his own conscience, observes and evaluates his own behavior and the behavior of others, and seizes upon one reason after another to delay resolving his dilemma. Hamlet cannot let Claudius escape justice, but he will not act decisively, choosing instead to pursue various clever schemes through which he convinces himself for a while that he is moving toward a solution. Ultimately, Hamlet’s dilemma is resolved, but its resolution is not the consequence of careful thought or personal introspection. When he watches his mother die and Claudius’s plot to kill him is revealed, Hamlet’s indecision ends abruptly. He kills Claudius and then dies.