This is perfectly exemplified by his second soliloquy where he berates his own passivity, referring to himself as ‘a rogue and peasant slave…a dull and muddy-mettle rascal… pigeon-liver’d”. Hamlet’s experience of life, up until now, has essentially been fictional. He appears to be mapping his extensive knowledge of literature onto life, perhaps trying to fit his own (more recent) experiences into the conventional patterns and idealistic roles of literary figures he has encountered in Wittenberg. His models of heaven and hell, his idea of the traditional revenge figure and villain all reflect this scholarship and thus they define Hamlet’s attitude to his own situation.
The romantic image, he wishes he could realise, is in many ways reminiscent of his father and the old order. His militaristic father (even his father’s ghost wears military attire) represents all the things he views as lacking in himself; strength, nobleness, swiftness of action and stability, hence his frequent comparisons, “but no more like my father than I to Hercules. ” This distinction echoes the Rennaissance view of men as separable into two character-types, men of action and conversely men who are passive. Indeed when he says, “O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables… ” there is an evident paradox where he immediately recognises his colourful use of language in the ironic announcement of his changed self; Shakespeare implying that Hamlet is defined by his scholarly character, and perhaps is unsuited fundamentally to the role he must play. The tendency to delay, which many people unwittingly refer to as Hamlet’s tragic flaw is rather unconvincing. Hamlet
If one were to apply Hamlet’s own reference to the four humours to himself, it seems that melancholy is his most evident trait. He talks of his miserable state of mind to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, claiming he has “lost all his mirth”. This perhaps implies that Hamlet used to be full of firth, and that after the death of his father and remarriage of his mother, followed by the news of his father’s murder, related in a from, which forces him to doubt his own sanity, his character changed in favour of greater cynicism and flatness.
He appears isolated and distant from the people around him, and no longer involves himself in the usual goings on, having “forgone all custom of exercises”. His disposition is of general melancholy and it seems that having lost his sense of vitality, the notion of human existence is now mundane and bleak, “the earth seems a sterile promontory”. The deceit surrounding Hamlet, with people attempting to manipulate him and characters frequently spying upon one another, results in his image of a world gone rotten and cynical attitude, echoed by; “a quintessence of dust?
” Hamlet’s personal world has been thrown into the utmost turmoil, and thus the grief he feels and sense of powerlessness and befuddlement is fully understandable. Shakespeare evokes the sympathies of his audience, perhaps as a result of the very personal interaction between Hamlet and the audience, a relationship, which is strengthened by the prominent soliloquies. Hamlet’s eventual death, the climatic fall from grace fundamental to tragedy cannot, however, be attributed to Hamlet’s melancholy alone.
It seems that the truly tragic element to Hamlet is that he has been forced into a situation where he is not a coward, but rather temperamentally unsuited to revenge. Hamlet’s father has placed upon him a great emotional pressure; “If thou didst ever thy dear father love. ” He is hindered by his melancholic disposition, but there is also an important element of morality. Hamlet consciously refers to how his own sense of morality, the right and wrong element in committing murder, prevents him from revenging; “thus conscience does make cowards of us all…
and thus the native hue of resolution is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises with great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn away and lose the name of action “. A critic, Lewis, suggests that this is nothing more than a “fear of hell”, but this implication, condemning Hamlet as a coward, is contradicted by Hamlet’s frequent references to the hindering effect of excessive thought. There are also Oedipal elements, which percolate through the play, hindering Hamlet’s ability to fulfil his revenge role.
Hamlet’s grief at the death of his father is significant in unsettling him and is the stimulus of patronising criticism by Claudius; “It is unmanly. ” The speed of his mother’s marriage to Claudius exacerbates this. The ghost of his father tells him; “Taint no thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught,” yet Hamlet is plagued by her ability to move on with such speed; “A little month, or ere those shoes were old with which she follow’d my poor father’s body, like Niobe, all tears: why she, even she – Oh God! A beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourn’d longer.
” Whilst Hamlet never truly allows himself to confront the possibility that perhaps Gertrude was an accomplice to the murder of old Hamlet, he nevertheless feels a strong sense of betrayal as he feels his mother has tainted the image of his father; if he was such a noble figure, this begs the question why his memory was insufficient to prolong her grief. In addition to this, having stopped mourning before him, she has left him isolated and alone with his own grief. Hamlet resents that Claudius has taken over the role of king and views it as if he has usurped old Hamlet.
The result is an adversarial relationship between Hamlet and Claudius. Hamlet indirectly confronts his uncle’s authority; “Not so my lord, I am too much in the sun”, emphasising the fact that he is old Hamlet’s son. There is also an important underlying element of competition over the affections of his mother; “I shall in all my best obey you, madam”: not Claudius. While this Oedipal instinct is a tragic element affecting Hamlet’s actions and psychological state, it is nevertheless inaccurate to refer to it as a tragic flaw.
There is an element of fate, which affects the situation that Hamlet is in. He himself comments on the nature of fate; “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. ” This echoes the stoic sentiment that Fortune is ‘a strumpet’ and reflects a degree of contempt in relation to the unavoidable and random nature of luck, which will keep one safer from “the slings and arrows” than moral integrity.
Hamlet, as a man of the New Order knows that he should neither believe in fate, nor deny free will, yet he seems to; “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will. ” Hamlet does not kill Claudius because he is in prayer, yet Claudius’s words; “my words go up, thoughts go down”, reveal that he is not actually communicating with God. This fateful mistake on Hamlet’s part is often viewed as the Hamartia of the play. Yet again, there are problems with this generalisation, as once again the error itself is not actually fundamental in Hamlet’s downfall and is instead merely a wasted chance.
It is here that the major contradiction between ‘revenge play’ and ‘tragedy’ lies, in that the inevitability of revenge in the former is no less than that of the protagonists downfall in the latter, yet one tends to confuse the importance of these two aspects so that the fulfilment of one can override the other. Ironically, swiftness of action in the play, not a character trait often associated with Hamlet, seems to be more influential in affecting the course of the play and does play a part in his eventual downfall. Hamlet kills Polonius with little or no thought; “How now, a rat?
Dead for a ducat, dead! ” Nevertheless it seems while there are significant ambiguities as to what extent he is indecisive, to state that decisiveness is Hamlet’s tragic flaw is a contradiction of all that we know of him and his nature. Furthermore, after the death of Polonius, the audience is ambivalent as to what extent he can be called a hero. Shakespeare does manage to evoke the audience’s sympathies regarding Hamlet and a major element in the tragedy is that the spiritually and morally pure Hamlet has been tainted as a character.
The blurring of the boundaries distinguishing hero and villain merely reflects Shakespeare’s flexible take on conventional tragedy. It seems furthermore that however one looks at the figure of Hamlet, it is difficult to make him cohere with other ‘Shakespearean tragic heroes’, yet there is little denying that all the elements affecting his actions and the course of his fate in the play, whether it be his situation, fortune, or the nature of his character, have a distinctively tragic air. According to the Aristotelian image of the tragic hero, it is ironically Claudius who best fulfils this role.
He has a more distinctive tragic flaw, at least in relation to Shakespeare’s other plays. Claudius’s ambition can be related to Macbeth’s and there is none of the vagueness that shrouds Hamlet’s so-called flaws. He makes the ‘error’ of killing old Hamlet and lacks knowledge at the time of the repercussion, his eventual death, which is marked at the beginning of the play. He does, however, show a true recognition of his error and his guilt, first evident when he asks; “have you heard the argument?
Is there no offence in’t? ” echoes this. He is, furthermore, a prestigious figure who falls from grace because of these flaws, and one might even say that he proves to be a worthy king, in that he is rational and has the ability to maintain peace at a time of imminent war. While the character Claudius is more coherent with the traditional tragic hero, unlike at Hamlet’s death, where Shakespeare evokes great sympathy at this climactic moment, there is no catharsis marking his death.
Nevertheless, the paradoxical concept that the essential antagonist of the play, th e utmost villain, is more true to the tradtitional tragic hero image than Hamlet is, echoes the very complexity of the argument and throws all convention up in the air. There are also important tragic elements, which are not exclusive to Hamlet alone, as the protagonist. The evident parallels between Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras points towards what one might refer to as a ‘tragic triangle’. Hamlet is revenging his father’s death, yet is also being revenged by Laertes.
The difference between the two characters is evident with Laertes who rushes back full of desire to murder Hamlet at the earliest opportunity, suggesting he murder him in church, a stark contrast with Hamlet who would not kill Claudius who seemed to be in prayer. There is an antithesis created here, where Laertes, who consigns “conscience… to the profoundest pit”, is a marked contrast to Hamlet. The eventful clashing of these forces, in the form of a confused duel between Hamlet and Laertes, marks a purging of emotion and undeniable catharsis that is evidence of tragedy.
Fortinbras has it in mind to take back his father’s lost land as revenge for his own father’s death and his decisiveness leads Hamlet to reflect that true greatness lies in this character trait; “readiness is all”. Old Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras on the day Hamlet was born and this ushers in an important element of fate. It seems that the tragedy of ‘Hamlet’ lies in the fact that he is unfit for the task that circumstance and fate has provided him. It might be argued that he has a tragic flaw, yet it seems more accurate to refer to him in terms of a failed revenge figure than a tragic hero.
The nature of the revenge figure, who has the duty to murder is extremely different from both Aristotelian and other Shakespearean versions of tragedy. In ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare displays what Keats describes as “negative capability. ” He shows openness in his work. It is significantly not didactic in that there is no specific moral and thus the play is left open for the audience to interpret how they wish. Keats praised Shakespeare for the complexity and variation of his works and also for their ‘suddenness’, viewing his works to mark the birth of ‘modern tragedy’.
The uncertainty, which swamps almost every aspect of the play, is married to the idea of exploration and debate. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, however, contradicts a great deal of the essential qualities, which define ‘tragedy’, and whist there is a structure it is very loose. For this reason, it seems, that one is merely playing with words when questioning the nature of tragedy in ‘Hamlet’, and furthermore that, in spite of the multitude of tragic elements punctuating the play, one must inevitably and controversially conclude that it is impossible to fit ‘Hamlet’ into the genre of Tragedy.