Is Hamlet a tragic hero, a weak revenger or a political misfit?
Shakespeare”s Hamlet is at the outset a typical revenge play. However, it is possible to see Prince Hamlet as a more complex character as he can be seen as various combinations of a weak revenger, a tragic hero and a political misfit. In order to fully understand the world in which Hamlet finds himself, it is necessary to examine all three of these roles and either dismiss them or justify Hamlet”s behaviour as a revenger. As a tragic hero, Hamlet displays many typical qualities of a traditional hero in a Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and therefore belongs to a social elite.
Hamlet can be described as being too noble to take revenge. As a very well educated scholar of Wittenberg University in Sweden he has to think extensively before taking revenge. He feels the need to question revenge yet he is reluctant to do so rashly without considerable thought “thus conscience does make cowards of us all”. We see that this happens in the first few moments of the play when Hamlet doubts the ghost is his father and he needs further prompting and reassurance throughout the play “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear”.
Hamlet constantly rationalises and stops himself from acting with any degree of passion. This could be seen either as a weakness or as a personal strength. Hamlet can and is frequently described, as a man with a tragic flaw, this being that his tendency to contemplate his actions is not a positive quality but that instead this brings about his downfall. Hamlet appears to many critics to be too much of an intellectual to play the role as a typical revenger “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here, but in a fiction, in a dream of passion”. Hamlet also seems to be a victim of bad luck. The accidental killing of Polonius in this mother”s bedroom as well as the interception of Hamlet”s ship by pirates and his subsequent return to Denmark are two such examples. However this bad luck could also be described as the tragedy of fate depending on ones personal view. Shakespeare”s own view was that fate existed and that the decisions that Hamlet makes during the play make little difference to the final outcome.
It seems that as Hamlet is unable to kill Claudius while he has the chance. Early in the play his fate must be that he dies as a consequence. Hamlet himself becomes fatalistic, on his return from exile. “-Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust the dust is earth”. He has either lost heart totally or he has realised that, in order to take any sort of revenge on his uncle, he might actually have to die himself. Strangely in keeping with this his giving up on life his highly self critical and analytical soliloquies stop during Act Five.
It is unclear whether this is a realisation that his fate is sealed or that a last attempt at preventing himself from taking action. Critic Catherine England says this about the issue of fate throughout Hamlet: “He can and does still make choices and act on them. Only he accepts that there is a higher power with responsibility for how things turn out; and in V. ii. 215-220 he argues that that power is ultimately a caring one. So he believes that he can go through life more calmly, without fear, and ready for, and accepting of, whatever eventuates, even though he can”t know what that will be. Critics debate whether is Hamlet has to die in the play. One of the most interesting, although new is that Hamlet is too virtuous to live in the human world and therefore there is no choice but for him to die. However it is also possible for Hamlet to be considered a weak revenger in comparison to the traditional revenger who is a man of action. The traditional hero in revenge plays comprised most of the qualities that Hamlet possesses. The question that Shakespeare asks in this play is whether Hamlet”s inaction is a quality to be admired or criticised.
Shakespeare uses an old legend and changes it so that it is suitable for the purpose he requires. If Shakespeare is questioning the idea of taking revenge, it is ironic that his story is far from original and that it is based around the convention of the revenge play. Hamlet is many ways is typical of a traditional revenger. As all plays of the time the central character would have been a member of the aristocracy and usually of the court too. As a Prince who is well educated, hamlet fits the traditional role of a revenger.
However due to his interest in philosophy and his studious nature, intellectually and morally he does not fit in with the traditional role of a revenger. His education could be seen as either a blessing or a curse. Hamlet can be categorised as either a morally strong man for not taking revenge or as a failure. If Hamlet is shown as strong then we can see him as a `modern thinker” and a positive role model. His constant questioning and uncertainty of traditional and socially accepted boundaries a totally new and extraordinarily bold move.
The pressure that is put on him by the ghost of his father pressure, to act as a revenger out of duty is delayed which requites an almost superhuman strength of character. This must have been a radical idea at the time, to depart from the traditional role. Hamlet can be seem as a weak revenger, a weak willed coward who lets his family name before tarnished and who allows his uncle to outsmart him. This would have been controversial at the time as family reputation, dignity and honour were one of the most important values.
A modern audience could see Hamlet as both a weak revenger but also as a morally courageous man who tries to do the right thing. The modern audience”s preoccupation with the psychology aspect of Hamlet is the main reason that `Hamlet,” unlike most other revenge plays is still extensively performed, studied and read. As taking revenge is illegal but more importantly in violent situations is socially and morally unacceptable. This makes it just as relevant today, as in the Elizabethan conflict. The ghost of Hamlet”s father can be seen as either a spirit, as shown traditionally or as a conscience or apparition of the dead.
Hamlet”s careful consideration and reasoning for and against revenge and the condemnation of his own character and the self-destruction of it, is a remarkably accurate portrayal of a man driven to despair or even madness. The audience sympathises with Hamlet”s situation when the ghost of his much-respected father appears to him. In nearly all productions King Hamlet appears as an old man with an air of grace and dignity and the audience has the impression of a well respected, brave warrior whose death was a tragic loss to his kingdom “Together with that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march? . This is something Hamlet feels he must aspire to be, even though most critics agree he could not fulfil this ambition. After his fathers death we see that his world dramatically changes. Hamlet is oppressed and forbidden to travel back to university, “Denmark”s a prison… a goodly one, in which there are many confines wards, and dungeons”. The only person he can trust is Horatio, “Good my lord tell it. Hamlet: No, you will reveal.
Horatio: Not my lord by heaven,” as he is aware that Ophelia is not being loyal to him and it can he debated that the `madness” he pretends he is suffering from changes into a real mental instability and he is unable to release himself from acting, which then becomes a reality. This spirals to Ophelia”s own madness and what seems to be her suicide, and Hamlet looses someone who could have stabilised his life. We also see Hamlet and his mother being spied on by Polonius. This is an example of the unbalanced political situation and a justification for Hamlet”s paranoia.
The death of Polonius is unfortunate and it is obvious that Hamlet is being cold and uncaring which is unsurprising. Hamlet”s situation is made worse as no-one else in the court apart from Horatio is aware of the murder Claudius has committed. Claudius is a popular leader which makes Hamlet”s position more dangerous and lead to a great deal of isolation with his native Denmark. Apart from Horatio, Hamlet cannot trust anyone, which increases his sense of isolation. My view is that Hamlet fits all the three categories well and that not one of the views: weak revenger, tragic, hero or political misfit, classifies him accurately.
He is a combination of all three and at times vacillates between weak revenger and tragic hero, making him particularly venerable and open to attack. The political problems in Denmark are a contributing factor which simply lead Hamlet to his death but have no bearing on his ability to be either a tragic hero or a weak revenger. I think that Hamlet is a tragic hero with a fatal flaw that he think to much, and is too introspective that ultimately leads to his own and other friends and family members” death.