Aristotle's characteristics of a Tragic Hero - Hamlet and Macbeth
Teacher: Ms. Ramlogan
Course code: ENG 4U
January 11, 2011
Aristotle quotes, "A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall." According to Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero, the tragic hero must be noble and he must occupy a high-status position, there should be a tragic flaw that eventually leads to his downfall; his downfall is usually due to his over-confidence, the tragedy is usually raised by some error of judgement or some character flaw and the audience must feel pity and fear for this character. Hamlet and Macbeth are such characters who portray as tragic heroes through their nobility, tragic flaws, and errors in judgment. In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet is deeply hurt of his father’s death and his mother, Queen Gertrude’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and tells him that Claudius is the one who poisoned him, resulting which he died. Hamlet swears to take revenge of his father’s murder. He kills Polonius, the court chamberlain. Polonius’ son, Laertes returns to Denmark to avenge his father’s death. Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia loves Prince Hamlet, but his attitude and behaviour drives her to insanity and she dies by drowning. A fight takes place and ends with the death of Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet. In Macbeth, Macbeth is commended for his bravery in battle, along with his friend Banquo. Both of them come across the three witches who predict that Macbeth will one day become a King. In order to do so, Macbeth kills King Duncan assisted by his wife. A nobleman Macduff discovers the body. Macbeth kills the guards with a view to remove evidence of his killing. Macbeth acquires the crown. The ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s conscience starts torturing her and she sees King Duncan’s blood on her hands whilst sleepwalking. She eventually commits suicide. Subsequently, Macduff kills Macbeth and Malcolm becomes the King. Hamlet and Macbeth have certain traits as cited above which contribute to their tragedies.
In the beginning of both of the Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and Macbeth’s noble status is seen. Before Macbeth is introduced in the play, Duncan and Ross speak of his bravery and greatness. Duncan is jubilant to hear of noble Macbeth’s victory over Norway and he tells Ross to go greet his “worthiest cousin” that noble Macbeth has won the battle. Macbeth is crowned with the title of “Thane of Glamis”, but his new name “Worthy Cawdor” adds to his already established nobility. The quote, "No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom interest. Go pronounce his present death, and with his former title greet Macbeth. What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won”, shows Macbeth’s nobility. Macbeth receives the titles of nobility, such as ‘Thane of Glamis’ and ‘Thane of Cawdor.’ In the opening of the play Hamlet, Hamlet’s title of “Sweet Prince” grants him a “noble mind.” Prince Hamlet is seen as a high-status fellow in Denmark, since his father was the King of Denmark. When Hamlet dies, he quotes, “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage”, “Now cracks a noble heart.” This quote shows how noble Hamlet is. Ophelia regards Hamlet by saying, “The glass of fashion, and the mold of form.” Even Claudius concludes that, “The Queen his mother lives almost by his looks.” This depicts Hamlet is noble by birth and these portrayals helps to understand the degree of his nobility. While Hamlet and Macbeth maintain their nobility, they both have a tragic flaw, which leads to their demise.
Despite of the fact that Hamlet and Macbeth are honoured and are in a high-status position, they both have their own tragic flaws. When Macbeth comes across the witches after his victory over Norway, the witches greet him by saying, “Hail Macbeth! That shalt be King.” This prophecy elevates the downfall of Macbeth. He even goes to the point of killing King Duncan to fulfill his ambition. His ambition leads him to his downfall. He feels guilty conscience, but he doesn’t accept his sin, which eventually kills him. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s promise to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius is reserved, since he wants to fully make sure that whether Claudius is guilty of his father’s murder or not. Hamlet’s scepticism is the flaw of his character. He expresses his reasons not to kill Claudius while Claudius is praying. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius while he is repenting for his sins, he would go to heaven with his acts forgiven, according to Christian mythology. Though he has an opportunity to kill Claudius, yet his mind wanders and he battles with his thoughts. It’s ironic how Claudius is unable to repent of his sins and Hamlet’s opportunity of killing him is lost. Therefore, these tragic flaws lead to the errors in judgement of these characters.
Macbeth and Hamlet are two different characters involved in different situations, but their errors in judgement prevail over every situation they confront. This once “Noble Macbeth” listens to the prophecies of witches, which causes his desire to be king. If these predictions had not been offered to Macbeth, his selfish ambition would not have been a component in the murder. As the prophecy of his becoming king unfolds, he is torn between killing Duncan, and what he knows to be right. Lady Macbeth challenges Macbeth to commit to the plan to murder King Duncan by saying, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we'll not fail.” In the beginning of Macbeth, Macbeth doesn’t seem to be mentally strong. He can’t make his own decisions without the help of his wife, Lady Macbeth. Although he is a valiant soldier on the outside, yet he is a coward on the inside. Throughout the play Hamlet, Hamlet’s scepticism leads to his destruction. The quote “To be or not to be” shows Hamlet’s tragic flaw. He contemplates not only to kill Claudius, but whether “to be, or not to be, that is the question… whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer… the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms of sea of troubles and by opposing end them... to die, to sleep.” His mind always acquires the best of him because he thinks too precisely on the event. Regardless if his contemplation is over killing Claudius, or his own self-destruction, his scepticism always overrules him. Macbeth and Hamlet’s tragic flaws lead to their errors in judgment, which leads to their collapse.
No doubt, the play and the movie created curiosity and suspense that what’s going to happen next. Both of the play, “Hamlet and Macbeth” are so interesting, especially when the tragedies take place. The play Hamlet is more tragic as compared to Macbeth, because Hamlet was a protagonist and when he gets killed, the audience feel sympathy for him. Hamlet’s intention of killing Claudius was genuine, since he wanted to avenge his father’s death. In Macbeth, Macbeth commits many murders to fulfill his ambition; to acquire the throne. So, when he gets killed, the audience does not regret all, since good prevails over evil. Hamlet’s motive was very pious, because his idea behind the murder of Claudius was to seek revenge of his father’s murder. As far as Macbeth is concerned, his motive was full of ill-will, spite and selfish, since he wanted to grab the throne by using all foul means. He commits many murders to achieve his nefarious goal. Keeping in view the above stated facts, it is crystal-clear that the play ‘Hamlet’ is more tragic, interesting and sad as compared to ‘Macbeth.’
As defined by Aristotle, a tragic hero is one who falls from grace into a state of extreme unhappiness. Shakespeare’s tragic hero is a man of noble birth who falls from a position of honour and respect due to a flaw in his character. As per the Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero, it is abundantly clear that Hamlet and Macbeth are depicted as tragic heroes through their nobility, tragic flaws, and errors in judgment. The two characters are an excellent example of the tragic hero who rise high, then ultimately fall to their rock bottom demise. It can be conclusively stated that Hamlet and Macbeth fits to the Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero.
~ Copyright © Surabhi Kaura 2011
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