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Does Hamlet Fit Aristotle's Six Elements Of A Tragic Hero?

Updated on April 9, 2014

The Basics of Aristotle and Hamlet

Aristotle wrote the six elements of a tragedy in his book entitled Poetics. He started his career by writing this book. William Shakespeare wrote many plays in his era. Of those plays, he wrote many tragedies such as Julius Caesar which followed the outline from Aristotle. He also wrote Hamlet, a tragedy, but which does not follow the outline of a tragic hero. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark is noble, but he was close to perfect; only driven mad with grief. His downfall was not due to fatal error, but rather to fate. His inevitable punishment did not exceed his flaw, such as to take one man's life for the sake of another's. Yet, was the fall a pure loss to Hamlet? Did the fall leave the audience feeling pity for Hamlet? Aristotle's view expresses that all six elements must be true in order for a character to be deemed a tragic hero. Is Hamlet a tragic hero? No, Hamlet is not a tragic hero because he does not fit all six elements.

Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: Nobility

Hamlet, the rightful king of Denmark is quite noble by birth. Hamlet was born into an honourable family. Hamlet was next in line to be the king of Denmark, but was pushed aside when his uncle, Claudius, brother of Old Hamlet married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. Gertrude speaks highly of her deceased husband, "Seek for thy noble father in the dust." (I, ii, 71) telling Hamlet to move on in life and quit mourning his father. Hamlet's father, the noble Old Hamlet was noble until his death, and therefore raised young Hamlet in his path. Aristotle agrees that a great tragedy must have a noble character, i.e Hamlet, in which the audience must look up to in order for the hero's fall to have any impact on the present audience. Hamlet fits this first aspect of the elements of a tragic hero.

Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: Audience Feels Pity

Secondly, the audience must feel some sort of pity on the main character according to Aristotle. He states that the audience must feel pathos; a sort of sympathy, empathy, or apathy for the main character. However, the audience of the play Hamlet feels nothing until after Hamlet appears to go mad, they then begin to develop an iron heart towards Hamlet, leaving him to be a subconsciously disliked character. The audience is abruptly shaken when the wise Polonius is killed and his treachery is revealed. They still feel nothing towards Hamlet, only feeling sympathy for Ophelia, who will surely not cope without her father or past lover gone. The fair Ophelia is soon sent into depression and madness, "O, this is the poison of deep grief: it springs/ All from her father's death." (IV, v, 74-75) The audience feels nothing at this point towards Hamlet except anger. Hamlet has killed the lying, dirty, spying Polonius which they commend, but has driven the audience's closest and most preferred character, Ophelia, into madness. Near the end of the play, Hamlet redeems himself, causing the audience to feel relieved of his terrible deeds. Aristotle explains that because the audience did not truly feel sympathy towards Hamlet, they did not experience the element of suffering.

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Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: The Tragic Flaw

Although the audience never feels pity for Hamlet, they have to admit to Hamlet's heavenly nature. Claudius describes him as, "'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet." (I, ii, 87) He is easy to look up to due to his manners and etiquette. He respects everyone and will stand up for himself in times of need. Hamlet proves his maturity when his uncle makes fun of him, and yet Hamlet continues to be polite, only festering behind his back. Aristotle tells of the hero not being perfect, having a major flaw, but Hamlet, sweet Hamlet, does not have any major flaw that the audience can tell. Hamlet is not a tragic hero because he does not meet the third element; the tragic flaw.

Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: Punishment In Death

Hamlet brings about his own downfall in the end, but knows that it will be coming. "Go to their graves like beds." (IV, v, 62) He was not punished in his death as Aristotle's fourth element would require. Aristotle explains that Hamlet's punishment must exceed that of his tragic flaw. Hamlet is not a tragic hero according to Aristotle because the death of a lying trickster who spent his days manipulating people to believe what ever he wished would out weighed the death of a man who died with a forgiven soul. Polonius died because he was a liar, but Hamlet died a cleansed and forgiven man. Aristotle would have said that Hamlet should have died a much worse death than Polonius, but it did not happen that way. This lack of element leads one to believe that Hamlet was not a tragic hero.

Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: Reversal of Fortune

The downfall of Hamlet was due to the death of Polonius. Aristotle claims that the fifth element, the 'reversal of fortune' is described as, "when the change in the hero's fortune takes place without peripety"(Poetics, X.1-3). Hamlet starts out as a young man upset by his father's death, and with much grief. His fortune does not look good as he has just lost his father and the kingdom that was rightfully his. He loses his relationship with Ophelia, and causes her grief. Ophelia's grief leads Polonius to believe that Hamlet is mad because of his loss of love for Ophelia, but in fact, Hamlet is just mad because of his father. Hamlet kills Polonius and seals his own fate. In Elizabethean culture, it was the custom to seek revenge for a loved one who was murdered, and Laertes (Ophelia's brother and Polonius' son) does just that. If Hamlet had explained to Laertes that Polonius died because he was spying, Laertes would have not had nearly as much respect for his father. Polonius' death was the fatal error that Hamlet made, and inevitably, Hamlet does perish because of his error.

Hamlet as a Tragic Hero: The Fall, A Pure Loss?

The fall of Hamlet is pure loss though. Not only does it destroy two families, but it leaves the kingdom in ruins. Hamlet killing Polonius drives Ophelia into madness and suicide. Laertes then dies because he trusts Claudius instead of Hamlet. He dies an honourable death fighting for the revenge of his father. Laertes forgives Hamlet of the killing right before his death. Gertrude dies after drinking from a poisoned cup. Claudius dies after Hamlet learns of the treachery Claudius has set out in order to kill Hamlet. By this time, both Polonius' family and the royal family are dead. Fortinbras, the prince of Norway is passing through at this time and is left in charge of the Danish kingdom, unknowing of their customs and practises. The country of Denmark is left broken and rotten. There is nothing to show that Hamlet is a tragic hero in this sixth and final aspect.

Verdict - Does Hamlet Fit Aristotle's Six Elements?

Hamlet is not a tragic hero according to Aristotle because he does not meet all six elements. Hamlet is a noble man of high standard; the prince of Denmark. Hamlet has no major flaws, but yet he seems to still not achieve the audience's empathy. Hamlet's death is not a punishment as much as it is inevitable. His death is much better than Polonius'. He is one of the greatest men according to Fortinbras, and dies an honourable man. Yet, all things together makes the fall of Hamlet a pure loss leaving no stable kingdom or royals. And that is the tragedy.

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