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What is Hamlet?

Updated on April 15, 2019
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An English teacher who thinks everyone should write poetry and ask questions.

Or, is he really a hero?

I stumbled upon an article from this very site decrying the notion of Hamlet as a tragic hero. Now, I have been teaching a curriculum for about four years that is premised on the notion that our dear friend Hamlet belongs to the tragic hero tradition.

This particular author goes into great detail about Hamlet's corruption, about the specific and staid criteria of a tragic hero, and ultimately concludes that Hamlet does not, can not, and perhaps even should not meet that criteria. According to this article, his thoughts about suicide, for example, are a form of corruption, and therefore count against him. I would suggest that this is a rather callous statement.

The beauty of a play like Hamlet is its urgency. Hundreds have years have gone by and we still understand the sadness, fear, and alienation this character experiences. We can understand the subliminal warfare Hamlet conducts with his words- and he is not the only one. His stepfather, from the moment he is introduced in the play, is insistent that with his words, he can console the inconsolable, consolidate the unconsolidated. Gertrude is his "sometime sister" and his "wife," taken with "delight" and "dole." When Hamlet ironically comments on how the food from his father's funeral was eaten at his mother's second marriage, he is building upon a rhetoric that can't be ignored- it was introduced by the king, after all.

I don't want students to mull over whether or not Hamlet deserves the title of a tragic hero. Hamlet was not written to deserve anything. The text ultimately is about how our status or education or both, can't be enough sometimes to deal with the harshest of realities. What equipped Fortinbras to inherit the throne? And why would a character so active, be relegated to behind the scenes, while a character stymied by his own inaction, takes (literally) center stage?

Hamlet is not comfortable as a Prince, or a murderer. He is not a warrior, though he is deft with foils. He is a scholar, marveling in wonder and in horror at the props and realia at his finger tips for the first time.

At the moment he should take his revenge upon Claudius, he stops. "That would be scanned," he decides, which is the motto (or should be) for any student of the theatre or poetry. This a moment dripping with irony- the body of his uncle, vulnerable, available, and real- is ripe for murder. And yet Hamlet beholds the situation in his mind, ready to analyze and deliberate.

He holds a skull- it is a former caretaker, the court jester, Yorick. And yet his pate symbolizes the fate of every man, even Alexander the Great.

The grave of Ophelia becomes a stage, a moment for Hamlet to express hyperbole, to articulate comparisons between him and Laertes.

Real life and the theatre become one for Hamlet, because the stage is a flattened plane of contrivance of meaning. It is safe, as much as it is artificial. It is fun, as much as it is limiting.

We are limited in our ability to understand ourselves, fully. The tragedy of Hamlet is his confusion, and his inability to act. But we need to be careful here- an inability to act on a Shakespearean stage also means to bleed through the seams- in his inability to be "real," Hamlet is the most human of them all.

Of course he's a tragic hero. But at the dawn of the 17th century, it is not a question of a singular, isolated, flaw that contradicts the tightly-knit and well defined cosmology of Sophocles. No. Shakespeare is interested in systems and networks of corruption and chaos, wheels and pulleys the mimic the exact stage upon which the material is performed.

No, Hamlet is not a tragic hero in classical sense. But he is a tragic hero of the Renaissance, a character acutely aware of his own humanity, frailty (though he claims women are the frail ones), and his own limitations. As a tragic hero of the Renaissance, his humanist education has failed him, and his tragedy comes from the corruption of the times.

Let me know what you think below.

© 2019 jkaiser23


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