Hamlet: Tragedy in Hamlet


The tradition of literature includes many genres. One of the oldest
and most important of these genres is tragedy; one of the foremost
Elizabethan tragedies in the canon of English literature is Hamlet by
William Shakespeare and one of the earliest critics of tragedy is
Aristotle. One way to measure Shakespeare\'s work is to appraise it using
the methods of classical critics and thereby to see how if it would have
retained its meaning. Hamlet is one of the most recognizable and most often
quoted tragedies in the all of English literature. Aristotle, is concerned
with the proper presentation of tragic plays and poetry. Aristotle defines
tragedy as:

"...a representation of an action that is worth serious attention,
complete in itself, and of some amplitude; in language enriched by a
variety of artistic devices appropriate to the several parts of the
play; presented in the form of action, not narration; by means of pity
and fear bringing about the purgation of such emotion. (Aristotle 38 -
9)

Shakespeare uses character, plot and setting to create a mood of disgust
and a theme of proper revenge, as opposed to fear and pity, hence Aristotle
would have disapproved of Hamlet. It is the above mentioned elements;
character, plot and setting, used in a non-Aristotelian way, that makes
Hamlet work as a one of the English language\'s most renown tragedies.

By proper revenge we refer to the Elizabethan view that revenge must
be sought in certain cases, for the world to continue properly. This is the
main plot of Hamlet. In Poetics, Aristotle defines for us, the element of
plot and shows us how he believes it must be put together. He also believes
in various unities which he states are necessary for a proper tragedy.
Aristotle believes in what he calls "Unity of plot" (Aristotle 42 - 3).
This "Unity" leaves no room for subplots, which are crucial to the theme of
Hamlet. Without the subplot of Laertes\' revenge and the subplot of
Fortinbras\' revenge, we are left with a lugubrious play where the ending,
although necessary, is pointless. The three sub-plots together as a unit,
allow us to understand what Shakespeare thought of revenge. Another of the
ways Aristotle defines plot in tragedy as "The noble actions and the doings
of noble persons"(Aristotle 35). By this definition, Hamlet should be a
noble person, who does only noble things. Aristotle would have objected to
Hamlet\'s refusal to kill Claudius during prayer which forms the turning
point of Hamlet. This is significant because if he were to have achieved
his revenge at that point Claudius\' soul may have been clean. Hamlet wishes
to get revenge when Claudius\' "Soul may be damned and black / As hell,
whereto it goes (Shakespeare 3, 3, 94 - 5). By waiting for the right time,
Hamlet loses his chance to achieve revenge. This ignoble act does add to
the theme of proper revenge, not in the primary plot, but when all three
revenge sub-plots are considered together. Aristotle also believed in heros
that are "First and foremost good (Aristotle 51)." Although Hamlet spends
much time deliberating good and evil, and what the greatest good is, when
it comes time, he cannot act. Laertes does act, but he acts rashly, and
cannot perform good either. Fortinbras is the type of hero that Aristotle
would have preferred, although from Fortinbras\' point of view the play is
not tragic; instead it is a comedy where all of the other characters run
about and in the end through no fault of his own, Fortinbras receives the
kingship of Denmark. The plot events with which Aristotle disagrees give
meaning to Hamlet\'s theme.

Shakespeare uses the plot to help create the mood of Hamlet by
incorporating subplots and by having his tragic hero do things which are
particularly unheroic. Hamlet\'s treatment of Ophelia is particularly
barbaric. By the same token Ophelia\'s unstinting devotion to her father,
and by that ,her poor treatment of Hamlet causes us to question which of
the two is not the worthier, but the least evil. Both of their actions
invoke disgust. Aristotle would have objected to Hamlet\'s treatment of
Ophelia because of his aforementioned belief in the character attributes of
the hero. The only characters who act particularly heroic are Horatio, who
is devoted to Hamlet, and Fortinbras. These two characters are the only
ones who survive. The rest of the characters are left dead and bleeding. As
another classical critic, Horace, wrote in Ars Poetica "I shall turn in
disgust from anything of this kind that you show me (Horace 85)." When