Hamlet A Tragic Hero?

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Is Hamlet a Tragic Hero


Hamlet being generally labeled as the best tragic hero ever created, it is ironic

that his tragic flaw has never been as solidly confirmed as those of most of his fellow protagonists.

There is Macbeth with his ambition, Oedipus with his pride, Othello with his jealousy, and all the

others with their particular odd spots. Then there is Hamlet. He has been accused of everything

and of nothing, and neither seems to stick. "Flaws are carved out of obscure conversations when

he may or may not be speaking truthfully and alleged from instances of his own self-discipline.

They are bored into him with the bits of psychological drills invented long after Shakespeare's

hand crafted him." (Harris) But Hamlet is made of stuff that resists these things. He has no

obvious extrusions that let the scraping catch and bite, or perhaps so many that picking at any one

is useless.

And so, it seems that perhaps the perception of the tragic hero and his flaw must be re-evaluated.

"Flaw" is a bad way of describing the very qualities which make the hero heroic. As Catherine C.

Dominic States in her reference book Shakespeare For Students:

Having such traits makes not a hero but a villain. It need hardly be stated that there is a profound

difference between a villain's punishment and a hero's upward fall to the stars and immortal earth.

The hero's "flaw" is exactly not what the term implies. It is a strong point, an ungiving, inflexible

perfection. It does not fit into the imperfect slot that society gives the hero to occupy. For the

hero is always placed in the imperfect world of his author, as he must be, if he is to have any

meaning.

And it is against this cleanly cut strong point that the fissured edges of the broken world grind.

And so there is deadly conflict. The hero cannot be ground down forever and remain a hero. He

cannot win, because we all know that the world is not the perfect world of absolutes for which he

fights. And so he dies, not because of his flaw, but because the flawless ideal cannot coexist with

the pockmarked real. Most heroes' strong points are unique for their possessors. They have few

others. And so, the tension is concentrated upon those spots and they are quickly and noticeably

scratched. And the interpreters leap upon the battle wound and call it a flaw. It is given a name,

"ambition" or "arrogance" or other words that society likes to use to demonize a rise above

mediocrity and indecision. "Psychological pseudo-scientists attach concepts to these red badges of

honor that make us snicker, gleaming eyed, about improper things, and root them to the birth of

the heroes' souls as defects that lurk from the very cradle." (Scott, 1056)

All this, of course, has been tried on Hamlet, and none are universally accepted as right or even

slightly viable. He has no one point on which to concentrate the attack. He smashes against the

ragged walls of his cell with inflexible force. He alters his environment on all fronts, from his own

appearance to the psychological states of others (most notably Ophelia). His "flaw" is the strength

of his strengths, the consistency of his consistencies.

"The clue to his tragedy is his own irresolution; he combines a belief in his own superiority--he is

gifted, attractive, and a favorite of the Danish people--with a gnawing sense of inward weakness.

Again and again he fails to keep the promise that he made to his murdered father's spirit."

(Hamish, Quenelle, 115)

There is, first of all, what he says of himself. He says to the ghost, just as the plot gets underway,

"thy commandment all alone shall live / within the book and volume of my brain." Act 1, Scene 4,

102,103) Then, again, the message comes, soon after the climax, in the form of: "My thoughts be

bloody or be nothing worth!" Act 4, Scene 4, 66)

He then dedicates himself entirely to his cause. He feigns madness to the point of starving himself,

and transforms himself into a ragged shadow of the former appearance that Ophelia bewails. In

thus degrading himself, he places a tremendous hobble on his chances of ascending to the throne,

his expected position since birth.

And as is blatantly obvious in the tense aftermath of the performance of "The Mousetrap", he is

not satisfied with the technicality of revenge. He will wait until Claudius is "about some act / That

has no relish of salvation in't,"(Act 3, Scene 3, 91,92) though it mean that he must endure the

corruption longer and act at a time which could warrant "a more horrid hent"(Act 3, Scene 3, 88)

upon his sword.

Despite his own self doubts, he carries through with his revenge quite rapidly. He, of course,

being a man of perfect absolutes is disappointed with his efforts, for they are not and cannot be, in

the real world, absolute and immediate. But one must look at others to get a true picture of his

speed. Claudius, the proven intriguer, is caught almost completely off guard by the performance

of "The Mousetrap." Polonius, representative of all that is confused in the world, is left

completely in the dust.

But as Hamlet strives for thoroughness in his revenge, he strives for thoroughness in all else as

well. He is not governed or given justice by the legality and loopholes of mortal law. When

contemplating his revenge, he worries not of earthbound justice, but of eternal consequences. He

despises "the law's delay, / The insolence of office"(Act 3, Scene 1, 72, 73) in his most famous

soliloquy. And so, being at odds with the laws of the world, he comes to odds with the world at

every corner.

As Claudius points out, the most practical thing for Hamlet to do after his father's death is to get

over it. There is no provision in the world that expressly demands that a son sorrow long for his

father. In fact, the king is able to bring forth many reasons not to, including duty, precedence and

even some parts of religion. But Hamlet does not see goodness in passing over such an event.

Since he cannot wear white, he wears black.

There is nothing legally wrong with the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. Such practice was not

uncommon with medieval royalty. Technically it is not true incest; the two are not really related

by blood. But Hamlet dislikes "the uses of this world." His mother was his father's wife, is his

father's wife and always will be. He remembers how "she would hang on him, / as if increase of

appetite had grown / by what it fed on." (Act 1, Scene 2, 143,144) This immediately contrasts

with reality and leaves him angry and disillusioned, but still he tries to set things right by

convincing her (once he knows she was not knowingly a part of the king's murder) to give up

Claudius.

The demise of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is particularly exemplary of Hamlet's "flaw." They

are disloyal, shallow, foolish and opportunistic. They are the embodiments of the things which

Hamlet, dedicated, contemplative, planning and solitary, hates. They are the flaws that rake

against Hamlet's virtues. Escape from them is not enough. Half-victory and a muddling of affairs

is victory for them and their kind, not Hamlet. His dealings with them must be final. He must

"delve one yard below their mines," not to confound them, for they are already confounded, but

to "blow them at the moon."(Act 3, Scene 4, 209,210)

It would be pleasant, satisfying, to end a description at that, as it would be pleasant and satisfying

to end the play with a complete victory for the protagonist. But that is intoxication, smashing

together the true and the false into one jagged aggregate that glitters and pleases and does no

good. That is the form of the imperfect world. A tragic hero cannot survive there. So Hamlet

must go to his death, as he does, having purged himself of doubt and contradiction, driving

through to immortal purpose.

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