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Hamlet is unquestionably a tragedy.Within the confines of that

assertion ,however,there is still room for considerable debate.One

could ask what tragedy is,how Hamlet fits into the tragic field,and

thus what kind of tragedy it is.This last might indeed be suggested as

the only way of meaningfully addressing the question what Hamlet is

or what happens in it.T.S. Eliot makes such a suggestion when in the

beginning of his brief essay on the play he writes:

Qua work of art,the work of art can not be interpreted; there is

nothing to interprete;we can only criticize it according to standards,

in comparison to other works of art. (Eliot 03)

Like other tragic heroes of Shakespeare Hamlet is also endowed with

exceptional qualities like royal birth,graceful and charming

personality and popularity among his own countrymen.He is religious

minded and is very sensitive.In spite of possessing all these high

qualities which rank him above the other characters the flaw in his

character,named as ‘tragic flaw’ by A.C. Bradley,leads to his

downfall and makes him a tragic hero.The formal constituent

elements of a tragedy that Aristotle outlines are certainly present in

Hamlet.The elements of ‘mythos’,’the soul of tragedy’,are also

exhaustively present.There is much pathos,which accumulates and

becomes more physical,more explicit,as the play progresses,to reach

the crescendo of the ‘feast’ of ‘proud death’(lines 369-70) in the last


To begin with,his victims include the entire Polonius family.He kills

Polonius deliberately,though it is true that he believes him to be

someone else at the time;but such an instance of mistaken identity,of

killing B when one had set out with the intention of killing A,is not

acceptable as an excuse for murder in a court law.Laertes he kills with

his own hand,though inadvertently;the text leaves open the

opportunity,taken up in many productions,to have Hamlet engineer

the change of sword deliberately as result of realising that Laertes’ is

unbated,but he can not know that it is poisoned.Ophelia’s death he

causes indirectly,but there can be no question but that he carries total

moral responsibility for it,first tendering her affection,then proceeding

through public humiliation to private violent abuse,and finally

murdering her father.By nature Hamlet is prone to think rather than to

act.He is a man of morals and his moral idealism receives a shock

when his mother remarries Claudius after his father’s death.Like other

tragic heroes Hamlet has to face internal and external conflict.The

internal conflict is in his moral scruples and the act of revenge.The

external conflict is with Claudius-the murderer of Hamlet’s

father.Claudius is a smiling villain.

At no point,however,does Hamlet acknowledge his own role in

bringing about Ophelia’s death,nor does he show any compunction

over it.The only apology he feels he owes is to Laertes,and that is

more because he ‘forgot self’ than because he caused the death of

Laertes’ sister.

Hamlet is caught as in an electric current,and wriggles and foams,but

can not get away.A new level of understanding cancels the action

resolved upon before,the awareness of all that is involved in a

decision can not fail but give us pause,and Hamlet’s understanding

knows no bounds for its growth,to the point where he wonders

whether the best action might not be to abandon this ‘unweeded

garden’(I.ii.135) altogether,but even there it checks him with the

consideration of the dreams that “ in that sleep of death...may


Hamlet’s position is painful and that feeling gets communicated to the

audience both directly and through the most acute suffering in the

play,that of Ophelia.Ophelia is the person to whom Hamlet has a most

intimate connection,she remains next to him to bear the effects of his

devastating vision of the world-after his analysis of ‘Why live?’ he

runs into her,his warning of universal corruption is addressed to her,at

the end of his bitterly ironic appraisal of man’s qualities he thinks of

her;and like a safety fuse she blows first.After Ophelia dies,Hamlet

becomes himself vulnerable to the intensity of his situation:consider

the absurd speech he delivers in her grave,the lack of caution with

which he falls for Claudius’s scheme.

Character is not the only factor that is responsible for the tragedy of

Hamlet.External circumstances should also be kept in the

analysis.Many of the things that take place in Hamlet’s life are by

chance but none of these improbable.He kills Polonius by chance.The

ship in which he travels is attacked by pirates and his return to

Denmark is nothing but chance.But the sense of fate is never so

overwhelming as to cast character in shade.After all,it is Hamlet

himself who is responsible for his tragedy.

Though Hamlet possesses all the qualities of Shakespeare's tragic

hero,yet he is different from the other.He is the only tragic hero who

evokes the sympathy of the readers at all times.As Hazlitt

remarks,“The distresses of Hamlet are transferred by the turn of his

mind,to the general account of humanity.Whatever happens to him,we

apply to ourselves”.This is what makes Hamlet universal as well as a

unique hero.

Work Cited:

Eliot,T.S.Hamlet and His Problems.The Sacred Wood;Essays on

poetry and Criticism.London:Methunene,

Shakespeare,William.Hamlet,Prince of Denmark.The Complete

Works of William Shakespeare.London:Oxford University

Shakespeare,William.Hamlet.New Delhi:Unique