Literary critics and researchers have often mentioned that tragedy can arouse pity and fear in the mind of the reader. Hamlet is considered one of the most remarkable tragedies written by William Shakespeare. It is based on Hamlet, a lost play written by an anonymous English playwright. William Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as the prince of Denmark whose procrastinating behavior brings him only pain and suffering in his life. The play focuses on the deep, unending conflict within the mind of the thoughtful and idealistic Hamlet, as he is torn between the demands of his emotions and hesitant skepticism of his mind. Hamlet conveys his inner conflicts and frustrations through his soliloquies. The audience can understand Hamlet’s inner conflicts through his own words and from the reactions of the numerous other characters. Hamlet is, indeed, a tragic hero and demonstrates a complex character with mixed traits such as revenge, anger, over-confidence, pride, and madness. His complex behavior leaves the audience feeling sympathetic towards Hamlet.
Analyzing the play, one can find that Shakespeare has broken away from the conventional norms and conditions of the classical tragedy. Aristotle has given detailed explanations of the term ‘tragedy’ in connection with drama and the qualities of a tragic hero in his work Poetics. In the case of Oedipus and other Greek tragic heroes, they had accepted the responsibility for their fate and sufferings which evokes sympathy in the audience, ultimately leading to a state of catharsis (mixed emotions of pity and fear). In the case of Hamlet, we cannot find kinds of emotional vibrations. In Hamlet, the audience feels sympathy towards the protagonist in the opening part of the play but towards the end, it changes to a sort of fear and dislike. Shakespeare introduces the character of Hamlet as a son who mournfully laments the recent death of his father, at the same time deeply offended by his mother’s remarriage to his uncle Claudius. In the first part of the play Hamlet, one can see Hamlet with mixed feelings. His immense sense of grief, anger, and frustration compels the reader or audience to think about the tragic flaw in the hero. Various factors such as his arrogant nature, his overconfidence, and pride play a vital role in his tragic suffering. It is clear to the reader that his overconfidence causes him to convey his knowledge impulsively through obvious hints that easily gets misconstrued and leads to his ultimate end. Hamlet’s exaggerated sense of self leads him to incessantly blame others for his own mistakes. In his book entitled A Study of Hamlet, Frank Albert Marshall remarks that; “The figure of Hamlet, dressed in black, his eyes cast on the ground, his whole appearance betraying the utmost dejection, the only mourner in the brilliant Court, at once arrests the attention” (Marshall 16).
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet appears so emotional and melancholic but later on, he suffers from mixed feelings of anger and frustration. Hamlet comes across a number of opportunities to take revenge on his enemies but he ignores them one way or the other. This reveals the tragic weakness in his character. Unlike Othello and Macbeth, Hamlet reveals the weaknesses in his own character. In Act one, his decision not to kill himself because of his religious beliefs, demonstrates his weakness. In Act one, Scene 5 of the play Hamlet, King Hamlet’s ghost informs his son that Claudius had murdered and dispossessed him. The ghost informs that; “of life, of crown and queen, at once dispatch’d;” (“Act 1 scene5- Hamlet”). This shocking information is the driving motive behind Hamlet’s determination to seek revenge on his uncle Claudius. However, Hamlet does not wish to punish his mother for what she has done. The reader may find this action quite disagreeable. Hamlet’s excessive desire to take revenge on Claudius prevents the reader or the audience from sympathizing with him.
Hamlet’s inner conflict reaches its zenith when everyone he trusts and relies up on starts lying against him and deceiving him. Instead of evoking sympathy, Hamlet’s mental disorder and frustration only arouses fear and hatred in the audience. In the opening scene of Act Three, Claudius decides to observe Hamlet and the other characters such as Ophelia, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his followers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The audience can see that even Ophelia expresses her own fears and doubts regarding Hamlet’s awkward behaviour. Her attitude towards Hamlet is that of fear and disappointment instead of sympathy. Hamlet’s transformation from a civilized and educated person to a man with mental aberrations breaks the conventional pattern of Shakespearean tragic heroes. Hamlet always speaks to himself because of his pride and arrogant behaviour. The disturbance in his mind causes him to speak to the King and Queen in double language which leaves them confused. Hamlet’s reactions are quite different from what one would anticipate and this leads the reader /audience to strongly suspect his actions and motives. Hamlet’s affection towards Ophelia plays a vital role in the play Hamlet. On careful analysis, the reader/audience can understand Ophelia’s observations on the real motives of Hamlet, her lover. This compels the reader/audience from sympathizing with Hamlet as they realize that Hamlet does not love Ophelia. Hamlet desires to steal her virginity and he treats her only as a mere object for taking out his revenge. The tragic flaw in Hamlet is entirely different from that in Othello or Macbeth. There are two events in the play which compel the audience not to accept the fact that the whole thing is contrived. One is the way in which he treats Ophelia and the other is the scene in the queen’s chamber. Hamlet had no reason to behave as he did, to the sweet, innocent Ophelia whom he loved with all his heart. Often in her presence he loses himself, his words do not reflect either his princely stature or his cultural refinement. His words are an outrage on a woman’s modesty and violence to human decency. Hamlet’s violent behaviour and the abusive language that he uses, gives us the picture of a man who is completely out of his mind. His actions and thoughts persuade the reader/audience to sympathize with other characters and not with him.
In the case of Hamlet, one can find the thought-provoking fact that Hamlet’s actions and motives are stated not by his own intentions, but by the actions and thoughts of other characters. Most of the Shakespearean tragic heroes realize the tragic flaws in their character towards the end and receive severe punishments and suffering for the mistakes they have committed in their lives. The death of Macbeth and Othello makes the audience cry or feel sympathy towards the protagonist. Act Five, scene Two signifies the climax of the play, allowing the reader/audience to follow Hamlet’s death. According to Claudius’s deceitful scheme, Hamlet will either be killed by Laertes’s sword or the poisoned wine which would be served following the match. Here, Gertrude hints about the poisoned wine not due to her sympathetic nature towards her son but as a mere confession. Up on realizing the fact that he and Laertes are close to death on the battle scene, Hamlet kills Claudius and finally surrenders himself to death. The murder of Polonius reveals Hamlet’s arrogant and cruel nature and here the reader can see that Hamlet tries to overcome his tragic flaw. However, it is pretty much clear that Hamlet tried to avoid many opportunities to kill Claudius because of his over confidence and excessive pride. Here, Hamlet fails to attract sympathy from the audience and his death arouses only fear and relief in them.
Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy reveals his constantly changing thoughts and his inner conflicts. Here, Hamlet makes a thoughtful, philosophical statement about his own existence on this earth. In this soliloquy, the reader/audience can understand Hamlet’s unsure behaviour and his unending thoughts. Hamlet’s words lend a sense of fear and frustration to the audience. The audience fails to accept Hamlet as a sympathetic c hero. Instead of pity and sympathy, the reader feels frustrated and disappointed towards Hamlet mainly due to his over confidence and procrastination. Hamlet’s thoughts and inner conflicts reveal the inherent weaknesses in his character. One can see a pathetic and helpless condition of the protagonist in Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. But in the case of Hamlet, the reader never comes across such situations.
To conclude, William Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet constitutes all the characteristics of a tragic hero. He is certainly a man of virtue but it is a unique tragic flaw in his character that leads him to a world of endless sufferings. Except the opening scene, Hamlet fails to catch the attention of the audience as a sympathetic character. Hamlet’s pride, arrogance, his contemptuous treatment of women and his overconfidence prevent the reader/audience from sympathizing with him.
“Act 1 scene5- Hamlet.” Shakespeare Navigators at Click notes, n.d. Web. 2010.
Marshall, Albert Frank. A Study of Hamlet. Biblio Bazaar, 2009. Web.