Shakespeares Hamlet includes various theories and elements of tragedy, of which two will be discussed in this essay. Shakespeare addresses Aristotles theory of tragedy, but he challenges the theory in many aspects through setting, plot, and character. Shakespeare seems to heavily incorporate the “wheel of fortune” theory of tragedy, mostly through the character Hamlet.
Aristotle, who is concerned with formal presentation of tragic plays, 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 employs character and plot in order to create an atmosphere that is unsettling and dark, which instead of conjuring fear and pity instead sets up an atmosphere rank with revenge. In this way, Hamlet does not follow Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Another of the ways Aristotle characterizes tragedy is through “The noble actions and the doings of noble persons” (Aristotle 35). According to Aristotle, Hamlet should be a noble person committing noble actions. This is best represented in the scene where Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius during prayer. This becomes the turning point for Hamlet, where he truly becomes an ignoble person, saying he wants Claudius’ “Soul may be damned and black/ As hell, whereto it goes.” Hamlet truly wants Claudius to suffer in the worst possible manner, and in doing so Hamlet falls from nobility.
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Aristotle also believed heroes are “First and foremost good” (Aristotle 51). Hamlet does contemplate good and evil frequently, but ultimately Hamlet fall from the path of goodness. Fortinbras may have been the kind of hero Aristotle characterizes, but Fortinbras is not a tragic character. The plot events with which Aristotle disagrees give meaning to Hamlet’s theme. Shakespeare intentionally portrays many characters unheroic. For example, Hamlet does not treat Ophelia well, but at the same time Ophelia’s unwavering loyalty to her father causes her to treat Hamlet badly. Both characters invoke disgust from the reader from their ignoble actions. The only characters who act somewhat heroic are Horatio and Fortinbras. Interestingly, these are the only two characters who survive, so Shakespeare may be making some kind of commentary on Aristotle’s tragic hero.
Another theory of tragedy has to do with the “wheel of fortune.” This kind of “Tragedy was perceived as a reversal of fortune, a fall from a high position. This view of tragedy derives from the Medieval concept of fortune, which was personified as Dame Fortune, a blindfolded woman who turned a wheel at whim; men were stationed at various places on the wheel–the top of the wheel represented the best fortune, being under the wheel the worst fortune. However, the wheel could turn suddenly and the man on top could suddenly be under the wheel, without warning.” (Landmarks of Literature)
There are many instances where Shakespeare incorporates these elements of tragedy into Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Horatio cries out to the Ghost, “Speak to me: If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, / Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, / O, speak!” Horatio’s outburst suggests that fate isn’t inevitable, but earlier Horatio indicates that the Ghost is a bad omen, just like in Rome before the “mightiest Julius fell” and “the graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.” Horatio’s conception of fate embodies the fate of the the entire country, not the individual.
In response to a comment about how mens’ “faults” can ruin reputations, Hamlet responds by saying, “Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect/ Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star/ Their virtues else- be they pure as grace/ As infinite as man may undergo/ Shall in the general censure take corruption/ From that particular fault.” Hamlet establishes his view of fate and bad character with this claim; he thinks you are either born with bad qualities or you acquire them through the environment (through no device of your own), but it’s not something that a person is in control of; rather it is something that simply happens to a person, and there is no way to avoid it.
Later in this scene Hamlet exclaims, “My fate cries out, / And makes each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.” Hamlet believes it is his fate to follow the ghost, and because it is his fate he is given the strength and vigor with which to do it.
Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how they are, and Guildenstern answers, “Happy, in that we are not over-happy, on fortune’s cap we are not the very button.” This is a joke that implies that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz live in Fortune’s “privates;” This joke implies that Fortune is a whore. Later in the same scene, the idea that Fortune is a whore comes up again in a more serious tone. During a play, Hamlet asks the First Player to recite the piece of the death of Priam. Afterwards, the player comments:
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends! (2.2.493-497)
The player is asking the gods to break Fortune’s wheel and roll her down to hell. The idea is that our destinies are merely random, when people try to climb on top of the wheel it may simply move and the person on top becomes the one being crushed by the wheel. The First Player’s speech calls for a fate ruled by something other than Fortune.
Hamlet’s third soliloquy suggests that fortune is simply out to hurt you and questioning whether it is even worth it to challenge the wheel of fortune: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”
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Before the play The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet stands alone with Horatio and commends him as “A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards / Hast ta’en with equal thanks.” Hamlet goes on to praise Horatio for not becoming “a pipe for Fortune’s finger” to play; Hamlet appears envious of Horatio, praising him for a quality that Hamlet himself lacks. Hamlet sees himself as “passion’s slave,” a person who cannot maintain a stable identity or sense of self.
In The Murder of Gonzago the Player King tells his wife that he hopes when he dies she will find a good man and remarry. The wife promises vehemently she will not find another husband after his death, to which the king responds: “This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange / That even our loves should with our fortunes change.” The king points out that a man who has been favored by fortune could just as easily lose his fortune, and with it his friends, money, wife, etc. The king doesn’t address it as though it is something to be deplored, but simply the way of life and something that needs to be accepted, because “Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” In the end, the king is right, and the wife quickly remarries after the king’s death.
After Polonius has been stabbed, Hamlet says to the body, “take thy fortune; / Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.” Hamlet believes Polonius’ “fortune” was not simply bad luck; Hamlet believes Polonius brought his own bad luck upon himself and had earned his own death. Later in the same scene, Hamlet says, “For this same lord, / I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister.” According to this view of things, Polonius’ death is not an accident at all, but part of a divine plan.
In the last scene of the play, Hamlet writes to Horatio about how he found his own death warrant. Hamlet said he was sneaking around and told Horatio, “let us know, / Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well, / When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Hamlet suggests that even though something may look random it could be part of a plan that will turn out for the better. Then, later, Hamlet repeats the concept; Horatio asks how Hamlet could have possibly sealed a new warrant with the king’s seal. Hamlet replies, “Why, even in that was heaven ordinant” and explains that Hamlet had his father’s signet by chance and used it to make the seal. Even later in the scene, right before the final fencing duel, Hamlet says that everything is “ill” in his heart. He doesn’t hint that this feeling is prophetic of his own death in any way, but when Horatio offers to call off the fencing match, Hamlet speaks as though he knows he’s about to die:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
In another view of this revenge tragedy, Hamlet is the player of a Senecan tragedy. “He is involved in a sensational murder scene, commanded by a Senecan ghost desiring revenge, and after hampered by court intrigue, resorts to feigned madness. Since apparitions are known to tell half-truths to deceive people, Hamlet is given instruction without a resolute plan. For majority of the play, he acts with passion and indecision and he proceeds with the ghost’s wishes as his adversary allows. And, for the most part, only Claudius, Hamlet, and Horatio know the action of revenge.” (Landmarks of Literature)
Word Count: 1837
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