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Reports & Essays: Literature - Shakespeare


Hamlet As A 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, "Hamlet", is to appraise it using the methods of classical critics to see if it meets the criteria for a tragedy. Hamlet is one of the most recognizable and most often quoted tragedies in all of English literature. Aristotle, who is concerned with the proper presentation of tragic plays and poetry, 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 as being a tragedy. It is the above mentioned elements; character, plot and setting, used in a non-Aristotelian way, that makes Hamlet work as 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 heroes 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 we see the bodies lying on the ground at the end of the play we realize the futility of Hamlet's actions and that evokes disgust. It is the evocation of this emotion that Aristotle would have disagreed with. Shakespeare's character's in Hamlet illustrate the theme of the drama, however Aristotle would have disagreed with Shakespeare's choices. To understand character in terms of theme one must compare the characters. Samuel Johnson calls Hamlet "through the whole piece an instrument rather than an agent". This is giving too much credence to the soliloquies, when Hamlet ponders, and gives too little credence to the fact that he sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths without hesitating, and the fact that he was the first on the pirate ship when attacked on the high seas. It is the type of revenge that Hamlet insists on that shapes his character and forces the bloodshed at the end of the play. This contrasts with a play of which Aristotle did approve. In Oedipus the King, Sophocles has created a character who tries to do the greater good, and in doing so finds that his fate has been damned from the start. Hamlet has the chance to do good, in this case revenge a murderer, but he lets passion sway his reason. This "madness" is what leads Hamlet astray, leads him to kill Polonius, leads Ophelia to commit suicide and leads to the carnage of the final scene. Rather than learn from experience, Hamlet follows his own will. Aristotle had no room for noble characters with no amplitude and therefore he would have disliked most of the characters in Hamlet, except for Horatio and Fortinbras. In contrasting Fortinbras , Hamlet and Laertes we have three men of noble birth, all of whom have a legitimate reason to seek revenge. The main difference is the way that each seeks his revenge. Laertes seeks revenge in a rash and illicit ways and he dies. Hamlet seeks revenge in an ignoble way and he dies. Fortinbras seeks a Christian revenge and is successful. In this way Shakespeare's characters further the theme of Hamlet in a non-aristotelian way. The characters that Shakespeare has chosen for Hamlet are not the type one would find in a typical Greek tragedy, the kind of tragedy that Aristotle was used to criticizing. Oedipus the King, includes a number of elements that Shakespeare does not use in Hamlet. The chorus is used as a character in Oedipus the King to allow us a sympathetic view of Oedipus, in his time of travail. Oedipus has accepted responsibility for his fate and blinded himself. The audience feels sympathy and therefore feels pity. No such sympathy is given to Hamlet. It is not the fact that he does not have some sympathetic qualities; rather he has too few sympathetic characteristics which we wish to empathize. Hamlet wants to do the right things, but it is the way he does them that makes us dislike him. Hamlet also spends much of his time deliberating rather than doing. Almost every character in the play is a doer. The only two characters with any sort of joie de vivre are the clowns who are also grave diggers. The irony is that the characters who most enjoy life are those who face death on a regular basis. This juxtaposition not only foreshadows the conclusion of the play but also adds to the mood of disgust. One of the elements contributing to mood is character, however it is used in a non-aristotelian way. Aristotle ignored the concept that a play could take place in many different settings and still retain meaning. In his elements of tragedy Aristotle mentions "Plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song. (Aristotle 39)." He does not include setting as a separate entity. It is implicit, however, in his conception of "Unities" that more than one setting was not acceptable. One example may be found in Oedipus the King, where all of the action takes place in one setting, and where the geographical setting of the play, in terms of a historical context, does not in itself add any meaning. Aristotle did, however, believe in "Unity of Time", where each action follows the previous action, and builds to form a single "thread" of action. We would include the time in play as part of the setting. Another axiom of Unity of time is that one stage minute equals one real minute. It is only by ignoring Aristotelian convention in setting, specifically unity of time, that Shakespeare can properly tell his story. Hamlet takes place entirely in Castle Elsinore and on its grounds. The first scene takes place at approximately midnight as does Act 1,nScene 4. Shakespeare completely ignores the Aristotelian convention of "Unity of Time". It is only by ignoring this convention that Shakespeare can allow Hamlet to have the scene with the ghost, a twenty minute scene, that Shakespeare elongates from midnight to dawn. By the same token it is this elongation that allows Hamlet to talk with the ghost and gives the ghost a dramatic reason, the dawn, to leave the stage. This allows Shakespeare to develop his plot and therefore to develop his theme. These temporal manipulations do not end here. Hamlet leaves for England by boat, is waylaid by pirates and returns to Elsinore between Act 4nScene 3 and Act 5 Scene 1. This allows Laertes to return and demand revenge, Ophelia to go mad and kill herself and Hamlet to return just in time for the funeral. Without this compression of time, Shakespeare could not have fitted in the plot points he needs to build the theme of revenge. Laertes leaves Denmark in the second scene of the first act, and returns in the fourth act and demands revenge for the death of his father, Polonius. Shakespeare has, again ignored the time frame of the play in order to facilitate the plot. It by ignoring the temporal aspect of setting that Shakespeare has the room he needs to develop the plot , and therefore the theme of Hamlet. Shakespeare uses Castle Elsinore and environs to depict a sordid and depressing place where incest and murder are a part of normal life, where revenge is commonplace motivation, and where the feigning of madness is a normal strategy to dissemble ones feelings. This is the setting for Hamlet. Shakespeare created this setting to tell us a story of revenge gone wrong. He also created a mood of disgust. When at the end of the play, things are brought to their right order and Fortinbras becomes king, we look back and see the depraved way of life that existed at Castle Elsinore and its logical conclusion, a room littered with bodies and Fortinbras taking his lawful place as king, we feel disgust and its purgation.

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