Just what is a tragic hero? Obviously someone who is ‘tragic’ has suffered a great deal and we feel sorry for them. Someone who is a ‘hero’ is someone we admire and respect. The definition of the tragic hero in literature is only slightly more complex. You need to look for the following three elements.
The tragic hero
- commands our respect and sympathy
- possesses some human flaw in character or judgement which partially brings about his downfall
- recognises that he is somewhat to blame
Two other elements are worth mentioning. The first is that the consequences far outweigh the fault – in simple terms, he suffers far more than he deserves to. The second is that his suffering provokes an emotional response in the reader – the ‘tragedy’ is created because we are filled with grief & sympathy at the unfairness of what he has to endure.
If we apply this definition to Hamlet you’ll see that he
- Immediately commands our respect & sympathy. He obeys his mother despite his disgust at her behaviour. He values honesty “I have that within which passes show”. He is grieving his dead father & attempts to come to terms with his mother’s betrayal which evokes our sympathy. He is suicidal but moral “o that the everlasting had not fixed his cannon against self-slaughter” and aware of his duty to obey the King “it is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue”. He is described by Ophelia as ‘honourable’ and treats Horatio as a friend rather than as a subject (proving that he has no sense of being ‘better’ than others despite his royal blood). You then need to look at how our sympathy for him ebbs and flows however. There are moments when we struggle to accept his behaviour – for example his reaction to killing Polonius, his decision to send R&G to their deaths and his treatment of Laertes in the graveyard. However, he regains his nobility somewhat when he exchanges forgiveness with Laertes, when he finally kills Claudius, when he saves Horatio, and in the tributes paid to him by Horatio & Fortinbras. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)
- Possesses some human flaw in character or judgement which partially brings about his downfall. His ‘flaw’ is his procrastination, although this is a flaw we can admire. He is determined to establish Claudius’ guilt before he kills him, showing that he is a person who believes in doing the right thing. The deaths of many characters – Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, even R&G can be either directly or indirectly viewed as a consequence of Hamlet’s ‘delay’, his rage at his own inability to act and then his impulsive ‘rash and bloody deed’ in killing Polonius, thinking it was Claudius behind the arras. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)
- Recognises that he is somewhat to blame. Throughout the play Hamlet makes reference to his tendency to think rather than act. Almost all of his seven soliloquies involve deeply self-critical commentary. He cannot explain, justify, or even understand “why yet I live to say this thing’s to do”. He is filled with shame when he compares himself to Fortinbras & Laertes. Thus Hamlet absolutely recognises his flaw. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)
The entire play dramatically presents a battle between rage & despair in Hamlet’s soul as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he must carry out a deed which is anathema to his personality “the time is out of joint o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right”. Thus we respect him, feel sympathy for him, recognise (as he does) his flaws and experience his death as deeply tragic yet in some ways inevitable. He ticks all the boxes so a question asking you to discuss whether or not Hamlet is a tragic hero could be fairly straightforward if you just keep these three things in mind!
You could complicate it further IF YOU WANTED TO make your answer more original.
Let’s think for a second about the idea of the anti-hero. This is a character who we ‘admire and feel sympathy for’ so that box is still ticked. What makes the antihero different is their personality – something in their character is different to our usual definition of a ‘hero’. In Hamlet’s case he doesn’t behave the way we expect the hero to behave in a revenge tragedy – we expect him to carry out his revenge quickly and unequivocally, without hesitation. Instead he examines the morality of what he must do, gets sidetracked into arguments with the women in his life, thinks long and hard about killing himself (but as with everything else he talks about, he doesn’t do it!), gives a lecture on good acting to some actors, fails to kill Claudius because he wants him to burn in hell forever, kills Polonius by accident, is sent away, makes a deal with some pirates, comes back and again gets sidetracked – this time into a fencing match which will prove fatal for all of the major characters who aren’t already dead. So his ‘flaw’ (procrastination) is also the thing which makes him more antihero than hero. If you wanted to you could describe him as a tragic antihero rather than as a typical tragic hero. Or you can stick with the simpler definition above.
Now think about this for a second. Do you like him? I find myself torn between sympathy (your mom’s a bitch) and frustration (just do it already!). Psychologists say the traits you most dislike in others are often the things you most dislike about yourself. Let’s apply that to Hamlet for a second – he annoys me because he talks about doing things instead of just doing them. Then I think about myself – I talked about doing this website for well over a year before I actually did anything about it. I keep talking about going to NY but I’ve never been. Right now I should be finalising things for the short story competition but I’m putting it off. Now think about yourself for a minute. Think about all the time you waste talking about and thinking about studying but not actually doing it! If Hamlet irritates you maybe that’s because he is so goddamned HUMAN. So weak, so flawed and so like all of us. Maybe we want our ‘heroes’ on telly, in the movies, in plays, to be more heroic and less real. Paradoxically however, the fact that he is so real, so ordinary, so flawed, so weak, so impulsive and so insecure is what makes him so fascinating, so compelling and so tragic.