Hamlet as a tragic hero

Of all the plays Shakespeare has written, “Hamlet” is his most celebrated play and the play’s main protagonist Hamlet is the most controversial and talked about character in the history of English literature.

Aristotle in his book Poetics outlines that a tragic hero is a noble-born with heroic attributes and whose destiny changes as a result of a tragic flaw (most of the time arising from the character’s own heroic attributes) that eventually causes the tragic hero’s awful downfall. The character, Hamlet, undoubtedly complies with the concept of a tragic hero based on these points and can be considered as a perfect tragic hero. 

Hamlet’s high status:

Hamlet is a high-born or a prince in the kingdom of Denmark. Hamlet has high philosophical thoughts as he was a student of philosophy and we witness his philosophical mind when Hamlet contemplates the principles of death and life. As a noble-born, Hamlet also knows sword skills which we can see in his duel against Laertes. Hamlet is also depicted as a diligent and clever person who is accepted among the public and will without a doubt make a potent monarch. Despite having all these heroic qualities, the ‘tragic flaw’ in his character eventually leads to his destruction and makes him a typical tragic hero. 

 Hamlet’s tragic flaw

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw and Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his incapacity to take action or his indecisiveness. He is oftentimes upset by his own manners of ‘self-analysis’. This tragic flaw leads him to many unwanted outcomes. For example, when Hamlet had the opportunity to kill, the murderer of his father Claudius, Hamlet halts because Claudius was praying at that time. According to Hamlet, if he had killed him while praying, he would have advanced to heaven. Likewise Act III Scene VI, in conversation with his mother, Hamlet had murdered Polonius, suspecting that it was his uncle Claudius. Extremely grieved by the demise of his father, Ophelia killed herself. If we look at all these incidents from a wiser point of view, then we can say that had Hamlet killed Claudius earlier, Hamlet would have already avenged his father’s death. Accordingly, Polonius, whom Hamlet killed would have lived and also his daughter Ophelia and besides all these Hamlet would also be able to spend the rest of his life well. So Hamlet’s own tragic flaw leads to his downfall and this also makes him a tragic hero.

Conflict as an essence of a tragic hero

Conflict is an important characteristic of a tragic hero. Tragic heroes like King Lear, Brutus, Othello, Hamlet also face internal and external conflicts. Hamlet’s inner conflict is between his ethical principles and his duty of taking revenge. His attachment to his father, the disgrace of his mother Gertrude, and the wickedness and double-dealing of his uncle Claudius stimulate him to take revenge while his integrity, moral principles, resists such inhuman action. The outcome is that Hamlet breaks within himself and endures psychological torment. 

If we talk about Hamlet’s main external conflict, then it is with his uncle, Claudius. For Hamlet, Claudius is a murderer of his father, a seducer who seduced and married Hamlet’s mother, and a usurper of Denmark’s crowned head. So for all these reasons Hamlet wants to take revenge on Claudius. 

We can also see Hamlet’s external conflict with Laertes. Laertes has a touch of dislike for Hamlet when he learns that his sister Ophelia had some connection with Hamlet. But Laertes’ dislike of him turns violent when he learns that his father has been killed by Hamlet. Such internal and external conflicts are the essence of a tragic hero.

The self-realization of a tragic hero:

Usually, in a tragedy, the hero comes to know about a truth about which he was previously unaware and uninformed. No doubt, Hamlet goes through a shift, a growth in perception and self-realization. But this transformation of Hamlet comes quite late to prevent his downfall. The self-realization of Hamlet starts with his brooding on the performer’s speech about Hecuba; it moves along with the bedroom scene and gets to its peak in the grave-diggers’ scene. It is in the gravedigger’s scene where Hamlet declares “the readiness is all” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet). Aristotle called this self-realization of the hero “anagnorisis”. Most of all, in any case, Hamlet was manage to accomplish his essential aim – to kill the murderer of his father.

Role of fate and chance in Hamlet’s tragedy:

It might be argued that the personality of Hamlet’s character is not the only reason that is accountable for his downfall; external situations are also blameworthy for forming Hamlet a tragic hero. The arrival of the Ghost in the form of Hamlet’s father and its disclosure is an instance of fortune. There are many other incidents that happen in Hamlet’s life are by accident. The killing of Polonius, the attacking of pirates, and his returning to Denmark are nothing but an accident. So chance and fate affect not only the life of Hamlet but also the lives of the other characters. But this also does not mean that fate and chance are the only cause of Hamlet’s tragedy; ultimately it is he himself who is answerable for his tragedy.


In the end, we can say that the character of Hamlet as portrayed in the play and as advocated by the aforesaid qualities can be regarded as a tragic hero. Hamlet is not known for his bravery and goodness, he is such a hero who wanted to do something right but in the process, he keeps on making mistakes one after another. His ambitions and accomplishments are coordinated by defeats and misdeeds. Hamlet is a character in which virtue and evil coexist.

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