The Model Identity and Fate of the Tragic Hero in Hamlet


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Aristotelian vs. Renaissance: The Tragedy of Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is remarkable in its well thought out character development and philosophical questions about life. What’s debatable however, is if Hamlet is an Aristotelian tragic hero, or a Renaissance Humanism tragic hero, where one is that fate is predetermined by the Gods, and the latter is that he chooses actions that ultimately lead him to his death and destruction. In the play, Hamlet has what’s called a tragic flaw that has negative effects on the outcome of events. For instance, throughout the story, Hamlet can’t seem to be able to decide whether or not to avenge his father by killing his murderer, Claudius. Hamlet also is impulsive and makes serious decisions without thinking about them first, this is shown by his spontaneous killing of Polonius. He is hesitant to act, as well as compulsive, and these flaws ultimately lead Hamlet to his “fate”. The question is, did Hamlet’s choices and actions get him to where he is, or was it all according to God’s predestined plan for his life?

The Aristotelian model of the tragic hero depicts the protagonist as predestined to fail, in a plan ordained by God. For Hamlet, it is arguable whether or not he has a choice in his destiny. However, Hamlet has a serious issue that he struggles to deal with, avenging his father’s murder. Despite Hamlet’s wealthy status at birth, he still deals with common man issues such as feeling powerless to life’s waves, inner moral conflict, and betrayal. This makes the protagonist more relatable to an audience. Because of his tragic flaw, impulsivity and hesitation, he is roped into trouble from all angles. When the ghost of his father appears to tell him to avenge his death, Hamlet attempts to avoid his fate by refusing to choose on how to react. Instead he schemes against Claudius for a while instead of taking action. He is conflicted between his compulsive feelings of having to avenge his father, and morality of killing someone. He could either choose to avenge him, or ignore his fate and later face the consequences. The ghost tells Hamlet to go against his morals and conscience, and that leads to inner turmoil. The ghost itself is a personification of fate, in a way that he sets it in motion, and Hamlet keeps choosing to put it off, and ignore it. However, his inaction is his choice and free will. Hamlet is burdened by his need to exercise his own will, and seems to only find peace in death, even if it is not by his own hands.

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Philosophy and morality are key themes in this play. Hamlet’s deep thinking and philosophy reflect upon his personal struggle, a question of existence and nothingness. Hamlet is contemplating death with his deep and philosophical question, “to be, or not to be,” (III.i.64-67) and he continues on to argue whether it is worth it to stay alive, to suffer his trials and tribulation, or go into an eternal sleep, as he so calls it. “To die, to sleep– No more– and by a sleep to say we end,”(III.i.68-69). He is inferring that he believes that death is nothing more than endless sleep. However, he does not know if there are “dreams”, or an afterlife, and points out the fact that this is a deterrent for people considering death, like him. In this soliloquy, Hamlet questions if it would be better to end his suffering, but is uncertain of acting upon it because of the fact that nobody knows what happens after death, or the widespread belief that you go to hell if you commit suicide. “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!” (I.ii.129-132). This gives Hamlet a melancholic attitude, and adds to morbidity to the story. In this scene, Hamlet represents the common man, dealing with common issues and traumas, and loses the battle trying to right all the wrongs. This is another trait of a Renaissance Humanism tragic hero, since the protagonist and the audience must empathize, or feel more closely to, to seem more relatable so that they experience catharsis at the end of the play, during the resolution.

Hamlet had the freedom to choose his fate, being given the opportunity to ignore what is going on around him, or to let it drive him mad and rule his thoughts. He chose actions throughout the play that brought him inching closer to his demise. For example, he chooses to hesitate in avenging his father when he finds Claudius praying alone, but does not think twice about stabbing and killing Polonius through the curtains the second he finds him eavesdropping. Hamlet shows great flaws and traits in his character during these scenes. When Hamlet says “A villain kills my father, and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven.” (III.iii.77-83), he fears that Claudius will go directly to the Christian heaven if he dies during prayer. He’s using this excuse not to kill Claudius, saying it is not the right time, even though hes said it before and will say it again. This is another example of an empathic appeal to a Shakespearean audience, since it was largely Christian based. However, directly after this, during a conversation with his mother, he discovers someone hiding behind the curtain, and immediately decides to kill the “rat”. “How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!” (III.iiii.24). This shows his impulsivity and instability in making serious decisions. Delaying on killing someone for a long period of time, and acting on impulse without thought are Hamlet’s weaknesses. However, ultimately, these are his own choices of his own free will. It is apparent that Hamlet did not think through his decisions before making them, and so he suffers the consequences of his actions. He has the power to dictate what happens in his life to an extent, and that is with his decisions and actions, and he is both rash and hesitant which does not help him with this issue.

The questions was if Hamlet was Aristotelian or Renaissance type tragic hero, and the answer is clear. Hamlet has displayed the characteristics of a Renaissance tragic hero, in being responsible for his own fate by making his own choices over time. Hamlet made a series of terrible choices throughout the play, all at different times. He chose to hesitate on acting on his father’s call for revenge. He chose to delay his responsibility by scheming instead of doing something, and he chose to turn down an opportunity to kill Claudius, just because he was praying. Hamlet also made the choice of killing Polonius on a whim, without a second thought. From the evidence shown, it is plain to see that Hamlet has horrible decision making skills. These choices got everyone around him killed, and made a really big mess out of an already messy situation. Even the last man left alive, Horatio, wanted to kill himself because he was so hurt, but chose not do go through with it for Hamlet’s honor. In essence, Hamlet’s fate was not predetermined by God. In fact, the events and the way he reacted to them and the choices he made got him to where he ended up, dead.

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