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( introduction to literary theory )

Mentor :

Student: Amila Frljak 45764 / 2013

William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the English language, wrote a total of 37 plays in his lifetime, all of which can be categorized under tragedy, comedy, or history. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare's most popular and greatest tragedy, displays his genius as a playwright, as literary critics and academic commentators have found an unusual number of themes and literary techniques present in Hamlet. Hamlet concerns the murder of the king of Denmark and the murdered king's son's quest for revenge. Its main character, Hamlet, possesses a tragic flaw which obstructs his desire for revenge and ultimately brings about his death. This tragic flaw makes him a tragic hero, a character who is destroyed because of a major weakness, as his death at the end could possibly have been avoided were it not for his tragic flaw. Hamlet's flaw of irresolution, the uncertainty on how to act or proceed, is shown when Hamlet sees a play and the passion the actors had, after Hamlet's third soliloquy, in Hamlet's fourth soliloquy, and in Hamlet's indecisive pursuit in avenging his father's death. First, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown when he sees a play and the passion one particular actor had. A group of players has arrived and Hamlet arranges a personal viewing of The Murder of Gonzago with a small portion of his own lines inserted. Hamlet then observes one portion of the play in which one of the players put on a great display of emotion. Hamlet, besieged by guilt and self-contempt, remarks in his second soliloquy of Hamlet of the emotion this player showed despite the fact that the player had nothing to be emotional about. Hamlet observed that he himself had all the reason in the world to react with great emotion and sorrow, yet he failed to show any that could compare with the act of the player. Hamlet calls himself a "rogue and peasant slave" and a "dull and muddy-mettled rascal" who, like a "John-a-dreams", can take no action. Hamlet continues his fiery speech by degrading himself and resoluting to take some sort of action to revenge his father's death. Next, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown after his third soliloquy, the famed "To be or not to be" lines. Hamlet directly identifies his own tragic flaw, remarking of his own inability to act. Hamlet, unsure whether or not the his uncle Claudius was responsible for his father's murder, schemes to have The Murder of Gonzago presented to the royal court, with a few minor changes, so its contents would closely resemble the circumstances behind the murder. Reflecting on his own guilt, he talks of death, referring to it as the undiscovered country, and then continues by riddling his own feelings. He declares "conscience does make cowards of us all" and that the natural ruddy complexion of one intent, or resolute, on an action is "sicklied" over with the "pale cast of thought". This makes an individual second guess his own actions and often times take no action at all, due to his own irresolution. These statements not only applied to what had occurred up to that point but also foreshadowed what was to occur. Next, Hamlet's flaw of irresolution is shown during his fourth soliloquy. Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, and his army have passed by Hamlet and his escorts. Hamlet sees the action Fortinbras was taking in fighting and then examines Fortinbras's efforts and bravery in an attempt to rekindle his own desire for revenge against Claudius for his father's death. Hamlet remarks how everything around him attempts to "spur my dull revenge", yet he takes no action. He notices how he thinks "too precisely on an event" and that he has "cause, and will, and strength, and means" to get revenge and how the evidence pointing to Claudius as his
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father's killer is as evident as earth itself. Hamlet finally decides "my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" He has finally decided he must take action against Claudius in some form or fashion. Last, Hamlet's indecisive pursuit in avenging his father's death is shown as evidence of his tragic flaw. Hamlet encounters numerous opportunities to kill Claudius, yet he always comes up with some excuse preventing action. After first hearing of the crime from his father's ghost, Hamlet immediately sets out to take action. Hamlet then began to think that perhaps his father's ghost was conjured by the devil in an attempt to make Hamlet become irrational and kill Claudius, who might happen to be innocent, which would forever damn his soul. Hamlet then schemes to determine Claudius's guilt through the play. Claudius views the play and becomes very uncomfortable with the situation to the point of stopping the play and leaving. This confirms Claudius's guilt to Hamlet, and Hamlet again sets out to avenge his father's death. Hamlet then catches Claudius in prayer, a rare time he will find Claudius alone. Hamlet, again, begins to think how Claudius will have had his sins forgiven and that he wants to damn Claudius's soul. Hamlet resolves to wait and kill Claudius at another time. Claudius, through all of this, realizes Hamlet knows of his crime and plots to have Hamlet killed by first sending him to England and then having him murdered. Hamlet escapes this ploy and Claudius plots again to have Hamlet killed in a fencing match. At the fencing match, Hamlet is wounded by a poisoned strike with the foil. Hamlet, in a dying act, kills Claudius by making him drink poison. Hamlet's flaw of irresolution essentially destroyed him, as his failure to act in previous situations led to his own death.

In Elizabethan literature and theatre, a tragic hero is someone who possesses a fatal flaw, and this imperfection ultimately leads to his downfall and, usually, calamitous misfortune for others. This dramatic motif, however, predates the Elizabethan period and, in fact, originated in writings of the Ancient Greeks. Hamlet's irresolution is obvious in his actions after viewing the emotion of the actors, after his third soliloquy, in his fourth soliloquy, and in his indecisive pursuit of revenge for his father's death. Hamlet was able to avenge his father's death, but his own death due to his irresolution labels him as a tragic hero. The Tragedy of Hamlet masterfully shows how the inability to act, however noble the intentions, can be detrimental to character. As for Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, he has many character flaws. In fact, Jan Knott, a Shakespearean scholar, said, "Hamlet is like Swiss cheese, with all the holes" (Epstein, 1993); for example: He is still a child in many ways. He is at times capricious and unrealistic. He is incapable of rising above his grief. He is determined to exact vengeance. He is prone to procrastination. He is often cruel and arrogant. He is perhaps in love with his own mother.
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Although, he possesses many imperfections, Hamlets immaturity proves to be the fatal flaw that leads to his downfall, for it is his childishness that makes it impossible for Hamlet to accept accountability for his actions; for example: Instead of acting responsibly, Hamlet feigns madness, which allows him to say whatever cruel thing he likes to Ophelia, whose emotional state is tenuous at best, and to stab her father so recklessly and without remorse. Polonius tells Laertes, "This above all, to thine own self be true;" but it is Hamlet who cannot be true to himself because Hamlet does not want the responsibility that the truth would engender. (Abrams, 1986) Why is Hamlet so immature? Is it because he is an adolescent and the young are often prone to self-centeredness and juvenile behavior? To the contrary, though, as revealed upon a close examination of the play, Hamlet is not so young. Granted, yes, when the play opens, Hamlet has interrupted his studies at the University of Wittenberg and returned home for his father's funeral, so the audience assumes Hamlet is a young man around 18-years-old. Certain facts, however, are later revealed that negate this assumption: In Act 5, Scene I, the audience learns that Yorick died 23 years before Hamlets return from the university and Hamlet played with Yorick when he, Hamlet, was a young child. Hamlet says, Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatioa fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on is back a thousand times . . . (Harrison, n.d.) Also in Act 5, Scene I, the audience hears the gravedigger's remark that he began his job 30 years ago on that very day that Hamlet was born." (Harrison, n.d.) Obviously then, Hamlet is not an adolescent but, instead, a grown man of 30; and at this age people are expected to demonstrate at least a measure of maturity and the sense of responsibility that accompanies adulthood. Hamlet, however, fails to demonstrate either. Hamlet is incapable of rising above his grief and focusing on anything except revenge for his father's death. He is also obsessed with his mothers remarriage to Claudius, now King of Denmark, and longs to return to the days when his parents were still together. This nostalgia, however, is not so much the result of any desire to see his father alive again as it is Hamlets longing to return to a time when the world, at least for him, did not simply seem goodbut was good. In the end, because of his refusal to grow up and act like a man, Hamlet remains entirely focused on his own needs and wants and, therefore, experiences no remorse whatsoever for his role in Ophelias madness and suicide. Nor does he experience any regret for the reckless slaying of her father. Only at the moment of his death does Hamlet realize that when one acts, one opens oneself to judgment that is sometimes unfair but also sometimes justified; and it is only with this realization that, perhaps, Hamlet at last achieves a measure of maturity. Of course, he achieves it too late to change the outcome, which is tragedy for almost everyone involved in Shakespeares Hamlet.

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Websters dictionary defines tragedy as, a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (such as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that excites pity or terror. A tragic hero, therefore, is the character who experiences such a conflict and suffers catastrophically as a result of his choices and related actions. The character of Hamlet, therefore, is a clear representation of Shakespeares tragic hero. As the plays tragic hero, Hamlet exhibits a combination of good and bad traits. A complex character, he displays a variety of characteristics throughout the plays development. When he is first introduced in Act I- Scene 2 ( Thurber 1897. ), one sees Hamlet as a sensitive young prince who is mourning the death of his father, the King. In addition, his mothers immediate marriage to his uncle has left him in even greater despair. Mixed in with this immense sense of grief, are obvious feelings of anger and frustration. The combination of these emotions leaves one feeling sympathetic to Hamlet; he becomes a very human character. One sees from the very beginning that he is a very complex and conflicted man, and that his tragedy has already begun. Hamlets anger and grief- primarily stemming from his mothers marriage to Claudius- brings him to thoughts of suicide, which only subside as a result of it being a mortal and religious sin. The fact that he wants to take his own life demonstrates a weakness in his character; a sense of cowarness, his decision not to kill himself because of religious beliefs shows that this weakness is balanced with some sense of morality. Such an obvious paradox is only one example of the inner conflict and turmoil that will eventually lead to Hamlets downfall. In addition to this internal struggle, Hamlet feels it is his duty to dethrone Claudius and become the King of Denmark. This revenge, he believes, would settle the score for his mothers incestuous relationship and would reinstate his familys honor. These thoughts are solidified in Act I, Scene 5 ( Thurber 1897. ),, when his fathers ghost appears and informs Hamlet that is was Claudius who murdered him, and that Claudius deprived him of life, of crown, and queen (line 75). This information leads to Hamlets promise to kill Claudius, while not punishing his mother for their incestuous marriage. His statement, thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain (lines 102-103), demonstrates his adamant decision to let nothing stand in the way of his promise for revenge. This vow can be labeled as Hamlets tragic decision, and sets into motion the beginning of his downfall. Now that Hamlet has made his promise, one begins to see how the events unfolding around him occur as a result of other characters actions. The opening of Act III, for example, shows all of the characters linked to Hamlet working against him. Ophelia meets with him so Claudius and her father can spy on him and observe his mental state; his mother, Gertrude, agrees to talk with him so Claudius can continue his watch; and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pledge allegiance to Claudius and agree to observe (spy on) Hamlet. Slowly, everyone Hamlet had been able to trust and rely upon has begun lying and deceiving him. In contrast to these occurrences, Hamlets soliloquy, To be, or not to be, shows him contemplating the idea of loyalty, acting upon ones morals and their relation to fighting against the challenges of evil. As the tragic hero, one sees Hamlets constant dedication to
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maintaining a set of moral standards (which is in great contrast to the actions of the other characters). By this point in the play, Hamlet has become well aware of the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying for Claudius. This knowledge allows him to manipulate the situation and provide Claudius with false information. He is also suspicious that Ophelias interest in him is not genuine. As for his mother, Hamlet is cautious, but remembers his promise to the Ghost. As Act III progresses, one sees Claudiuss plot against Hamlet continue, while Hamlet appears to procrastinate about seeking his revenge. This reinforces Hamlets tragic character flaw; his repeated inner conflicts about loyalty, mankind, life and death have usurped his time and kept him from focusing on what he vowed to do early in the opening act. He knows that no one is truly on his side, yet he uses every opportunity to promote his false mental illness instead of searching for the fastest way to avenge his fathers murder and his mothers marriage. This fact is best illustrated in Act III, Scene 3, when Hamlet sees Claudius contemplating his brothers murder and whether or not he could ever receive penance. Instead of taking the opportunity to kill him, Hamlet chooses to wait. Since his father was murdered without being able to cleanse himself of his sins, he believes that Claudius must die in a state of sin as well. As Hamlet alternates between his examinations of morality, pretending to be mentally ill, searching for the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, Claudius has successfully manipulated the other characters onto his side. The combination of Hamlets procrastination and Claudiuss need for power is pushing Hamlet, as well as the play closer and closer to its tragic ending. Act III, Scene 4 begins the spiral of tragedy for the plays main characters. With Polonius hiding behind a curtain as Hamlet meets with his mother, her fear causes her to cry out for help. Hamlet reacts by drawing his sword and stabbing it at the curtain. Hoping it is Claudius, he pulls the curtain back to reveal Polonius. The first of the Kings supporters (and thus Hamlets enemies) is dead. He begins criticizing Gertrude, and is suddenly interrupted by the Ghosts appearance. Hamlet, remembering his promise not to hurt his mother, informs her of Claudiuss plan and how he will seek revenge. This scene exemplifies how Hamlets actions are dictated not by his own choices, but by the actions of the other characters. One almost seems to feel that although Hamlet is acting in a vindictive manner, he remains a constant victim of circumstance. When Claudius learns of Poloniuss murder, he sets into action his plan to get rid of Hamlet once and for all; he is to be beheaded upon arriving in England. When Hamlet learns of this plan, he falsifies new instructions ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed instead. The fates of two more of Hamlets enemies are sealed. Meanwhile Ophelia (a pawn in all of this), is overcome with sadness over her fathers death, and has drowned. Although it is not stated, one infers that she has committed suicide. She is the fourth of Hamlets adversaries to die. When Claudius learns that Hamlet is returning to Denmark, he devises a new plan for killing Hamlet. Ophelias brother, Laertes, will fight him in a fencing match. Hamlet will either die by the unblunted tip on Laertess sword, or by the poisoned wine he will be offered following the match. When Hamlet returns, he accepts the challenge. During the match however, he and Laertes end up getting stabbed by the sharpened sword. At the same time, Gertrude sips
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from the poisoned cup. Just before she dies, she announces that she has been poisoned. Laertes then announces that both he and Hamlet are near death from the sword stabbing, and that Claudius is the one who instrumented the entire situation. Hamlet then stabs Claudius, who dies as his sins are announced to all of the onlookers. After Hamlet and Laertes die, Fortenbras enters from battle and learns of all that has taken place. Upon hearing the entire story, he makes sure that Hamlet receives full honors in death. This scene (Act V, Scene2) ( Thurber 1897. ), represents the climax of the play and seals the fates of all remaining characters, including Hamlet, a tragic hero. Hamlet, although a complex and unique character, clearly represents the tragic hero. As is the plays protagonist, he evokes sympathy from the audience/reader from the opening scene. His tragic flaw was twofold: he was adamant about avenging his fathers murder and his mothers incestuous marriage; his desire caused him to became so enveloped in his inner conflicts, he allowed the actions of other characters to dictate his fate. Also, Hamlets suffering seemed very authentic; it became stronger as it mixed with his growing determination to seek revenge upon Claudius. Finally, as one watches his tragic downfall spiral towards its conclusion, one cannot help but wish that Hamlet could have lived and become King of Denmark.

Is Hamlet a tragic hero? In many senses, Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero. Not only does he begin with the noblest motivations (to punish his fathers murderer) but by the end, his situation is do dire that the only plausible final act should be his death. Like the classical tragic hero, Hamlet does not survive to see the full outcome of his actions and more importantly, this is because he possesses a tragic flaw. While there are a number of flaws inherent to his character, it is Hamlets intense identification with and understanding of the power of words and language that ultimately bring about his requisite tragic ending. Hamlets deep connection with language and words causes him to base his perceptions of reality on his interpretation and understanding of words and he allows himself to become overwrought with creating meaning. As this thesis statement for Hamlet suggests, eventually, his own words and philosophical internal banter are his end since being a highly verbose and introspective man, this is both one of his greatest gifts as well as his tragic flaw. Hamlet fits several into several of the defining traits of a tragic hero in literature, particularly in terms of how he possesses a tragic flaw. The fact that Hamlets best trait is also his downfall (his tragic flaw, in other words) makes him a prime candidate for a tragic hero and in fact, makes him one of the most tragic figures in the works of Shakespeare in general. More specifically, what makes Hamlet even more of a tragic hero is that his actions and tragic flaw is not his fault. He is an introspective character and in a normal situation, this might not be a problem. However, being part of the royal family makes him prone to negative and stressful situations and thus his engagement with words to level in which he is almost crippled is absolutely tragic, even if it is not because of anything he had overtly done. For Hamlet, the power of language and words are the key to both the driving action of the play as well its outcome as all characters have somehow been affected by poisoned words. In many senses, each characters sense of reality has been created and shaped because of their relationship to language and words, often to tragic ends and for this reason, it becomes clear
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that his fascination with language is part of his tragic flaw as a character. The reader of this play by Shakespeare is offered some degree of foreshadowing when the ghost of Hamlets father states, in one of the important quotes from Hamletthat Claudius has poisoned the whole ear of Denmark with his words. Although the reader is not aware of it yet, words will drive the action of the play. For instance, it is not necessarily Hamlets actions toward Ophelia that are part of what drives her to suicide, but his words. He, like other men in the play, scolds her like a child, telling her she should enter a nunnery instead of becoming a breeder of sinners (III.i.122-123). While he may have simply ignored her or shunned her in a more physical manner, instead he uses the power of words to act as daggers. Unlike many of the other characters in the play, Hamlet understands fully his skill with words and language and he uses this, above all, to achieve his ends. His exchanges with Ophelia are just one example of his use of language to lead toward a desired result. For example, it is not simply his reaction to his mother that drives that their relationship, but his skillful use of words and language. At one point, Hamlet recognizes his power with words and tells the audience, as if recognizing this to be his tragic flaw I will speak daggers to her, but use none (III.ii.366). The idea that words are equal with daggers is a central idea in this text and it is also noticeable how Hamlets belief in the power of language makes others believe it as well, especially those who are full of words, but who speak only hollow vapid sentences such as Polonius or Claudius, who actually makes the statement while praying that my words fly up, my thoughts remain below (II.iii.96). The idea expressed here is that he is always speaking but is not using language to his benefiteven when it is in supplication to God. The characters in Hamlet by Shakespeare who are not as adept at weaving reality through language are not as sharp as Hamlet and as the play continues, one notices that the power of words is truly equivalent to that of the dagger. Unfortunately, Hamlets use of language does not always benefit him in this play by Shakespeare. Due to his brooding and introspective nature, he often wrangles with language to help him understand a reality where he has little control. Hamlets famous to be or not to be soliloquy questions the righteousness of life over death in moral terms and discusses the many possible reasons for either living or dying. Despite this more concrete meaning to the passage in Shakespeares play Hamlet, it is important to note that the words themselves hold a great deal of meaning for Hamlet. Instead of taking words at face value, he picks apart the meaning of them and tries to make logical sense out of both the words alone as well as their implied meanings. The concept of death and suicide was not enough within itself to contend with, but the situation is further complicated for Hamlet because of the many possible ways of constructing his feelings based on language and the interpretation of words. When Hamlet utters the pained question in one of the important quotes from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, 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 (III.i.59-61) (click here for a full analysis of this speech) there is little doubt that he is thinking of death. Although he attempts to pose such a question in a rational and logical way, he is still left without an answer of whether the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can be borne out since life after death is so uncertain.

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1. Abrams, M., ed. (1986) The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Fifth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2. Epstein, N. (1993) The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard. New York. Penguin Books. 3. Harrison, G. B., ed. (n.d) Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 4. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Copyright 1897 by Samuel Thurber


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