Hamlet: The Element of a Tragedy
In 350 B.C.E., a great philosopher, wrote out what he thought was the definition of a tragedy. As translated by S.H. Butcher, Aristotle wrote; “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its qualitynamely, Plot, Characters, Thought, Diction, Spectacle, Melody. (http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html)” Later in history, William Shakespeare wrote tragedies that epitomized Aristotle’s outline of a tragedy. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one such tragedy.
The first part, the plot is the most important of all the pieces, according to Aristotle. Aristotle said that the plot wasn’t nessesarily the story itself, but the way the story was presented, the “arrangement of incidents”. (http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html) The typical explanation of plot is in the form of “Freytag’s Pyramid”. Basically, the pyramid has a beginning, or the incentive; then it goes into the rising action; then on to the climax; then the denouement or falling action; and finally the resolution. The plot in Hamlet is arranged so that the ending is tragic, each person in the play playing a pivotal role in one another’s demise. Hamlet begins with the death of Hamlet’s father and the marriage of Gertrude, his mother to Cladius, his uncle. The plot rises as Hamlet decides that his uncle had killed his father to become king. Hamlet begins to act insane, causing his love, Ophelia to comit suicide. The play finally reaches the climax when Hamlet finally succeeds in killing Claudius, and ends with the death of Hamlet and the restoration of order.
The second most important part of a tragedy is Character. Characters actually play a secondary role to the plot in the “perfect” tragedy. The actions of the characters make them responsible for their fate, not a higher power. There should be a protagonist and a tragic hero. Tragic heroes are also exceptional beings; Hamlet was very intellectual, giving him a brilliant mind and a quick wit. The tragic hero is the main character of the play and has cetain characteristics. One main trait is that the tragic hero has a tragic flaw. In Hamlet’s case his flaw was his brilliant mind, the tendency to dwell on things and procrastinate. Procrastination caused Hamlet’s downfall because out of the many opportunities he had to kill his uncle, he waited until he was fatally wounded before killing Claudius. He also had the unhealthy problem of obsessing over killing Claudius. He wanted to make sure the time was right. In Shakespearean tragedies, the hero doesn’t necessarily have to be “good”, though they generally are, but they are never small or contemptible. The heroes illustrate a sense of waste, for example, in the end of Hamlet, most people feel like his death was unncessesary; that if he had only killed his uncle sooner, Hamlet, his mother, and others would not have died.
Aristotle was brief with his third point, Thought. Thought is how the characters should reveal themselves in their speeches. Shakespeare used very rich descriptions and words with his characters. In his famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet is wrestling the idea of killing his uncle, not about suicide like most people think.
“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,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep–
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to–’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished: to die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”(III,i,57-70 )
This small category could also stretch to include the theme of the play. In the play, Hamlet, one of the most evident themes is that of revenge.
The fourth point of a tragedy is Diction. Diction is the choice of words in speech or in writing. Aristotle is interested in metaphors: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor; . . . it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”(http://www.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html). In a particular conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act III, Scene 2, once can interpret that Hamlet is saying that survival in a society required the playing of a musical tune; playing according to the rules and guidelines that are acceptable to society. Shakespeare is known for his way with words. His use of clever metaphors and puns make Hamlet a well-crafted work.
Aristotle’s fifth point was that of Melody. The Chorus should “be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action”. In Shakespeare’s works there is often singing in the beginning, or interludes during the performance.
The sixth and least important in Aristotle’s point of view is that of Spectacle, or costumes and props. This is the least important because Aristotle believes that the plot will overcome all the rest. Although Aristotle recognizes the emotional attraction of spectacle, he argues that superior poets rely on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle to arouse pity and fear; those who rely heavily on spectacle “create a sense, not of the terrible, but only of the monstrous”(http://www.cnr.edu/home/).
Shakespeare followed Aristotle’s guidelines to a perfect tragedy to the letter. Each and every one of the points is represented in Hamlet as well as his other tragedies. Through his rich use of language and plot, Aristotle’s guidelines were revived and will live immortally through Shakepeare’s works.