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 father’s 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 Hamlet’s intense identification with and understanding of the power of words and language that ultimately bring about his requisite tragic ending. Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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 character’s 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 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 Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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 benefit—even 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, Hamlet’s 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. Hamlet’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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.
In the above important passage from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, one must note that Hamlet’s language is poetic, despite a lack of an audience and he is trying to use his rich conception of words to help him gain a kind of divine insight. He wonders about the nature of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like a deep sleep, which seems at first to be acceptable until he speculates on what will come in such a deep sleep. Just when his “sleep” answer begins to appeal him, he stops short and wonders, “To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III.i.68-69). The word “sleep” itself is so full of alternate meanings and various connotations and instead of choosing one, Hamlet must battle the words to gain an understanding of his reality. The “dreams” that he fears are the pains that the afterlife might bring and since there is no way to be positive that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he forced to question death yet again. Hamlet is stuck because of his feelings of morality, but of equal importance, he is stalled because words hold so much power over him. He is an introspective man and the character who most recognizes the power of language as something that can either revive or destroy, depending on how it is interpreted. In other words, through his understanding of words and their associated meanings, Hamlet’s own sense of reality is constructed through his interpretation of words and language.
Overall, the power of language in Hamlet by William Shakespeare has had a direct impact on the tragic outcome of the play. The tragic ending was simply the culmination of the “poison in the ear” and destructive use of language and thinking that follows. For Hamlet, the immense power of language cannot be ignored. Furthermore, it is apparent that the reality, both for the reader and the central characters, is mutable and susceptible to the influence of manipulative words. Words from different characters could act as daggers, both on the reader as well as the characters. For Hamlet, the power of words was at once his greatest downfall as well as his most prized weapon. For this reason, language is Hamlet’s tragic flaw and he is a tragic character, although not because of anything he has purposefully done.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Character Analysis of Hamlet • The Power of Words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello • Perceptions of the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet • Analysis of the “To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy in Hamlet by William Shakespeare