Hamlet is Not a Tragedy
In labeling Hamlet a tragedy, critics portray the protagonist as a melancholy philosopher whose tragic flaw is his failure to turn thoughts into actions. Shakespeare loaded the play with uncertainties, however, and among them is whether Hamlet is a tragic hero. Whereas the traditional tragic hero is a great man who suffers a pitiful downfall because of a glaring flaw in his personality, Hamlet begins the play with nothing and leaves with everything. Though his need for absolute certainty before taking action is an encumbrance, it neither foils him nor directly causes his death. Hamlet is not a tragic hero; he is one of the “winners” of the play because he achieves all his goals: he fulfills his father’s requests to send Claudius to hell and leave Gertrude alone, commissions someone to tell his story, leaves the kingdom in capable hands, and dies.
The central conflict of the play is Hamlet’s quest to kill Claudius. Even before the young prince suspects his uncle of murder, Hamlet detests the man for helping his mother “post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (I.ii.156-157) and makes it clear that he stays in Denmark only because his mother requests it (I.ii.118-119). After Old Hamlet tells his son that “If thou didst ever thy dear father love / … / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.23-25), Hamlet pledges that executing this deed will become the top priority of his life (I.v.92-104). He makes Horatio and Marcellus swear to silence, directions the ghost agrees with and which they follow perfectly (I.v.142-186). An interesting caveat of the Ghost’s directions is his instruction to Hamlet to keep Gertrude alone: “Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (I.v.86-88). By showing this mercy to his wife, the Ghost implies that he wants Claudius to suffer for his sins in hell; Hamlet remembers this when he finds Claudius praying in the chapel and spares his life rather than “take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage” (III.iii.85-86). Though usually interpreted as weakness by Hamlet and the turning point of the play, this action reflects Hamlet’s desire to follow the full letter of his father’s demands. He mistakenly kills Polonius because he thinks the figure behind the curtain is Claudius (III.iv.25-33). After receiving a visit from the Ghost to accelerate the process of murder (III.iv.110-116), Hamlet reaffirms his motivation (IV.iv.32-66) and finally kills Claudius in one of his last acts before dying (V.ii.310-316). At this time, Hamlet finally fulfills this favor for his father and receives closure with his family.
Hamlet also honors his father’s secondary requests to care for Gertrude (I.v.84-88; III.iv.113-116). Though he resents abuses his mother, it is because of his shame for her indiscretions and his desire to show her the truth (I.ii.137-157, III.iv.54-101). Gertrude is shocked into change by his actions: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct” (III.iv.90-92). She henceforth takes the Hamlets’ side in the blood feud, unfortunately resulting in her death (III.iv.182-210; III.v.22-27; V.ii.276-282, 297-301). Our protagonist does not like his mother, but he follows his father’s wishes and cares for her until the end (V.ii.300-301, 314-316).
Artists, like all men, are concerned with leaving a legacy to benefit future generations. Hamlet, an aspiring thespian and poet, leaves a spectacular one when he commissions Horatio to tell the tale of Denmark to the world (V.ii.331-338). Though he makes other attempts to contribute to humanity, such as scribbling “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” on a rock (I.v.107-9) and instructing the players in proper acting (III.ii.1-43), but these pale in comparison to the this tale, one “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads” (V.ii.370-374). Almost immediately after Hamlet’s death, Horatio receives the opportunity to tell the story to Fortinbras and the other nobles (V.ii.364-384). Hamlet’s story will give wisdom to the new leaders of Denmark and the world; thus, the prince contributes to humanity even after his death.
By electing Fortinbras the next king of Denmark, Hamlet ensures the continued viability of his nation (V.ii.343-347). Though young Hamlet is never crowned king, he never laments this slight, seeming more interested in the health and reputation of his country than in doing the work to defend it; like Claudius, Hamlet allows Fortinbras to march an entire army through his country (II.ii.77-85; IV.iv.1-30). The prince shows concern for national prestige in his critique of the Danish bedtime drinking ritual (I.iv.13-38). Claudius misrules Denmark through his statecraft; the nation becomes so weak it hires Italian mercenaries (I.i.1-2), cannot stop Laertes and his mob from storming the throne room (IV.v.98-112), and falls to Norway while its most powerful governmental officials are killing each other in a worthless duel (V.ii.349-351). Fortinbras is a stark contrast: he is man of action who successfully revenges his father and a wise man who wants everyone to hear Hamlet’s tale (V.ii.375-376). He also has family rights to legitimize his rule (I.i.79-107; V.ii.378-379). Fortinbras is a wise choice by Hamlet for king of the Danes.
Critics cite Hamlet’s death as the most damning proof of his tragic downfall, but since he wishes for death throughout the play, this last act is actually a success (V.ii.345-347). That he is willing to devote his entire existence to killing his uncle reveals how little Hamlet, Son of Hamlet, values life (I.v.92-104; IV.iv.32-66). He contemplates suicide from his very first soliloquy: “O 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” (I.ii.129-132). He has “lost all [his] mirth” and considers Denmark a prison and himself “a king of infinite space” (II.ii.243-252, 292-299). In his famous “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet asserts that life is sheer suffering, and man only bears it because he knows not what lies beyond (III.i.56-88). Hamlet sees death as “the undiscovered country” where all his questions will be answered and all men become equals (III.i.79; V.i.91-104, 170-183, 194-208). By the play’s end, he is fully ready for death: “There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not / to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not / now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man / of aught he leaves knows, what isn’t to leave betimes? Let / be” (V.ii.197-212). Death solidifies Hamlet’s peace with himself and his place in the world.
To most men, death is failure; to Hamlet, it is freedom. After Laertes poisons Hamlet and makes certain his destiny (V.ii.290-291), the prince accomplishes every one of his goals: he kills Claudius, gives wishes of love to his mother, passes on an inheritance of wisdom to the future, establishes a good leader as king of the country, and even wins the duel with Laertes (V.ii.300-302). With all his responsibilities fulfilled in life, Hamlet satisfies his ultimate commitment: dying. Hamlet’s life ends at its very peak. His actions are neither perfectly planned nor performed, but this inefficiency is what makes him realistic. Hamlet is not a tragedy; it is a recounting of the struggles and successes of a single man. The Prince of Denmark is neither an arch-knight nor a tragic hero; he is a human being doing his duty as best he can.