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The Tragic Sense of Hamlet

Valentin A. Videnov

Introduction. Hamlet is unquestionably a tragedy. Within the confines of

that assertion, however, there is still room for considerable debate. One could ask
what tragedy is, how Hamlet fits into the tragic field, and thus what kind of
tragedy it is. This last might indeed be suggested as the only way of meaningfully
addressing the question what Hamlet is or what happens in it. T. S. Eliot makes
such a suggestion when in the beginning of his brief essay on the play he writes:

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to
interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to
other works of art. (Eliot 1996:3)

Considering Hamlet as a tragedy is certainly a possible way to explore its essence.

As Eliot’s words imply, it ultimately involves judgement, culminates in
pronouncing the play a good or a bad tragedy after having brought it up against
the standards. Now there is a set of standards for a proper tragedy that is
sometimes considered authoritative, the one found in Aristotle’s Poetics. 1
Although Eliot never mentions it in his essay, I propose to reveal his criticism of
Hamlet to tacitly adopt the ancient philosopher’s requirements for a tragic work,
which the play apparently fails in a fundamental way to meet.

Discussion. The formal constituent elements of a tragedy that Aristotle

outlines are certainly present in Hamlet, at least the ones that were still relevant,
i.e. all listed in 1450a9-10 but the melopoiïa of the chorus. The elements of
mythos, “the soul of tragedy” (1450a22), are also exhaustively present. There is
much pathos, which accumulates and becomes more physical, more explicit, as
the play progresses, to reach the crescendo of the “feast” of “proud death” (lines
347-8) in the last scene. 2 Anagnōrisis and peripeteia, the two chief elements of a
complex plot according to Aristotle (1452a16-17), are actually what the entire

Cf. Halliwell 1995:4, who talks about the “canonical . . . authority” of the book and,
further, of it being “a conspicuous point of reference” (p. 20). All references to and quotations of
Aristotle’s text follow Aristotle 1995, the loci being identified by standard Bekker numbers; the
Greek is given in Roman transliteration, the translations are mine.
All references to and quotations from Hamlet follow Shakespeare 1905, the loci being
identified by act, scene, line(s) as appropriate.

play turns around. Discovery puts Hamlet into the position of having to do
something about the state of things, but he doubts the information he has received,
wants to confirm it, to complete his discovery. The king also tests his suspicions
in various ways in order to discover whether Hamlet’s madness poses a threat to
him; and, lastly, Laertes, in act four, comes storming in to discover more about
what he already knows of, his father’s death. It is Hamlet’s task to bring about a
reversal by abolishing the caricature of a king that has succeeded his god-like
father on the throne, but his killing of Claudius is suspended after act three, scene
three until the very end. The rash killing of Polonius does bring about an
immediate reversal—Hamlet is sent away and Ophelia is plunged into lethal
sorrow; and discovery and reversal are combined when Hamlet manages to escape
the death he is carried to on board the ship. Except for the last case, then,
discovery and reversal are more than single pragmata in Hamlet, they are rather
themes that run through large sections of the play, but that makes them all the
more present. If there is too much desis in the second part of Hamlet, where the
lysis should occur (cf. Poetics, 1455b24), for instance all that Ophelia, alive and
dead, is involved in, this is the only formal departure from Aristotle’s guidelines
that the play features.
Concerning the unity of the plot, there is room for argument. The play is
centered around the idea of revenge, and what happens to Hamlet when he is
confronted with its necessity, including the way his relationship with Ophelia is
affected. Certain scenes are admittedly outside this circumference, but to call
them “superfluous and inconsistent,” as Eliot does (p. 5), without attempting to
first see what is going on in the play apart from its relation to the tragic, is itself
rather superficial. (To say only a couple of words here, the Polonius-Laertes
exchange is a direct extension of the one between Laertes and Ophelia, where the
adviser gets himself advised by a more experienced practitioner of the art of
safely getting through life, and the Polonius-Reynaldo scene strongly emphasizes
the theme of spying, which at that point in the play is becoming very important.
But to state that Shakespeare worked hard and long on the play and still “left in it .
. . scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed” [Eliot 1996:5] makes
little sense even if one does not find excuse for the scenes to counter it.) It is best
to consider such troublesome scenes as adding to the complexity of the play, as
further complications “tying” the plot to produce a general feeling of

entanglement in the audience, which the sudden resolution fails fully to cancel.
With Hamlet possessing all the other merē tragōdias that Aristotle describes and
hence being readily identifiable as a tragedy, this aspect of the play, the
discomfort due to a shifted complication/resolution balance, points to its non-
conformity with the more essential characteristics of the tragic that the
philosopher assumes in his treatise.
Aristotle states the horon tēs ousias of a tragedy in Chapter 6 (1449b23-
28), and there, at the very end of the definitive sentence, the key word katharsis
appears for the first and last time in the whole book.

Tragedy is then an imitation of an action worthy of being seriously

considered . . . , which through fear and pity accomplishes the cleansing
of these passions.

The phrase “tēn tōn toioutōn pathēmatōn katharsin” can be read in two ways
depending on the interpretation of the genitive: it can be treated as a predication
turned into a phrase, where the passions are still the object of the cleansing, i.e.
the direction is from the cleansing to the passions—“the cleansing [away] of these
passions”; or, it can be treated as an attribution of the cleansing as belonging to
the passions, with the reversal of direction within the phrase that involves, now
from the passions to the cleansing—“the cleansing [effect] of these passions.” The
latter reading, although it goes against the tradition of translating and interpreting
this passage, 3 makes more sense to me; it does not make tragedy banish fear and
pity after arousing them, while preserving its wholesome, therapeutic influence on
the soul. Tragedy is a pleasurable experience not only by virtue of its imitative
character (cf. the very important clause in 1448b8, “and all men are delighted with
things imitated”), but also because it produces katharsis. Indeed, I suspect that
this word gets substituted with “pleasure” in 1453b11-12, where the other
essential concepts from the definition reappear and the pleasure that properly
belongs to tragedy is said to be “tēn apo eleou kai fobou dia mimēseōs hēdonēn.”
Thus, the tragic is fully controlled, an instrument in the hands of the poet, directed
towards an audience quite safe from it, its ultimate emotional stability
unassailable in the Aristotelian world, where the good is the proper end of all and
the prudent man the measure of things.

Cf. Bywater’s translation, “with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to
accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Aristotle 1984:2320, italics mine).

The sense one gets from Hamlet is quite the opposite. The first objection
to the play that Eliot makes after calling it a “failure” has to do with its being
“puzzling, and disquieting.” He further remarks on the “unstable condition” of
“workmanship and thought” in it (p. 5). We already noticed the want of release.
There is something in Hamlet that haunts us, “some stuff,” as Eliot appropriately
calls it (p. 6), which resides in the main character; it is gathered around him and in
him, and from him, as from a mirror focusing and reflecting light, it emanates. It
is the situation that Hamlet finds himself in when at the end of act one he exclaims
“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” that
is so disturbing, and it is his utter understanding of his situation that traps him in
it. This understanding that Hamlet has, that Hamlet epitomizes, is contrasted in
the play with the attitude to life that is commonly taken in order to live it, with its
intricate web of pretense and unquestioned assumption, custom—“That monster,
custom, who all sense doth eat,” as Hamlet calls it (III. iv. 158). On behalf of
custom speaks Claudius in act one, hoping to use it to assure his newly acquired
position: “For what we know must be and is as common / As any the most vulgar
thing to sense” (I. ii. 98-9), but Hamlet is even at this point, before he has heard
the ghost, not appeased but disturbed by the appearances, for he sees beyond them
(cf. his first soliloquy, some lines further down). It is dire irony to say that in his
assumed madness he is “So much from the understanding of himself” (II. ii. 9),
but the conflict between Hamlet’s vision and common sense does get resolved
when it is brought to a climax; the “mad” Hamlet’s killing the “wise” Polonius
proclaims the falsity of the latter.
This resolution, however, does not bring release, but rather is more
troubling, for it is precisely Hamlet’s understanding that envelops him “to poison
life and obstruct action.” (Eliot 1996:7) He is caught in it as in an electric current,
and wriggles and foams, but cannot get away. (“The levity of Hamlet, his
repetition of phrase, his puns, are . . . a form of emotional relief,” T. S. Eliot
writes [p. 8].) A new level of understanding cancels the action resolved upon
before, the awareness of all that is involved in a decision cannot fail but give us
pause, and Hamlet’s understanding knows no bounds for its growth, to the point
where he wonders whether the best action might not be to abandon this
“unweeded garden” (I. ii. 135) altogether, but even there it checks him with the
consideration of the dreams that “in that sleep of death . . . may come” (II. i. 66).

Compare this with Laertes, who is so happily devoid of understanding and so
eager to act—in pursuit of exactly what Hamlet cannot bring himself to do for the
entire play, avenging his father's death. Hamlet’s position is painful and that
feeling gets communicated to the audience both directly and through the most
acute suffering in the play, that of Ophelia. Ophelia is the person to whom Hamlet
has a most intimate connection, she remains next to him to bear the effects of his
devastating vision of the world—after his analysis of “Why live?” he runs into
her, his warning of universal corruption is addressed to her, at the end of his
bitterly ironic appraisal of man’s qualities he thinks of her; and like a safety fuse
she blows first. After Ophelia dies, Hamlet becomes himself vulnerable to the
intensity of his situation: consider the absurd speech he delivers in her grave, the
lack of caution with which he falls for Claudius’ scheme.

Conclusion. I would not hesitate to call the sense that Hamlet projects
onto the play tragic. He is the tragic hero par excellence, the one that most readily
comes to mind. But in its effects, Hamlet is vastly departing from Aristotle's
cultured, tame picture of tragedy. The shadow that escapes from the nether world
along with the ghost and gets bound to the young prince is profoundly disturbing
and in no way “healthy.” It is like a bitter wind that assails us shelterless and
makes us shudder. Hamlet is a tragedy new and different from the model of the
ancient philosopher, so different that it ceases to be mimēsis, a representation of
something that we know well and are comfortable with, to become the expression
of a feeling new and alien, which challenges the fortress of our knowledge so
strongly that it creates a sense of danger. (To see how that affects the play as an
artistic organism requires a different kind of inquiry, a reading of the text.) This
feeling that we experience exposed, unprotected by Aristotle’s catharctic
mechanism, may be more “tragic,” in the way the word has come to be used. For
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a modern development, and not necessarily illegitimate,
even according to what Aristotle laid down. At the very beginning of his treatise,
he uses a curious expression to state the mimetic character of poetry: “all [kinds of
poetry] generally happen to be imitations” (1447a15-16)—“pasai tungkhanousin
ousai mimēseis to sunolon.” Now both tungkhanō ōn and the English “happen to
be” are idiomatic expressions and mean simply “be.”(For the Greek cf. Lexicon

1889:823.) But in a fossilized form they nevertheless contain the possibility of a
future alternate development.


Aristotle 1984: Aristotle. Poetics, trans. I. Bywater. The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J.
Barnes. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, v. 2, 2316-2340.

Aristotle 1995: Aristotle. Poetics, ed. and trans. S. Halliwell. Aristotle, Poetics; Longinus, On the
Sublime; Demetrius, On Style. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 27-

Eliot 1996: T. S. Eliot. Hamlet and His Problems. The Sacred Wood; Essays on poetry and
criticism. London: Methuene, [1920]; Bartleby.com. www.bartleby.com/200/ [2005].

Halliwell 1995: S. Halliwell. Introduction to Aristotle 1995, 3-26.

Lexicon 1889: An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, founded upon the seventh edition of
Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, impr. 2000.

Shakespeare 1905: W. Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Complete Works of William
Shakespeare. London [etc.]: Oxford Univ. Press, rpr. 1963, 870-907.

New Bulgarian University—Sofia

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