The Tragedy of Plot Twist: The King of Denmark

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quite obviously a tragedy, and as such, there must be a tragic hero. Tragedies have always been an important part of Western storytelling, and tragic heroes span the literary distance from Achilles to Anakin Skywalker. The tragedy was considered the highest art form in Ancient Greece, and the tragic hero was a riveting character that the audience could sympathize with and aspire to, but who was also doomed to fall. Aristotle identified six main characteristics of a tragic hero: hubris, an excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order; nemesis, a punishment or fate the tragic hero can’t avoid; hamartia, a flaw that causes the hero’s downfall; peripeteia, a reversal of fate; anagnorisis, the moment in time when the hero makes an important discovery in the story; and catharsis, the compassion or pity the audience feels toward the hero. While it is commonly assumed that Hamlet is the tragic hero of Hamlet, he does not possess all of these characteristics. However, Claudius, the antagonist of the story, does. He is what one could call virtuous, but not eminently good - he possesses admirable traits, and was evidently honourable enough that he managed to be voted monarch instead of Hamlet. However, he has a fatal flaw - deceitfulness - and this, his hubris, and his inescapable death by Hamlet’s hand point to his being the tragic hero of Hamlet.

Claudius consistently shows disrespect for the natural order throughout the entire play. He first kills the old Hamlet, who was not only his king, but also his brother. He put his personal ambitions over the sacred bond of family, and the political bond of king and citizen. He then married his sister-in-law, Gertrude, scarcely two months after his brother’s death. He also usurped the throne, which ought to have gone to Hamlet, as he was fully capable of ruling Denmark and was the previous king’s son. He was willing to sacrifice the very stability of his country for to fulfill his own desires, and he paid no heed to his country’s tradition, his due loyalties, or the proper behavior expected of him. His pride - his hubris, to use Aristotle’s definition - is evident in these actions.

Throughout the play Claudius is shown being more and more deceitful and treacherous. What started as a simple murder - not premeditated, as far as we know - turns into intricate schemes, manipulations, and vicariously attempting murder through various members of the court. The fact that he murdered his brother and married his sister-in-law is enough to condemn him, but he did not stop there. In order to secure his position, he used Ophelia to spy on Hamlet, effectively destroying their relationship, and,  in the long run, contributing to her eventual death. He also ensures the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he was using to try to kill Hamlet. He constantly deceives, manipulates, and uses everyone around him like simple tools, without conscience, to benefit himself.

By the third act Claudius is aware that Hamlet knows he murdered the king, and tries to take steps to prevent Hamlet killing him. He has a perfect plot to ensure Hamlet’s death, but he manages to foil it and return to Denmark to kill him. Claudius again tries to escape his death by conspiring with Laertes to kill Hamlet through fowl play - and once again, by mere chance, Hamlet escapes death and finally kills Claudius. Claudius has no control over his own fate, and he cannot stop his ultimate demise.

Claudius also fulfills the other three characteristics of a tragic hero. His fate is reversed when Hamlet slips out of his clever scheme and returns to Denmark with a new-found confidence in providence. He makes an important discovery - or perhaps, he discovers that his suspicions were correct - when the play Hamlet set up to guilt-trip him confirms Hamlet’s knowledge of his ill deed. In Act III, his despair and inability to fully repent of his crime and his sin shows us his broken humanity in a way that is deeply tragic. He is not a monster; he is a fallen man, just as we are.

Hamlet cannot be the tragic hero, even though his story is deeply tragic, because he lacks a fatal flaw and even has an off-screen redemption arc that allows him to finally put his indecision aside and fulfill his destiny. He starts off in the lowest place he could be - mourning his father alone, unable to trust his mother, whom he feel has betrayed him and his father. He knows that something is deeply wrong in Denmark, and knows that it is his duty and his destiny to remedy it. His indecision does create conflict in the play, but he moves past his “To be or not to be” speech of Act III to a complete trust in God and a tranquility that is astonishing. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, he says in Act V just before his fight with Laertes. In fact, Hamlet’s role in the story is similar to Macduff’s role in Macbeth. He had to right the wrong done by Claudius and restore order to the kingdom of Denmark.

Hamlet is a uniquely Christian tragedy because of this. Hamlet dies, but only after he redeems himself and fulfills his destiny. The villain is defeated at the end of the day, and Denmark itself is saved. There is murder and betrayal and death, but in the end order is restored.