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.

Hamlet: Changed in Providence

From the moment we first meet Hamlet until he leaves for England, he is trapped between will and action. But when he returns to Denmark in Act V he is a changed man: still serious, yet far less melancholy and far more at peace. Even his letter to Horatio in the end of Act IV reveals a different Hamlet from the one we met in the beginning of the play. How is this? What changed him?

All Hamlet does in the first four acts is mope around pondering what he should do: should he kill Claudius, was his father’s ghost really a demon, or should he live or escape all the pain in the endless sleep that is death? When ever he actually does do something, it does not go as planned.

After his encounter with his father’s ghost, Hamlet is certain it is his duty to execute the culprit behind his father’s death, Claudius. But still Hamlet can’t shake the feeling that he might be wrong about the ghost. What if the ghost wasn’t his father, but really a demon? This question haunts him, and so, he comes up with a plan to see If his uncle truly is a murderer: a play depicting the events of his father’s death as told to him by the spirit. The play is a success - Claudius flees the scene. He knows he’s been found out. Hamlet follows him back to his chambers, where he is praying, and is ready to strike him down before thinks to himself

“Now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do ’t. And so he goes to heaven. And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned. A villain kills my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven. Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.77-83)

Hamlet’s soul remains conflicted. Boiling with hatred, Hamlet rushes to his mother’s room to confront her. Polonius is there too and hides behind a curtain as to eavesdrop on what the “troubled child” will say. In a fit of rage, Hamlet accuses his mother and threatens her, frightening her so that she cries for help. Hearing this, Polonius does the same, and Hamlet, thinking it is his uncle behind the curtain, recklessly thrusts his sword into Polonius, killing him. When Claudius is told what happened, his is outraged, and even more so when Hamlet hides the body and refuses to tell where it is hidden. Claudius then sends Hamlet off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with the intent of Hamlet never returning. Hamlet has just about given up when just before they set sail, Hamlet is consulted by a Fortinbras captain. The captain tells Hamlet that they are on their way to invade a small portion of Poland worth almost nothing. Hamlet knows that this small disagreement will lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Hamlet now knows he’s wasted enough time and must act on his revenge.

“How all occasions do inform against me, And spur my dull revenge! What is a man If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” (4.4.31-34)

Hamlet knows he has the will and ability to do what he must, but whether it be sheer cowardice or from thinking to much, he won’t allow it to stop him any longer.

Hamlet is determined to confront his uncle when he returns from England but is strangely attacked by pirates. In this scuffle, he discovers two things: one, a letter from his uncle detailing Hamlet’s murder (the perfect piece of evidence to convict his uncle), and two, he is no longer on his ship and surrounded by pirates. But by the grace of God, they treat him quite well, in return for a favor to which Hamlet agrees. It is in his letter to Horatio that there seems to be something cheerier about Hamlet. We see this more when he and Horatio meet the grave digger as they almost flippantly discuss a very grave matter.

Hamlet: Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Gravedigger: mine, sir. [sings]
Hamlet: I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in ‘t.
Gravedigger: You lie out on ‘t, sir, and therefore ‘tis not yours. For my part, I do not lie in ‘t, yet it is mine.

They banter on until Hamlet discovers the identity of the owner of the grave - his beloved Ophelia. The death of her father has driven her mad to the point that she had drowned herself. Hamlet is heart-broken, realizing he had caused this with his uncertainty and burst of foolish rage. Laertes is infuriated that Hamlet would dare show his face at Ophelia’s funeral after what he did to her, telling her he never loved her, that she should be sent to a nunnery, and killing her father. Laertes charges Hamlet rightfully accusing him for the lost of Ophelia. When separated, Hamlet tell them he he intended not for this but that he truly loved her.

“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.285-286)

Hamlet never meant to hurt Ophelia and must face the consequences of his thoughtless actions. He and Horatio move on to discuss the events that took place whilst he was away and how he managed to survive.

Hamlet almost didn’t believe it himself when it happened. In the middle of a pirate attack he stumbled upon the letters to the King of England containing instructions from his uncle to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet took the original letter and quickly wrote a new letter to the king ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed, and sealed it with his father’s signet that he just so happened to have in his purse. During the orchestra of yelling, cannon and gun fire, Hamlet boarded the enemy vessel only to then realize that his ship had escaped the mess and left him to the pirates. The pirates realized who they had just captured decided rather to ask for a favor and return him home on the account of his current family situation. Hamlet realizes none of what had just happened was by chance. (“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” 5.2.11) Hamlet knows that if it is God’s will for him to enact revenge upon Claudius then it will happen. If Hamlet is to die today, he will; and if not, then he will die some other time.

“There is a 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 is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.” (5.2.233-238)

Hamlet tells Horatio this just before he faces Laertes in a duel - a duel that is Claudius’s final attempt to kill Hamlet. Hamlet has come to grips with providence and lets go of the reigns, knowing that God is in control. With in a hundred lines, everyone is dead; Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes. Horatio is the only one left. Horns blare as Fortinbras arrives, expecting to take back what is rightfully his by force, only to be told by Horatio of the tragic and heroic scene has just taken place. Fortinbras is astounded by the events, but orders that Hamlet be given an honourable burial.

“Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proven most royal; and for his passage, the soldier’s music and the rite of war speak loudly for him.” (5.2.441-446)

Fortinbras knew Hamlet has overcome a battle not many men face and yet managed to come out victorious, having restored justice and peace to Denmark. Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father, and also pays the price for killing Polonius. In the end all, was made right.