As the 16th century came to a close, Shakespeare began to experiment with tragedy.
On the Elizabethan stage, there were two dominant forms of tragedy: First, the classical tragedy. Derived from the Aristotelian theatrical principles of Ancient Greece, a classical tragedy features a protagonist possessed of a “tragic flaw” which creates a catastrophe in which their fortunes are reversed and their lives are destroyed.
Second, the revenge tragedy. Derived from the Roman plays of the playwright Seneca, revenge tragedies featured secret murders, a ghostly visitation in which the victim demands that their death be avenged, a period of intrigue and deception, and ultimately a bloody finale which would typically decimate the dramatis personae.
Shakespeare’s tragedies are usually viewed primarily through the lens of classical tragedy. This is partly due to early Shakespearean scholarship coinciding with a resurgence of interest in Aristotle’s theatrical philosophy, but it is also an overly simplistic understanding of Shakespeare’s approach to tragedy that often warps and distorts our understanding of the plays.
For example, consider The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. The play long confounded critics because, when they went looking for its tragic hero, they failed to find it in Caesar and were instead forced to find it in the character of Brutus. For example, Charles Gildon wrote in 1710: “This play is called Julius Caesar, though it ought to be called Marcus Brutus; Caesar is the shortest and most inconsiderable part in it, and he is killed in the beginning of the Third Act. But Brutus is plainly the shining and darling character of the Poet; and is to the end of the play the most considerable person.” Tragic heroes aren’t allowed to die halfway through the play; ergo the play wasn’t about Julius Caesar.
But I would argue that the desire to cram the play into a pregurgitated outline is distorting Gildon’s interpretation. As I wrote in the program for our reading of Julius Caesar, the assassination of Caesar is the pivot on which the entire drama turns. And also the seam at which two different plays are welded into a greater whole. The first half of Julius Caesar is structured as classical tragedy: A great man suffers from the tragic flaw of Pride, and this flaw results in his destruction. The second half of Julius Caesar, on the other hand, is a revenge tragedy: Antony seeks revenge for the death of Caesar.
But this isn’t quite true, either: While the latter half may be a revenge tragedy for Antony, it’s also a classical tragedy for Brutus. And while the conspirators may see in the assassination a simple punishment for Caesar’s Pride, there is much in the play to cast doubt on this black-and-white interpretation. Caesar’s destruction comes from a nexus of outward agency rather than from pure self-destruction, creating an interesting variation upon the simplistic classical forms.
And in Hamlet we see Shakespeare continue to experiment with these forms. Here, I would argue, we see a play in which every character is the star of their own classical tragedy… except for Hamlet, who instead stars in a revenge tragedy. But Hamlet also completely subverts the revenge tragedy by insisting on the pursuit of justice instead of unbridled revenge. In the process he emerges as an unflawed hero… who is nevertheless caught in the inescapable web of tragedy woven by the interlocking tragedies of everyone around him.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS
Claudius’ flaw is his ambition for the crown. The character clearly cries out for comparison to Macbeth, and like Macbeth his flaw brings about his death at the hands of revenge. Claudius identifies the flaw himself when he says, “Forgive me my foul murder? That cannot be since I am still possess’d of those effects for which I did the murder: My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.” His murder of Old King Hamlet, of course, sets in motion the entire sequence of tragic events.
Polonius‘ flaw is that of eavesdropping and meddling — a compulsive need to control those around him. Hamlet offers it as a fortune to his corpse (“Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.”) and we see it manifest not only in the occulted schemes which cause hardship throughout the play, but also in his compulsive need to spy upon and control his own children. This, of course, brings about his own death in a quite literal fashion, and it is his death which irrevocably sets Hamlet on a path to his destiny from which he cannot escape.
Laertes‘ flaw is his lust for revenge. Although he has often been held up as the ideal of “what Hamlet should have been”, one can’t help noticing that Laertes is (a) repeatedly wrong; (b) has his over-zealousness endorsed by the villain; and (c) ends up getting everybody killed (including himself).
Ophelia’s flaw is that she shows more obedience to her father than to the man she expects to marry. The importance of Ophelia’s failure is demonstrated through what I refer to as the “Desdemona archetype”: Desdemona in Othello, Cordelia in Lear, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a half dozen other Shakespearean heroines are faced with the choice between loyalty to their fathers and loyalty to their future husbands. And every one of them transfers that loyalty without question (and are lauded for it). Ophelia is confronted with the same choice… and stays loyal to her father. In a figurative sense, therefore, she allows Polonius to murder the love she had for Hamlet; and then Hamlet quite literally murders the love she had for Polonius. In the end, she is broken into madness.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, are destroyed as the result of betraying their friends.
Gertrude, on the other hand, presents an interesting enigma throughout the play. But I suspect that we are meant to view her as unfaithful to her husbands (or, at least, their memories). Note that her unfaithfulness to Claudius at the end of the play (“Gertrude, do not drink.” “I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me.”) directly causes her death.
A HERO WITHOUT FLAW
“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
That’s the tagline he pasted onto the prologue of his 1948 film of the play and it has utterly defined the character for at least three generations.
Of course, Olivier isn’t alone. The search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw has been hot and heavy for a couple centuries how: He’s mad in truth and not in craft. He has an Oedipal love for his mother. He’s secretly a woman dressed in boys’ clothes. All kinds of crazy stuff.
But the indecisiveness seems to have stuck for the most part. The logic goes that he should be like Laertes: Take the Ghost at his word, rush into the throne room, and stab Claudius right through the heart. Since he doesn’t do that, the play is really just a long sequence of adolescent excuses that Hamlet makes up so that he doesn’t have to do his chores.
As I mentioned before, though, I think there’s some real problems with identifying Laertes as the paragon of the play.
And there’s also the effect that “Hamlet the Waffler” has on the performance of the play: It means, quite literally, that nothing happens for more than 80% of the play. This isn’t necessarily a problem. (I’m fairly certain Samuel Beckett made an entire career out of it.) But combined with the Hamlet‘s length, it’s usually disastrous: It takes a long play and turns it into an interminable one.
But if you take Hamlet at his word, then the play becomes a fast-paced battle of wits: Can Hamlet figure out a way to prove Claudius’ guilt before Claudius realizes what Hamlet’s doing? There are feints and ploys; suspicions and proxies; mistakes and missed opportunities.
Viewed in this light, Hamlet becomes a thrilling adventure story wrapped in the philosophy of life and built upon an incredibly complex scaffolding of interwoven tragedies.
That sounds like fun. Let’s see what happens.