William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (henceforth Hamlet) is widely regarded as epitomising the idea of the Shakespearian tragedy. The following paper will discuss this play in terms of how it fulfils the criteria set out by A.C Bradleys concept of a Shakespearian tragedy with a particular onus on Bradleys concept of the tragic hero. To these ends the following paper will identify the criteria discussed by Bradley in relation to the tragic hero and identify these qualities in relation to Prince Hamlet.
One of the earliest points Bradley makes in relation to the tragic hero is that “Tragedy with Shakespeare is concerned always with persons of ‘high degree’” (Bradley 9). Immediately this criteria is fulfilled given Prince Hamlets noble position within the monarchy. Furthermore in relation to the historical context, the position of a prince is viewed by the audience as a position of admiration. A second point Bradley makes in relation to the Shakespearian tragic hero is the fact that they are more often than not compromised in some manor, by love and lust such as with Romeo, or consumed by revenge such as Hamlet; in effect the Shakespearian hero is “far from being ‘good’” (Bradley 20).
In relation to Prince Hamlet, this fatal flaw in the character manifests itself in the Princes longing and duty for his dead father to the extent that: “I’ll speak to it through Hell itself should gape, And bid me hold my peace” (Shakespeare, Scene 2). Prince Hamlets determination to ‘speak through hell’ represents the lengths the character will go to seek revenge on Claudius for the death of his father. Furthermore, Prince Hamlets feigned madness further contributes to Bradleys categorisation of the tragic hero who brings about his or her own tragedy. As Prince Hamlet states: “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet, To put an antic disposition on” (Shakespeare, Scene 5).
Indeed, for Bradley, one of the central characteristics of the tragic hero is that this character must, in some way or another, bring about their own destruction, their own demise (Bradley 12). Hamlet is a key example of this in both his plot to avenge his father death, but more specifically the madness he feigns (or at least believes he is feigning) is representative of the lengths in which the character will go for revenge. Furthermore, when appreciating the play in its entirety, Prince Hamlet in his descent into madness (feigned or real) ends up murdering three of the characters directly, and implicitly leads a further five people to their death. This only further contributes to Prince Hamlets destruction as a character; what started out as a simple act of revenge ends up destroying the lives of many, as the character comments in relation to his own actions: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (Shakespeare Act 2, Scene 2).
The final trait Bradley identifies as imbedded in the Shakespearian hero is the inevitable death or dissolution of the subject (Bradley 12). For Prince Hamlet, his own demise comes about through his duel with Laertes. What is particularly interesting is the fact that at the conclusion of the play it is not only Hamlet and the upper echelons of the monarchy which are effected through his actions but the country itself as Fortinbras’ army prepares to take the country.
In conclusion, William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark fulfils the criteria of a Shakespearian tragedy set out by Bradley. Prince Hamlet, as the tragic hero, holds a position of high regard, is systematically involved in his own demise and falls victim to what the character considers as an absolute duty towards revenge.
- Bradley, Andrew Cecil. Shakespearean Tragedy; Lectures on Hamlet, Othello. Macmillan and Company, limited, 1922.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Yale University Press, 1945.