Literature review : elements of tragedy- a study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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compiled by Florence Madzikatire

The ensuing article centers on the elements of tragedy in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The essay goes on to include other elements of tragedy brought about by the Elizabethan era such as moral reasoning, questioning of the norm as well as psychological conflicts. Firstly, the term tragedy is defined with other scholars and a brief outline of its characteristics is given. Secondly, a short background of the Elizabethan era is given and how the spirit of the time influenced tragedy. Finally, the elements of tragedy in Hamlet are discussed and these similar elements are also noted in other tragedies such as King Lear, and Othello.


The classic discussion of tragedy is found in Aristotle’s Poetics. He defines tragedy as an imitation of an action that is serious and also having magnitude in itself. He continues to describe tragedy as a form of drama, exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Another definition of tragedy which is closely linked to the play is that of Hunter (1997). He defines tragedies as plays that can be described as stories of exceptional suffering and calamity, leading to the death of a dominant figure of high standing – a figure intensely committed to his course of action who is given primary responsibility for the choices made and in most powerfully projected by the rhetoric of his struggle with his own nature. Tragedy is therefore characterised by, but is not limited to a tragic hero, suffering, error in judgment, reversal of fortune, recognition of error and purgation.

In order for one to understand the other elements which add to the tragic vision of the play which was brought about by the Elizabethan epoch, one has to appreciate its history. The Elizabethan era is also known as the Renaissance era in which Queen Elizabeth ruled England. The era was associated with intellectual thinking and questioning of the norm in as far as power, equality, religion and morality was concerned. Ideas were sought after which led to adventures and discovery of other thought processes. Reason became the key to the truth and faith was placed in human advancement through education. As a result of these discoveries, the great thinkers heralded the aspects of egalitarianism and exported the ideas that man is sinful and has limited potential.

To begin with, tragedy is characterised by a tragic hero. This character, according to Aristotle, although he is superior in some ways, he must be someone the audience can identify with in order to arouse in them feelings of pity when he falls. He goes on to state that the hero must not be all good or all evil. Other scholars like Hunter (1997) suggests the tragic hero must be of a noble class or a high status whose failure affects others. Prince Hamlet can be singled out to be the tragic hero in this play because he is the prince and heir to the throne. Other tragic heroes include King Lear and Othello.

Another characteristic of tragedy is harmatia which is also known as the tragic flaw. This is the error of judgment made by the tragic hero which will later result in his downfall. In this case, prince Hamlet’s tragic flaw can be described as his hesitation or his inability to act as soon as he got the message from the ghost. When he decides to act, his plot causes the death of other characters. It should be noted that the harmartia of the tragic hero results in his downfall as well as that of others.

In addition, conflict is another pivotal element of tragedy. This drives the plot as the tragic hero tries and eventually fails to resolve the conflict or reconcile with his opponent. In the play, there is an external conflict between Prince Hamlet and his uncle Claudius. It should be noted that besides Hamlet being the heir, he is also in conflict with his uncle for marrying his mother which according to this culture is incest.

Suffering is another element of tragedy which is closely linked to conflict. It should be noted that this element was brought about by the Elizabethan era. The suffering here is not physical but psychological. It is brought about by the intellectual thinking as well as questioning existing norms. Firstly Hamlet suffers from internal conflict as he questions the morality of his uncle’s marriage to his mother. Secondly, he suffers internally as he questions the religious norms of death. This psychological conflict can be attributed to his famous speech, ‘to be or not to be’ in Act III,VI. He dangles on the two ideas of death being the liberator or the oppressor. He wants to send his uncle Claudius to hell by death but this is at par with Christian beliefs that death sends them to heaven.

Another element brought by the era is the supernatural and the role it plays in intensifying the tragic pleasure. This proves the idea that man is sinful and has a limited potential. In the play, the ghost which looked like the king himself is responsible for stirring up Hamlet’s internal conflict. Firstly he questions the existence of ghosts and then the authenticity of its words. Although Hamlet confirms the words of the ghost by his alterations of the play The murder of Gonzago, the one unanswered question as some critiques say is that the role of the supernatural is to increase or decrease human suffering.

Reversal of fortune or peripety is another characteristic of tragedy. The tragic hero finds himself in a situation which is opposed to what they expect. This situation according to Bratchell (1999) resulted from the error committed by the tragic hero. Hamlet’s hesitation of avenging his father results to his own death.

According to some scholars, reversal of fortune is not important if the tragic does not recognize his error ( anagnorisis ). This recognition of his error causes the hero to accept his punishment with dignity. This is evidenced in Act V. I, Hamlet recognizes his error when he tells Horatio that he should let him die and that he should make his ‘cause aright to the unsatisfied’.
Furthermore, another characteristic of tragedy is lack of poetic justice. This is when the good is not rewarded and the bad is not punished. Instead, there is a tragic waste in which the hero dies together his opponent. This is evidenced in Act .V.II when Hamlets dies as well as the King.

Cartharsis is another element of tragedy. According to Aristotle, cartharsis means a purging or a sweep away of the feelings of pity and fear aroused in the audience by the tragic action. Here the audience is relieved from those emotions when the king, Laertes, Polonius and Hamlet dies. It should be noted that the purging is brought about by the bloodbath in ActV.II which destroyed the evil in the society of Denmark. Although Hamlet dies, new hope of a good governance is placed in Prince Fortinbras.

In light of the foregoing, one can say that tragedy is characterised by a tragic hero, a tragic pleasure, reversal of fortune and carthasis among other elements. It should be noted that these elements intensifies the tragic pleasure experienced by the audience.





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