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The Tragic Hero

Hamlet / Macbeth

The term tragedy comes from the Greek tragidia (tragos-goat and aeidein- to

sing), being closely connected to the pagan rituals of sacrificing the scapegoat. According to

Encyclopaedia Britannica, in the ancient Greece, the tragedies were presented at festivals, in a

rather religious atmosphere, with priests building altars dedicated to their Greek gods. The

subjects of the tragedies were the misfortunes of the heroes of legend, religious myth, and


1. One of the most distinguishing features of a tragic hero is his tragic flaw.

Aristotle referred for the first time to this term in his 'Poetics and named it hamartia, by

means of which he designated an error of judgement. Often, this moral guilt was nothing

else but an excess of virtue, an extreme zeal for perfection.

Though of noble origin and definitely superior to other people, Hamlet, has a tragic flaw,

namely, his irresoluteness. A crime has been committed and he has to set things right. He tries

hard to find better ways than killing, but there are no such ways. The fact that he keeps on

postponing the deed, provokes in the end the death of seven other characters. His tragic flaw

or error of judgement comes precisely from his excess of virtue, from his being 'too good',

too sensitive, too thoughtful, too merciful, too far from a cold-blood murderer.

Ambition is an essential attribute for a brave warrior. Unfortunately, for Macbeth this

quality turns into his tragic flaw. His ardent desire to be victorious in battles, in order to

please his king, turns into an exacerbated ambition to get the power for himself. Encouraged

by his wife, Macbeth ends up in killing King Duncan as well as many other innocent people.

The story of Macbeth is an illustration of the saying that Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

2. Another characteristic of a tragedy is the overwhelming influence of an

implacable Destiny.

In Hamlet we are struck by the immutable and inescapable nature of his situation. A

hostile Fate seems to mischievously follow the tragic hero through as series of immutable

external factors. Thus, to enumerate just a few, Hamlet is given a horrendous mission by the
Ghost; Claudius harasses him and in the end banishes him from Elsinore with the intention of

killing him; whereas Polonius prevents Ophelia from dating him. The tragic hero can't do

anything to influence all these. It is as if everything urges him to take action and punish

Claudius, in spite of his personal creeds and sensitive nature.

The three witches that appear to Macbeth and foretell his glorious future, arbitrarily

select him and it is as if, from their prophesy onwards, his life takes a maleficent, pre-destined

course. Both Macbeth and his wife enter into a sick and obscure relation to the world of

witchcraft and black magic. Often, the audience feels that a malicious Fate pushes him to

self-destruction as well as to cruelly assassinate others.

3.A tragic hero always experiences a tormenting inner ordeal.

With Hamlet we can almost feel every atom of his body screaming for revenge, while

bluntly answering back that a murder or self-murder cannot bring his late father back. He is

prevented from killing Claudius by a double constraint: first, that of his humanistic education

which regarded the human being as 'the beauty of the world', made to be admired rather than

killed, and then that of religion which clearly condemns murder.

Macbeth, initially a good man, outrageously suffers and has recurrent hallucinations

caused by the crimes he committed. Once, at the post-coronation banquet, Macbeth is haunted

by the vision of Banquos ghost. Besides, he thinks he hears a voice from above sentencing

him to sleep no more. In her turn, Lady Macbeth also loses sleep (in Shakespeares work,

sleep is a reward for the good ones, while the lack of sleep indicates the divine damnation).

Lady Macbeth becomes a sleep-walker, goes mad and finally commits suicide.

4. In ancient Greece a scapegoat was the only one who could make atonement for

the community's sins.

Symbolically, Hamlet is a tragic scapegoat as he must fulfill a mission that he neither

chose, nor deeply agreed with. A tragedy of moral frustration, as David Daiches names it,

the play depicts the Danish Prince as caught between the burning need to find a solution and

the incapability to find an appropriate one. Hamlet's excruciating inner torment doesnt lead

to any better outcome. He is a symbolic scapegoat caught in a trap with no exit. He is given a

mission by the Ghost and as the sole son of the late King he is the only one who can make

justice and restore the last equilibrium of a rotten kingdom.

Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth seems to have a choice. Al least till the moment when he

decides to engage the services of the witches and freely consents to use forbidden acts of

black magic in order to get the knowledge necessary to preserve his tyrannical power. From

that moment on, he seems to become just a tool of the Evil. It is not Macbeth anymore, but a

stronger force from behind who urges him to commit the most abominable deeds.

5.Another essential characteristic of a tragic hero, is what Aristotle called 'hubris',

that is the presumption of being godlike and attempting to overstep his human


When Hamlet finally accepts to accomplish the horrendous deed, and takes justice in his

hands, he makes himself guilty of hubris. He symbolically substitutes himself to the Divinity,

the only one who is allowed to judge and punish the wrong-doers. God's orders in this respect

are clear, as one of the Ten Commandments specifically states Thou shall not kill, being

reiterated in the New Testament: Vengeance is mine, says Lord.

Macbeth also makes himself guilty of hubris when he surpasses his human limitations

and wants to change the course of his Destiny by means of witchcraft. In a way, he manages

to temporarily influence his Fate, but in the end, both he and his wife have to dearly pay for it

and die in most uncommon circumstances.

Shakespeares craftsmanship in canvasing complex characters who are initially good

people but whose conduct alters as they make themselves guilty of an error of judgement (a

tragic flaw), are victims of a hostile Fate, suffer from an excruciating inner ordeal, present the

characteristics of a scapegoat or become guilty of hubris, places Hamlet/ (Macbeth) in the

gallery of the world's great tragic heroes such as Antigone, Medeea or Sisyphus.

theoretical guidelines- source: