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Hamlet as a True Character Revealed

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One of Shakespeare’s most popular characters from one of his most timeless works of literature, Hamlet, is the center of some controversial discussion of whether the main character deserves to be remembered as a tragic hero or not. It can be concluded from further character analysis that Hamlet deserves to be viewed as more of a villain than a tragic hero today because of the role he played in almost every character’s death in William Shakespeare’s timeless play. From the very beginning of the play, Hamlet demonstrates time and time again that primary goal is to get revenge for the murder of his father and he goes to unheroic means to reach this goal. Initially, one can understand his reasons and possibly even want to admire this and even call it honorable. Most famously he is remembered as a “tragic hero.” However, by the end of the play, it becomes a lot easier to question how just how much honor and heroism he really had. The motives and reasons behind his actions reveal that his true character is that of a genuine villain, not an unfortunate tragic hero. Even though he might have honestly had good intentions at the beginning, when it is all said and done and the dust clears, Hamlet can easily be recognized as a villain.

In an article by Charles Reeves, the author quotes Aristotle in the “The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero” in that the role of a tragic hero as “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment” (Reeves). It is hard to find a feeling of pity towards Hamlet because he had the choice to do what is right multiple times. He even leaves for long period of time in England getting an opportunity to get away and reshape his life but he still lets the anger and hatred boil inside of him. This story has its tragic characteristics, but Hamlet had control of his own destiny from the beginning. It’s the conscious choices that Hamlet makes that clearly reveals the villain that is the main character. Furthermore we see him have the opportunity to make the right choice and therefore have an opportunity to become a hero. The main character repeatedly shows a lapse of judgment even though he had chances to make it right, its this repetition of bad choices that kills his heroism.

Of course, it is understandable that some may want Hamlet to be a hero, not a traditional one but a hero still, after all he went through a lot. A hero can be defined in contemporary times by one who has bravery and selflessness. This definition lacks the more concrete science of Greek tragedy requiring epiphanies, flaws, and such characters as dragons and gods, but it is more relevant to the modern reader. When I think of a hero, I think of someone who is always willing to do what is right, but not at the expense of honor, or the safety of other people. Throughout the story of Hamlet readers are shown Hamlet’s own selfish desire for revenge that contradict what it means to be a true hero, by any definition, all the while impeding on the lives of the people around him. A hero is supposed to have morals and a sense of justice that influences his or her decisions. Even if Hamlet had these qualities at the beginning of the play, one sees these qualities that hero would have disappear by the end.

Hamlet owns more characteristics of that of a villain because his motives and actions are selfish and resulted getting a lot of people killed. According to the Macmillan Dictionary, “a villain is someone who behaves in an immoral way, or something that is responsible for a bad situation.” We see this immoral attitude develop more and more as the play goes on and it plays out multiple times. This definition is indeed more closely related to Hamlet than a hero. In the beginning Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, is the one who the audience already knows as the real murderer and rightfully so because of his reasons for killing Hamlet’s father. In his defense, Claudius is only guilty of the murder of one man. Hamlet ends ups killing three people and arranging the deaths of two others. Also, at the end of the play Hamlet forces Claudius to drink the poison from the cup even though he was already going to die from being cut by the sword that had the poison on it. One could say that even for Hamlet, this was a little on the sinister side. We also cannot forget about Ophelia, whose death Hamlet is also responsible for.

Hamlet uses the desire for revenge to justify his actions. When Hamlet met the ghost of his father at the beginning of the play, he made the oath to get his revenge. Hamlet made the decision not to go right at Claudius and face him man to man. Perhaps, if he did, he would not have ended up killing anyone and could have been remembered as a hero by somehow salvaging his honor. Mary Thomas Crane writes about how maybe this is just how Shakespeare wanted Hamlet to be viewed: “a range of spatially delineated possibilities…this self can, or cannot, be reliably expressed; actions do, or do not create the self” (117). This simply means that Hamlet was the product of his own actions, and maybe Shakespeare wanted people to see that sometimes good people can do bad things and not everyone can be a hero. This is extremely interesting, and it helps the readers come to the realization that it isn't crazy to think that Hamlet could very easily be a villain.

Hamlet is incapable of processing the situation and coping in an honorable way, which ends up ultimately leading him to revert to revenge as the only way to get even. Kenneth Craven writes, “Revenge is basic to human interaction… revenge has always been the first reaction by the weak when oppressed by the strong” (Craven). Maybe Hamlet truly believed that the way he handled all of it was the only way he could have, because his uncle was now King and was much more powerful than him. Although maybe Hamlet thought his actions would be justifiable, they were not ones that a hero would do. It can be possible that the young prince just didn't know how to handle the situation.

One of the main things that stands out in this story about Hamlet that leads one to believe he could not be a hero was the way he treated Ophelia. I think most people would agree that the way he treated her was not how a hero treats a woman. He was very blunt and mean to her saying “I did love you once” (3.1.113). A hero is one who can control his emotions, and at this point, Hamlet let them get the best of him. He even tells her to go be a nun later in their conversation and takes a shot at her beauty. He lets this revenge plot boil inside of him so badly that he even starts to hurt the feelings of the ones he loves. Later in the play Ophelia is found dead, where Gertrude said a willow tree branch broke off and took her down. Ophelia was heartbroken, and she committed suicide. Obviously we can conclude as readers that she was deeply affected by the actions of our main character. These actions remind us of the true villain that Hamlet eventually came to be.

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The prince goes on to kill three different people in his journey for revenge against Claudius. Hamlet is outraged that his mother Gertrude has married Claudius, and feels he has been betrayed by his own mother. Hamlet ends up stabbing Polonius through a curtain, thinking it was the King Claudius. Then he goes on to hide the body and doesn't tell Claudius where it is when he is confronted by him. Later in the play he kills Claudius, but not before he sends Rosencrantz and Guildentsern to die. The two men were sent with Hamlet to England to make sure he would have been executed. Once again we see the villainy of Hamlet, he escapes and heads back to Denmark, at the expense of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who end up dying in his place. Being that Hamlet orchestrated the plan for them to die just so he could get back and kill Claudius is just anther example of how Hamlet is a villain.

Going back a few scenes, one sees the event that really makes it clear that Hamlet is a villain and not a hero. Claudius is praying to God for forgiveness for murdering Hamlet’s father, and at this point, Hamlet has his opportunity to end it all but decides not to because he didn't want Claudius to go to heaven. In Mirrors of Revenge, Anthony Miller writes, “Here first appears a new image of the revenger: the tigerish, treacherous, man of blood, whose acts are monstrous, hellish, and promiscuously visited on guilt and innocent alike” (Miller). He literally denied the opportunity to kill Claudius and completing his task of revenge but didn’t. If anything can make it clear that he is a villain it is this scene. Not only is he supposed to be a man of honor, but he takes it upon himself to decide the fate of another man, which might be seen as even evil for some. Hamlet does not have the right to determine who goes to heaven or not no matter what crimes or wrongs they have committed. God is the one who has the right and power to forgive. Hamlet doesn't want the new king just to die, but also go to Hell. The revenge he has in his heart is starting to turn him into a man that is not full of heroic qualities and it’s becoming more and more clear to the audience. At this point It is clear for the reader that all honor Hamlet thought he had was long gone, and he only got worse.

Could Hamlet have avoided all of this? Was he doomed from the beginning? Was he supposed to be a villain and not a hero? All of these questions the reader may ask when analyzing Hamlet trying to decide what kind of man he was. There is no doubt out main character is under a lot of pressure from the very beginning, one author writes, “Hamlet’s struggle is an intellectual one and by the very terms of that struggle, willful ‘practical’ action becomes impossible” (Levine). Readers expect heroes to be the ones who can rise above their own struggles, even if it takes a while, and triumph over evil. The truth is that Hamlet is not someone the world would see as a hero. Hamlet’s poor decision making and selfishness gets worse as the play goes on. I think most people would agree with me when I say a hero is someone who is noble, honorable, and selfless. Above all else, a hero is someone who does what is right, even when it is the hardest thing to do.

Let’s take one of the more popular hero’s of modern times for example, Batman. Batman’s situation is very much like the one Hamlet found himself in. Both of Batman’s parents were killed right in front of him when he was a young man. Batman had to grow up without either of his parents for the rest of his youth and adult life. He lives in a city where corruption and wrongdoers are not a rare sight, much like Hamlet’s kingdom. Batman made the decision that he was going to change that, kind of like Hamlet did, however, as the reader knows, Hamlet’s reason was strictly for revenge, and he would try to get it at any cost. Batman’s drive was centered on the virtue of justice, not revenge. That is the difference between a hero and villain. Batman has plenty of opportunities to kill his enemies and rid the world of them and the chaos they bring. That is not what a hero does. Batman knows he cannot do that because if he did he would be just like those people he dedicated his life to put away. In the end, Hamlet turns into someone not just as bad, but even worse than Claudius, the man who was the target for his revenge.

Hamlet had the opportunity to be a hero, but the fact is he made not only one but multiple decisions not to be. Hamlet could have been honorable and came straight to Claudius at the beginning of the play and this whole story would have turned out so much differently. One can also notice how Hamlet never really felt any remorse for his actions, even when he accidentally killed Polonius. His tunnel vision was so set on revenge he didn't even bother to take other people into consideration. Adam Cole writes, “Hamlet did not concern himself much over Polonius’s death. Instead, Hamlet makes light of the murder with word games” (Cole). Hamlet’s selfishness shows without even a glimpse of remorse for any of the numbers of tragedies that has stemmed from his actions.

If the reader were to only look at the high points of the story of Hamlet, it would be hard argue against the notion that Hamlet embodies villainy more than heroism. Not only will the story be highlighted by deaths and events that point back to Hamlet’s actions, but if we look deeper we can see even more evidence; The way he shames his mother when she marries Claudias, The way he treats Ophelia telling her to “Go to a nunnery!” Also the way he not only wants to get revenge and kill Claudias, but make sure he goes to Hell and not Heaven. The reader may want to give Hamlet the benefit of the doubt at some point in the story, claiming that he is just indecisive and it all is just too heavy for the prince. At the end of the day, if one is truly looking for a hero it is nearly impossible to find one in this story.

Recognizing Hamlet for the villain that he is does not necessarily take away from the immaculate play that made such an impact on literature of the world. It still provides an exhilarating tale of a character who people of all walks of life can relate in some way or another with in the struggles with real feelings and decisions that for some are very real. It can indeed make the play even more compelling. As one author describes, “The quest for vengeance satisfies an audience’s most primitive wishes for intrigue and violence” (Kirsch). Analyzing this character in this way gives a unique perspective into a well known story that can possibly inspire others, as a powerful story can in fact do, to learn from the mistakes of others that they may look up to.

Readers finally see the dark side of Hamlet come out and the villain he is at the end when he does finally end up killing Claudius. Hamlet finally gets his revenge but not before he is cut with the poison sword and he too ends up dying. This scene where multiple people are on the floor dead and this is an important part because it can all be put back on Hamlet and the decisions he made throughout the play. He had the opportunity to be the hero—multiple times, but he was selfish and let his desire for revenge blind him from being truly good. At the end of the play when it all of his works comes to a visual scene, one can easily see why Hamlet should be seen as a villain and not a hero.

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Hamlet as a True Character Revealed. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/hamlet-as-a-true-character-revealed/
“Hamlet as a True Character Revealed.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/hamlet-as-a-true-character-revealed/
Hamlet as a True Character Revealed. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/hamlet-as-a-true-character-revealed/> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
Hamlet as a True Character Revealed [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/hamlet-as-a-true-character-revealed/
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