A Mad Tragic Hero as One of The Themes in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'

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About this sample


Words: 2725 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 2725|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Hamlet's Break from Reality and Unintended Consequences
  2. Hamlet's Tragic Obsession With Ghosts and the Blurring of Reality
  3. Hamlet's Self-Critique: the Descent into Madness
  4. Conclusion
  5. References 

In the play 'Hamlet' Shakespeare presents a theme of tragic hero through Hamlet's character as a person whose obsession with what is not real leaves him incapable of dealing with the real. Shakespeare shows Hamlet meets the definition of a tragic hero by making a major blunder, which eventually leads to his demise. A tragic hero must have the capacity for success and be in a position of power. Since Hamlet is Prince of Denmark and descended from royalty, he meets these requirements and will one day be able to ascend the throne. Hamlet is often depicted as a morally upright, educated man who is well-liked by the populace and who would certainly make a good leader. The play resembled the society at which 'Hamlet' was written.

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'Hamlet' was written during the first part of the seventeenth century and was probably first performed in July 1602. It was first published in printed form in 1603 and appeared in an enlarged edition in 1604. Shakespeare shows Hamlet's obsession with the Ghost leaves him incapable of dealing with what's real. He's told by the Ghost (who says he's Hamlet's father) to kill Claudius, Hamlets is unable to tell if the Ghost is telling the truth, he is so obsessed with it that he goes mad and ends up killing Claudius. Hamlets obsession with killing Claudius drives him mad and send him into a self-criticising spiral. Hamlet degrades himself because he has not got revenge on Claudius for killing his father. His obsession with the Ghosts statement to kill Claudius leaves Hamlet with the inability to deal with his father's death appropriately and to deal with killing Claudius. He is unable to deal with what's real as he's not sure what is. Hamlet is driven by revenge. Shakespeare was able to make an unremarkable revenge plot resonate with the Renaissance's most fundamental themes and problems. The Renaissance is a massive cultural movement that started in fifteenth-century Italy with the rediscovery of lost Middle Ages Greek and Latin texts.

Hamlet's Break from Reality and Unintended Consequences

Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a tragic hero who slowly loses his grip on reality as he's killed so many people. The first characteristic of a tragic hero that Hamlet demonstrates is that he is a high-ranking official who breaks the law. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, and when his father died, he was in line for the throne; however, his mother remarried, and Hamlet's chance of becoming king was lost. 'The time is out of joint. O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right' this rhyming couplet displays that Hamlet feels obligated to kill Claudius (the uncle) for both the overt and indirect reasons of murdering Hamlet's father and marrying Hamlet's mother. When trying to figure out the best way and time to kill Claudius, Hamlet goes insane. Hamlet is sent to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the midst of all of this revenge plotting, and Hamlet has them sentenced to death, which is another example of Hamlet breaking the law. Hamlet can be seen as a tragic hero since, while attempting to kill Claudius, he mistakenly kills Polonius, breaking a law. Another way that Hamlet qualifies to be a tragic hero is that he causes suffering and harm to almost everyone in the play, such as Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Horatio, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet leads to or contributes to the death of most of these characters; if Hamlet had not acted as he did, some of these characters might still be around, but through Hamlet's actions he caused many people to die or suffer, which shows that he poses a threat to society. Hamlet is based on a collection of stories about a Danish prince named Amleth, who pretended to be insane in order to conceal his scheme to avenge his father's murder. Amleth either lived in the 11th century or is completely mythical. Hamlet also kills Laertes and Claudius, breaking the law many times in the play, demonstrating the tragic hero trait of a high-ranking individual breaking the law. A tragic hero story was regularly shown in theatres. Theatres reopened after the monarchy was restored in 1660. Prince Hamlet was traditionally depicted as a heroic character in early interpretations of the play, dating from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Hamlet's character is closely identified with Renaissance values rather than mediaeval times. Traditionally, the Renaissance is thought to be a period of rebirth for learning and culture. Around the period that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, there were significant political shifts. Hamlet's challenge of Claudius's right to succeed his father on the throne reflects this in the play. It was a new concept to challenge something related to the 'natural' hierarchical structures that kept political power in place which could be the reason why Hamlet unable to deal with the realities of Claudius taking the throne. In most revenge tragedies, a crime is committed, but the perpetrator is unable to be prosecuted for some reason. Hamlet was not found to be the one who killed King Hamlet in the play Hamlet. This form of event occurred in the daily lives of people living during the Renaissance. Thus, making Hamlet a tragic hero who commits crimes but gets away with it, incapable of learning from it therefore unable to deal with what's real. James Black states, 'Hamlet is the supreme achievement of the revenge genre because Shakespeare made the issue turn on the character of the revenger'. I agree with this because in the beginning of play the issue was Claudius killed Hamlet's father, therefore Hamlet seeks revenge. The issue then turns onto Hamlet himself as he kills a lot of people when he only wanted to kill Claudius. He comes so obsessed and overwhelmed with killing Claudius because the Ghost told him to that he kills multiple people in the process. Hamlets obsession with what's not real leaves him incapable of dealing with the real which is that he's unnecessary killed a lot of people.

Hamlet's Tragic Obsession With Ghosts and the Blurring of Reality

Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a tragic hero through his obsession with the Ghost. Hamlet's corrupted furthered by the meeting with his father's ghost. 'Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift, As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge'. Even before he knows who murdered his father, Hamlet decides to avenge him. He promises to act as quickly as the mind can think, which is ironic, because the noun 'meditation', means calm, relaxing state, which particularly for someone as reflective and self-critical as Hamlet, can take a long time. When Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, their conversation leads to all sorts of unthinkable questions, such as his brother's murder and his mother's infidelity, which leads to Hamlet's obsession. He feels compelled to investigate the ghost's claim in order to figure out how he can proceed. The ghost sows the seed of active violence in Hamlet's mind by ordering him to kill Claudius in retaliation for Claudius' crimes against Hamlet's kin. In Hamlet's mind, this notion of vengeance, hate, and violence festers, corrupting his initially kind, reflective, and peaceful personality. Shakespeare displays that the medieval sentiment views; that killing was right and sometimes required was refuted in Hamlet, which denounces murder but Hamlet is shown to be conflicted between the concepts of vengeance as honourable and murder as sin. Alas, Hamlet's fascination with death leads him to kill Claudius in order to avenge his father's death. This is the beginning on Hamlet's inability of dealing with the real. Hamlet doubting the Ghosts intentions, displaying his inability to distinguish what's real and what's not. 'O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else? And shall I couple hell?' the use of rhetorical questions and religious imagery show that Hamlet isn't sure if the divine message he's receiving is from heaven or hell. Compared to his later scepticism of the Ghost, in which he claims the Ghost may be the devil in disguise. When Hamlet first encounters his father's ghost, he wonders if it is 'a spirit of health or goblin damned'. The contrasting views of Catholicism and Protestantism can be seen here. The 'spirit of health' is a Catholic interpretation of souls trapped in Purgatory, while the 'goblin damned' is a Protestant interpretation of Satan's work. Hamlet comes to the conclusion that the ghost is a good spirit, but he may not be right according to Catholic belief. Purgatory spirits were expected to come to Earth to atone for their sins and ask loved ones for prayers to help them get to Heaven. The ghost who communicates with Hamlet seems to be spreading further sin. Hamlet is not immune to religious apprehension. It's likely that people in Hamlet's time blurred the lines between reality and myth, but when Hamlet exclaims to the Ghost, 'Be thou a spirit of health, or a goblin damn'd Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,' Shakespeare is clearly referring to religious imagery. Not only does Hamlet have trouble telling whether the ghost is an angel, a demon, or a father, but he also asks which religious realm it comes from. Leading Hamlet to obsess over the Ghost and being unable to make out if he's real or not. The Ghost is said to reflects the many things people don't understand that have an effect on human destiny, as well as the Elizabethan acceptance of the supernatural. Robert West, author of 'King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost', feels that 'the ghost really is Hamlet's murdered father, dramatically turning the tables on his perfidious brother and tragically involving his loving son'. I somewhat agree with this, I think the Ghost can be interpreted in many ways. I think the Ghost can be seen as Hamlets real 'father' and he's getting his son to get revenge on Claudius for him. It could also be a figment of Hamlets imagination; this would explain why Hamlet struggling to deal with what's real as he's not sure if the Ghost is therefore contemplates killing Claudius. On the other hand, I think the Ghost could be seen as a demon whose tricking Hamlet into thinking its his father to derail his life. Meaning it could resemble an evil spirit. This shows his Prostatism believe. Protestant believe that the soul will only go to heaven or hell and not roam on earth. They believe only evil spirits roam the earth with evil intent therefore leaving Hamlet incapable of disguising if the Ghost is really his father and telling the truth.

Hamlet's Self-Critique: the Descent into Madness

Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a tragic hero whose obsession with what is not real leaves him incapable of dealing with the real by Hamlets decent into madness, self-criticizing himself. 'O what a rogue and pheasant slave I am'. The heightened emotions are shown by the capitalisation of 'O' and the punctuation, '!'. The exclamation point shows the extent of Hamlets anger towards himself for failing to do the brave and honourable thing and exact revenge on Claudius for his father. He refers to himself as a 'rogue and peasant slave' as they are seen as worthless and disgusting people. The noun 'rogue' shows that Hamlet believes he is a dishonest or unprincipled man. The noun 'slave' is used to describe that he thinks of himself as below others and dirty if he cannot feel this emotion he is supposed to be feeling, losing touch with reality. Hamlet is criticizing himself because he cannot feel the same way as the actors. Hamlet refers to himself as 'a dull and muddy-mettl'd rascal'. The adjective 'dull' is used to describe how Hamlet believes he is stupid. The homophone for metal, 'mettl'd' shows that Hamlet believes his courage is 'muddy' and 'dull', he is not brave and actually lacks courage. The homophone could also show that Hamlet believes he is not strong like Metal and that he lacks emotion like an object would. He also refers to himself as a 'rascal' which could display that Hamlet sees himself as a mischievous or cheeky person, degrading himself to a child. At this point in the play, Hamlet is self-criticizing, still calling himself a 'coward'. His obsession with killing Claudius is driving him mad leaving him incapable of dealing with what's real. Shakespeare introduces the philosophical idea of melancholia through the four temperaments and four humours, which say that there are four personalities (one of which is melancholic) and four humours (bodily fluids that specifically influence an individual's health and temperament). Hamlet is melancholy because he is beyond sadness, asking himself, 'Am I a coward?' Shakespeare portrays Hamlet in this light to emphasise how the 'black bile' (one of the four humours) is making him feel melancholic. As well Hamlet is seen to struggle with what's real and what's not. Shakespeare encourages relativism by implying that nothing is really real but in one's own mind: 'There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.' This implies that there are no 'real' facts and that all one believes is subjective (effectively everything is a lie). Since the Greek sophists believed that each man perceives a statement through his senses differently, each character believes a different fact, while in reality, nothing is true due to their devious acts, relativism is directly related to the characters in the play. 'Hamlet' reveals Elizabethan attitudes and beliefs about both the importance of masculine honour and the supernatural. A.C. Swinburne states that, 'The single characteristic of Hamlet's innermost nature is by no means irresolution or hesitation or any form of weakness, but rather the strong conflux of contending forces.' I agree with this because Hamlet is battling his own thoughts, the thought of killing Claudius for revenge and not. His hesitation to kill Claudius is not weakness even though Hamlet sees it as that. Hamlet calls himself weak or a 'coward' when in reality he's not, he's fighting two 'contending forces'. One force is that the Ghost (which is supposedly his father) said that Claudius killed him and that Hamlet needs to get revenge by killing Claudius. The other fighting force is Hamlet's goodness, he can't decide whether to kill Claudius as he's not sure if Claudius is guilty. This slowly drives Hamlet insane; his obsession leads to him being incapable to deal with what's real. Later on in the play, we see Hamlet tests Claudius which he fails, Hamlet then has proof Claudius killed his father and ends up killing him.


In conclusion, Hamlet displays the traits of someone in a high rank that violates a law and of someone who poses a threat to society and causes pain for others, which make him a tragic hero, as shown throughout the play. Hamlets obsession with the Ghost leads him to kill multiple people, becoming a tragic hero. He's lost his father and a Ghost of his father arrives which tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him, this of course drives Hamlet insane as he tries to prove the Ghost is telling the truth before killing Claudius, showing his hero side. Shakespeare shows that Hamlet's obsession with the ghost is driving him made. Hamlet is incapable of dealing with what's real like his emotions which send him into a self-critical spiral. In conclusion I agree with the statement 'Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a tragic hero whose obsession with what is not real leaves him incapable of dealing with the real'.


  1. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

  2. Bloom, Harold. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Riverhead Books, 2003.

  3. Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. Anchor, 2005.

  4. Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton University Press, 2002.

  5. Hartman, Geoffrey. 'The Tragic Hero's Incomprehensible World.' In Criticism and the Experience of Interiority, edited by Christopher Norris, Routledge, 2003, pp. 21-32.

  6. Kirsch, Arthur. 'Hamlet's Melancholy and the Question of Justice.' The Hudson Review, vol. 61, no. 1, 2008, pp. 99-108.

  7. Mack, Maynard. 'The World of Hamlet.' Yale Review, vol. 41, no. 4, 1952, pp. 502-523.

  8. Showalter, Elaine. 'Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.' Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 77-94.

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  9. Smith, David Leverenz. 'The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View.' Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 144-177.

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A Mad Tragic Hero as one of the Themes in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
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