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Hamlet Analyzed in Terms of Aristotle's Poetics

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English 106

4 December 1996

Hamlet Analyzed in Terms of Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle's Poetics is considered the guide to a

well written tragedy; his methods have been used for

centuries. In Aristotle's opinion, plot is the most

important aspect of the tragedy, all other parts such as

character, diction, and thought stem from the plot.

Aristotle defines a tragedy as "...an imitation of an

action that is serious, complete, and of a certain

magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of

artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in

separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not

of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper

purgation of these emotions"(p. 22). Shakespeare's

Hamlet follows this definition for the most part, and

even though it is not always in agreement with

Aristotle's guidelines, it is still a great and

effective tragedy.

Aristotle states that tragedy is "an imitation of

an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain

magnitude"(p. 22). Hamlet is an excellent example of

this. The play centers around Hamlet's quest to avenge

his father's death, this is a serious action. It is

also complete in the sense that all the loose ends are

tied together in a sensible, believable manner. Hamlet

is able to avenge his father's death by killing his

uncle. Shakespeare also follows Aristotle's idea of the

tragedy being of a certain magnitude. The characters

are supposed to be the most perfect people whom the

audience can still relate to. Hamlet is a wealthy

prince, however he deals with the same problems as the

common man. He is confused, paranoid, and angered about

the circumstances surrounding his father's death. He is

also unsure of himself and how he should handle the

situation. The audience can relate to this uncertain

feeling and they are able to empathize with Hamlet.

Aristotle believes that in order for a tragedy to

be effective, it must convey pity and fear. He defines

pity as a felling that is aroused by "unmerited

misfortune" (p. 27). Hamlet undoubtedly suffers this

unmerited misfortune. He has done nothing to bring

about his father's death. To make the situation even

more painful, his mother has married his uncle whom he

suspects is responsible for the tragedy. These

circumstances illicit pity from the audience. The fear

of impending evil is also prevalent in the play. As the

plot progresses, it becomes clear that the king is

plotting to kill Hamlet and Hamlet is planning to kill

the king.

Hamlet's plot is what Aristotle considers complex.

It is accompanied by Recognition, which is "a change

from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate

between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad

fortune"(p. 26). The Recognition occurs when the play

within the play is staged for the king. The play is a

reenactment of what Hamlet believes happened to his

father. His uncle is so upset and flustered by the play

that he runs from the room. This action indicates to

Hamlet that his suspicions were correct and his uncle is

indeed responsible for King Hamlet's death. Hamlet

later finds the king in a church praying and is tempted

to kill him there, but decides against it because he

will go to heaven since he is praying. From this, the

audience is able to infer that Hamlet

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