How closely does Hamlet match Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero? Can he be accepted as a modern tragic hero?

Essay by goodolealeHigh School, 12th gradeA+, November 2008

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William Shakespeare, English playwright and poet, wrote a total of 37 plays during his lifetime, beginning his theatrical career in 1590 when he wrote Henry VI. Since then, revenge tragedy has been a recurrent genre in his dramatic works - famous examples include Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and also Hamlet, which is regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of all time. Not only does it contain multifarious themes and literary techniques, it also contains the perfect example of a "tragic hero", as defined by Aristotle (384-322 BC). Student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great, Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who influenced scholars for centuries to come. One of his published works, Poetics, gives a detailed description of what once was the ideal tragic hero. Whether or not Shakespeare read Poetics is entirely open to question, but it is undeniable that Hamlet embodies many of Aristotle's notions on tragedy.

On the other hand, a modern tragic hero almost completely detaches from Aristotle's concepts - their experiences can happen to anyone, with as little dramatisation as possible. In fact, the lack of extreme characteristics creates not a tragic hero at all, but an anti-hero.

According to his book on literary theory, Aristotle believes that art - in any form, whether it be music or literature - is "in its general conception modes of imitation." This first point in Poetics is the basis on which he builds a large part of his theory on dramatic poetry. He believes that the true purpose of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear in the audience to a point where it culminates in a purgation of such emotions - catharsis. In ancient Greek, the purpose of plays and dramatic performances was not to entertain, but to contribute to the good health of...