Spot the Aristotelian Tragic Protagonist

Aristotle has defined tragedy as a series of serious actions that eventually result in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist. The tragic hero contains a mixture traits that are both good and evil . The tragic effect, according to Aristotle is increased if the protagonist is seen as something greater than the common person. Because the protagonist must suffer a change of fortune, which results in a tragic conclusion, this character must make an error, which leads to his or her own demise. (Abrams 331-2)
William Shakespeare employs the traits found in an Aristotelian tragedy in many of his plays. One must question which of Shakespeare’s protagonists actually fit within Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. Can Macbeth be considered a tragic hero or can Hamlet or perhaps both? To answer this question, an analysis of each protagonist’s motivations and their role in the play’s action must be undertaken.
Hamlet is a play, which addresses so much more than the protagonist’s struggle for reason and justice. The play offers a philosophical insight into the nature of man and what differentiates man from beast and good from evil. The fact that Hamlet himself offers these thought provoking insights within his monologues cannot be dismissed when discussing the tragic hero. Throughout the play the protagonist measures his actions and weighs the value of his motivations. This thoughtfulness is explored in Macbeth’s
character but unlike Hamlet, Macbeth cannot operate with reason.

The earliest example of these characters separation from each other as an Aristotelian tragic hero is found after each character has encounters with the supernatural. Macbeth is receives his first prophecies from the three witches in Act 1 Scene 3. After the second witch predicts Macbeth will be the Thane of Cawdor, the third witch predicts that Macbeth will be king of Scotland. Later in the scene, Macbeth learns that the Thane of Cawdor prediction has come true. Macbeth then tries to reason what has happened by saying the following, “The supernatural soliciting/ Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,/ Why hath it given me earnest of success/ Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor./ If good, why do I yield to that suggestion/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs/ Against the use of nature? (Act 1 Sn. 3 Lns.133-140) Here, Macbeth questions the value of the three witches and their prophecies. While Macbeth does not commit his tragic error, or as Aristotle calls it hamartia at this point in the play, the seed has been planted in Macbeth’s mind which will result in his downfall.
Hamlet similarly has an encounter with the supernatural but unlike Macbeth. Hamlet orchestrates a plan to prove what the spirit has said is correct. In Act 1 Scene 5, Hamlet meets a spirit in the shape of his dead father. This spirit tells Hamlet that his father was murdered and that he has to avenge his father’s death if he truly loved him. Hamlet then pretends to be insane so to cover his intentions for revenge. Before any action of vengeance takes place, Hamlet devises a plan to see if the supernatural visitation means him good or evil. Hamlet’s plan is to put on a play, which shows an act of murder close to
the one described to him by the ghost. In Act 2 Scene Hamlet says the following “The

spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil, and the devil hath power/ T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps/ Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/ As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds/ More relatives than this. The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Lns. 555-562) Hamlet, like Macbeth, feels he must question the value of what the supernatural tells him. Unlike Macbeth, Hamlet does not act irrationally to achieve his goals within the play.
In Macbeth, the protagonist commits the first of several fatal errors in the play when he listens to his wife and with her insistence, he kills King Duncan. Hamlet does not contain this moment of hamartia. There are moments in Hamlet that come close to the protagonist committing the fatal error Aristotle writes about. In the pivotal Act 3 Scene 4 where Polonius is accidentally murder, Hamlet’s downfall is indirectly linked to this event. The reason this murder is not a direct cause of Hamlet’s demise is because Laretes, who stabs Hamlet in the final act, is falsely driven to commit this act by Claudius. The idea of premeditation and thinking is what is lacking between both of these acts. Macbeth chooses to commit his evil act while Hamlet commits the pointless murder of Polonius by mistake. The reason this point is key is because Hamlet fails to show the mixture of good and bad qualities that are required in Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. Macbeth has already shown both of these qualities.
In his essay “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, A.C. Bradley states the fundamental difference between the characters Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as oppose to Hamlet. “These two characters [Macbeth and Lady Macbeth] are fired by one and the same

passion of ambition…they are not children of light, like Brutus and Hamlet; they are of the world.” (Pg.243). Bradley notes how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are of the world and that is to say they are incapable of avoiding typical human flaws while Hamlet’s character attempts to and succeeds to defy such errors in judgment. Hamlet does not share Macbeth‘s drive to obtain his goal at any cost and Hamlet never commits the moment of hamartia.
After Macbth encounters the witches and is persuaded to murder Duncan, the only good element found in his personality is his guilt over his actions. Macbeth loses even this positive human condition, as he becomes a more evil protagonist as the play progresses toward a conclusion. In this passage we see Macbeth fails to overcome his desire for power even if it means committing acts against his nature. “I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting Ambition, which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other-” (Act1. Sn.7 Lns. 25-28) Shakespeare still maintains the mixture of good and evil in later in this scene when Lady Macbeth enters the stage. Macbeth tries to assert himself to her by saying the following “We will proceed no further in this business. / He hath honored me of late, and I have bought/ Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon. (Act 1, Sn. 7 Lns. 31-34) Here, Macbeth tries to reason with his wife so that he can avoid murdering Duncan. Macbeth goes as far as to state that the power they desire is partially earned because of his own heroism. Macbeth fails to avoid committing the murder and the characters descent to a tragic end has begun.

In Hamlet, the audience is able to relate to the protagonist’s virtues and weaknesses the same as a typical tragic figure. What separates Hamlet from Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero is the type of weakness found in Hamlet’s character. Henry Mackenzie discusses this idea in his essay “Criticism on the Character and Tragedy of Hamlet”
Had Shakespeare made Hamlet pursue his vengeance with a steady?
determined purpose…led him through difficulties arising from accidental
causes, and not from doubts and hesitation of his own mind, the anxiety
of the spectator might have been highly raised; but it would have been
anxiety for the event, not for the person..we feel not only the virtues, but
the weaknesses of Hamlet, as our own…Or compassion for the first, and
our anxiety for the latter, are excited in the strongest manner; and hence
arises that indescribable charm in Hamlet. (Pg.151)
Mackenzie explains the fundamental difference between Macbeth and Hamlet, which separates the two in Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero. While the audience is able to relate to the flaws of both Hamlet and Macbeth, these flaws are what separate the two in terms of good and evil. Macbeth’s weakness leads to his downfall while Hamlet’s weakness prevents him from possibly committing his own destruction.
Because Hamlet fails to show any of the negative aspects associated with the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero, the audience takes his side within the play. In Macbeth the audience has numerous opportunities to lose their sympathy for the protagonist. If the audience does not shed their admiration toward Macbeth’s heroism
after the killing of Duncan they can do so with his murder of Banquo and they will do so

with the murder of Macduff’s family. Hamlet on the other hand, maintains support from
the audience throughout the play.
Hamlet does commit the accidental murder of Polonius and orchestrates the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the audience can understand the reason behind each of these deaths. But Hamlet did not commit any of these acts as part of his goal in avenging the death of his father. Augusts William Schlegel’s essay addresses this issue in “Notes on the Tragedies: Hamlet”
we perceive in him a malicious joy, when he has succeeded in getting
rid of his enemies, more through necessity and accident, which alone
are able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than by merit of
his own courage….Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or in anything
else. (Pg. 156)
Schlegel takes the point of audience support on step further. Not only des the audience empathize and support Hamlet throughout the play, the audience takes pleasure in what the character is doing. It was never Shakespeare’s intention for the audience to support Claudius in Hamlet so naturally the audience feels pleasure when Hamlet finally does avenge his father.
The denouement also plays a vital role in an Aristotelian tragedy. This element of a tragedy is missing in Hamlet. The tragic moment in Hamlet, could be Hamlet‘s accidental murder of Polonius but the denouement couldn’t be accidental. The hemertia
and denouement in a tragic drama play off of one and another. Since Hamlet lacks

hamartia it also lacks the denouement. Macbeth‘s denouement comes from the misleading advice he receives during his second visit to the witches. Macbeth feels he is invincible because he is told that he will die when a forest moves and that he has nothing to fear from man born from woman. Macbeth learns that the Birnam Wood is advancing on his castle because Malcolm‘s army is using the forest as camouflage. Macduff who was born from a Cistercian section also kills Macbeth. So while Hamlet has no genuine denouement, Macbeth suffers his final downfall in the traditional definition of an Aristotelian tragedy.
The final key element of Aristotle’s tragedy is the feeling of catharsis. The feeling of catharsis is redefined in Hamlet as being the fulfillment of the goal of the protagonist as oppose to the consequential downfall of the protagonist for achieving his goal. Hamlet builds up to the events in Act 5 Scene 2 where the murders take place but throughout the play the audience follows and appreciates Hamlets dilemma. Those unfamiliar with the
play might conclude that Hamlet will never go through with the murder of Claudius after he failed to go through with the murder in Act 3 Scene 3. Hamlet becomes distracted and strives to save his own life but after he returns to Denmark the decision to act occurs to him after he, Gertrude and Laertes are dead and dying. The actions in the last scene do conjure up emotions in the audience but the emotions are sorrow for Hamlet and elation for his finally avenging his father’s death.
In Macbeth, the feeling of catharsis is more traditional and it does fit within
Aristotle’s view of tragedy. Macbeth, after committing the murder of King Duncan, who is

only described as virtuous by everyone within the play, tries to undo the prophecy the witches gave to Banquo. Banquo is a danger to Macbeth because he witnessed the witches
prophecies and he is told his children will become kings. Macbeth kills Banquo and attempts to kill Banquo’s son Fleance. Macbeth continues then revisits the witches and again based on their prophecies, he murders Macduff’s family. Macbeth also believes no man can harm him because all men are born from women. Also he believes the Birnam Wood will never advance to Dunsinane. Macbeth’s errors mount up and while they do the audience’s feelings toward the character turn to disgust. Unlike Hamlet, there is no support for Macbeth’s actions to murder Macduff’s family, Banquo and Duncan. The play concludes with a feeling of catharsis because Macbeth pays for his actions with his death and order is restored.
It is clear that Macbeth fits into Aristotle’s definition of tragedy while Hamlet successfully redefined the definition of tragedy. Shakespeare crafted a complex character
who successfully maintains support from the audience. Such support for a tragic hero is unknown in the definition in the traditional Greek tragedy. In Macbeth, the audience applauds the virtues of Macbeth, relate to his ambitious desires and feel disgust toward the character because of his actions to obtain and maintain his power.


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed. Boston: Thompson Wadsworth. 2005.

Bradley, A.C. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” Macbeth. William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert S. Miola. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Pgs 235-253

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Notes on the Tragedies: Hamlet.“ Hamlet William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. Pgs. 157-164

Mackenzie, Henry. “Criticism of the Character and Tragedy of Hamlet.“ Hamlet William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. Pgs 150-153

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Hamlet William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. Pgs. 3-101

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Macbeth. William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert S. Miola. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Pgs. 5-82


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