>>I'm doing a paper on Othello as a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. Does anyone know of good resources that discuss this? <<
An interesting piece on Shakespeare vs. Aristotle on the internet:
Battle of the Tragedies. A frequently debated topic among Shakespeare scholars is how Shakespeare’s own ideas of drama and tragedy may have been influenced by Aristotle’s views on these issues. Some may claim that Shakespeare’s plays are following the groundwork laid down Aristotle’s “Poetics” hundreds of years before. In these “rules”, Aristotle tells of many reasons why tragedies and plays should follow his guidelines. In essence, Aristotle’s views on these forms of art are purely scientific, as opposed to critical. After reading Aristotle’s views on the subject, and after reading a few of Shakespeare’s tragedies, many of Aristotle’s rules from “Poetics” do actually appear. Thus it appears that Shakespeare has used many of Aristotle’s ideas in his own plays. One such play that the “Poetics” guidelines appear in, is Hamlet.
Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is a tragic tale of revenge, and of course, self-destruction. In fact, self-destruction of a hero is one of the many rules of Aristotle’s Poetics. As seen in many earlier Greek plays, the hero of the story must exhibit at least one fatal flaw that makes him his own worst enemy. This aforementioned “Fatal Flaw” is referred to as “Hamartia”. In the case of many of Sophocles’ plays, the main heroes of Antigone, and Oedipus Rex each exhibit their own hamartia.
However, in Hamlet, this system of hamartia doesn’t deviate from its ancient roots. Our hero still has his downfall-causing fatal flaw. In Hamlet’s case, his indecisiveness and procrastination are the personality traits that cause him to fall.
Also, according to Aristotle, the hero of a tragedy must be a good person. Once again, Hamlet fits this description for the most part. Aside from some questionable, or perhaps insane, behavior Hamlet is surely good. The only questionable events that would tarnish Hamlet’s “Good” reputation would be the killing of Polonius, and the lack of regret in killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Aside from these events, Hamlet is simply fighting for the honor of his father, and seeking revenge.
In Aristotle’s eyes, and obviously the eyes of the play’s spectators, a bad person falling from grace invokes no pity. Of course, according to Aristotle again, pity is one of the main emotions a viewer should experience from watching a tragic play. Most playgoers watching Hamlet should feel some form of pity. Since pity does not have to exclusively come from the hero, with the incredibly large body count of Hamlet, there must be at least one dead cast member that an audience member can relate to and pity.
However, going back to the character of Hamlet, Aristotle claims that a hero needs other things to make him or her a convincing tragic character. Among these, the character must have qualities appropriate for his or her position. In Hamlet’s instance, his qualities are surely not inappropriate for his position. In fact, as a prince who needs to make important decisions, Hamlet may think things through very thoroughly before acting. This personality trait is very clearly seen in his procrastination of the murder of Claudius. At first he refuses to believe the ghost until he has further proof of its validity. This flaw is surely not outside the realm of possibility.
A tragic hero, according to Aristotle, also must go from fortune to misfortune. By viewing Hamlet, it becomes very clear that Hamlet once had much fortune. In fact, at the beginning of the play, Hamlet is alive and mourning. Though this may seem like a low point to begin at, it is indeed better than Hamlet trying to be killed by his uncle, and eventually dying. While there may not be a slow and gradual downfall, the fortune to misfortune aspect of The Poetics is present.
Yet another subject that Aristotle speaks of is the issue of Peripeteia. Peripeteia is “A reversal, either from good to bad or bad to good.” This is not exact same thing as the aforementioned “Reversal of Fortune”. Peripeteia is more of the hero being put into a bad situation, and finding a way out through reversal of fortune. In this case, the journey with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be considered the Peripeteia of the play. In this example, Hamlet was placed with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and was told he was going to England. However, upon his arrival at England, Hamlet was supposed to be killed. This is obviously a bad situation. However, in a reversal of fortune, Hamlet finds a way to replace the note requesting his murder to instead order the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This reversal is supposedly used to make the audience feel more pity and fear. Anyone who is feels that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ignorant involvement in Hamlet’s death shouldn’t warrant their own deaths would certainly feel these emotions.
Hamlet follows “The Poetics” yet again in its setting. According to Aristotle, fictional tragic characters are considered much better than historic characters. While Shakespeare didn’t follow this model in such plays as Julius Caesar, he certainly followed it in Hamlet. In fact, most characters in Hamlet don’t even have names relating to their heritage. While the play takes place in Denmark, apparently also at an in descript time, the name “Hamlet” is in fact the name of Shakespeare’s British son. The reason for Aristotle’s fondness for non-historic plays, is due to the fact that historic characters apparently already had their fates written, and lived as a specific person their entire life. While details about the character’s life could be substituted or changed, the fact still remains that it wouldn’t be true.
While Hamlet may follow many of the guidelines set forth by Aristotle’s Poetics, there are still a few glaring examples where Shakespeare doesn’t follow these guidelines. One of the best examples is that, according to Aristotle, dramatic plays should be contained completely in their plays. What this essentially means, is that no important events in the play should have happened before the play began, nor should happen after the play ends. However, this is certainly not the case in Hamlet. In fact, perhaps the most important event of the play happened before the play begins. This event is the murder of Hamlet Senior. This event is the entire subject of the play, yet it occurs months before the actual play begins. Instead, the audience simply hears it alluded to by various cast members.
While there may be a few examples of Shakespeare not following Aristotle’s Poetics, for the most part, he follows it quite closely. In fact, Shakespeare followed these rules close enough to have his works considered prime examples of tragedy in the eyes of many. --Andrew Prelusky
Last edited by peterquince2; 11-21-2007 at 02:45 PM.