Hamlet Analyzed In Terms Of Aristotle’s Poetics



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 will attempt to
kill his uncle later in the play.
Aristotle stresses that diction is important to
make the tragedy believable. Shakespeare utilizes
diction perfectly and everything his characters say is
appropriate for them to be saying. For instance, the
king speaks like a king, he always dodges like a true
politician. There is an obvious and necessary
difference between the way he speaks and the way the
gravediggers speak. The gravediggers are common men and
therefor, speak as thought they are common men.
There are some aspects of Poetics that Shakespeare
does not follow. For instance, Aristotle states that in
a great tragedy, there should be unity of time, place,
and action. By this he means the action of the play
should take place in the amount of time it takes to
perform it, it should occur in one setting, and there
should be one main plot or action.
Shakespeare breaks all these