In The Poetics, Aristotle writes that tragedy is the “imitation of an action,” that it should be whole and complete and possess magnitude. He also discusses the concept of recognition and reversal, as well as catharsis (Gerould 49). According to Aristotle, a successful tragedy should contain all of these concepts. A tragedy should also contain a tragic hero, who Aristotle describes as neither exclusively good nor evil, rather a man who made a tragic mistake. Finally, Aristotle suggests that the plot of a successful tragedy must rely on action that is possible and universal. The “universal” suggests that the characters, particularly the hero, behave in a way that is believable given the extreme situation in which they find themselves. In the following pages, I will prove that with very small exception, Hamlet adheres to the rules for a successful tragedy as defined by Aristotle, and therefore can be considered an Aristotelian tragedy.
Hamlet is certainly the imitation of an action in that it portrays the story of Hamlet and his dysfunctional family. It is whole and complete in that it begins with Hamlet’s discovery of his father’s murder, and ends with the culmination of his revenge and ultimately, his death. It possesses magnitude in that it is the story of a royal family and the choices and events which not only impact the lives of this family, but also change the course of an entire kingdom.
The character of Hamlet satisfies Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. Hamlet is certainly not completely virtuous. The entire plot of the play is based on his desire to revenge his father’s murder. He kills Polonius, and is at least partly responsible for Ophelia’s suicide. Despite all of these transgressions, he is also not completely evil. He is arguably justified in his desire for revenge. His murder of Polonius can be considered an accident. Certainly Hamlet did not intend for Ophelia to die, and he even shows great sorrow when he learns of her death. Traditionally, Hamlet has been accused of hesitance and indecision, and these things would certainly qualify as a tragic flaw. All of these examples show Hamlet as fulfilling the requirements of a tragic hero.
Hamlet also contains the concepts of recognition and reversal. Simply put, recognition is “the change from ignorance to knowledge,” while reversal refers to the reversal of the hero’s fortunes from what they would have been to what that are now (Gerould 54). The initial recognition in Hamlet occurs when Hamlet is visited by his father’s Ghost, who reveals the truth about his own death. This is also Hamlet’s reversal, as this knowledge is too important to ignore. Near the end of the play, there is another example of recognition and reversal. Just before his death, Laertes tells Hamlet, “Thy mother’s poisoned.- I can no more. The King, the King’s to blame” (Thompson and Taylor 456). Laertes’ line assures Hamlet that Claudius has murdered his mother, which leads to Hamlet’s murder of Claudius. The deaths of the Queen, the King, and Hamlet instigate a reversal not only for themselves but for the future of the kingdom. It is these events that evoke catharsis. We pity Hamlet that his uncle’s ambition and lust has destroyed any possibility of healing in this kingdom. We also fear the results (the pile of dead bodies) of lust and ambition, if we acknowledge that we are capable of those feelings.
Finally, Hamlet adheres for the most part the Aristotle’s concepts of probability and universality. The themes of betrayal, loyalty, and revenge are timeless and universal themes. Hamlet’s rage towards his mother for her betrayal and his plots to avenge his father’s death are certainly understandable to most people. The only issue comes with the probability of some of the events of the play. The entire plot is based on the appearance of Hamlet’s father as a ghost. Hamlet carries on an extended conversation with the ghost, who then vanishes. Certainly to a contemporary audience, this wouldn’t be considered probable or believable. Also, at one point Hamlet sails to London and encounters pirates, whom he fights, and then returns to Denmark. This particular incident seems a little rushed and convenient to uphold Aristotle’s views of the probable.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet upholds almost every one of Aristotle’s requirements for a successful tragedy. It is a complete action with magnitude. It contains recognition and reversal, and the character of Hamlet qualifies as a tragic hero. Other than some very small exceptions, Hamlet follows the concepts of probability and universality. Overall, Hamlet can absolutely be defined as an Aristotelian tragedy.
Strindberg/Miss Julie response
Naturalism was an innovative style of drama that began in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The goal of naturalism was to create a perfect representation of life (Packard et al 356). August Strindberg is known as the father of naturalism, and his play, Miss Julie, serves as an excellent example of the style. Most notably, the social relationships of the play are indicative of the naturalist style.
In Miss Julie, Jean and Julie represent two different classes of society. Jean is a part of the working class, while Julie is the countess whom he serves. They are irresistibly attracted to one another, which is ultimately their downfall. Strindberg uses this relationship to examine the social issues of the late nineteenth century. In the first act, Jean and Julie find themselves alone. Julie uses her elevated social position to flirt with Jean. She says to him, “Surely you know that a gentleman would never allow a lady to drink alone.Now drink to my health!Now kiss my shoe and everything will be perfect.” (Stockenstrom). Julie knows she is being inappropriate, but she is fascinated by Jean, and by extension his social class. A few moments later, she describes a dream which articulates her desire to test the waters of the lower class:
That reminds me of a dream I have now and then. I’m sitting on top of a pillar and I can’t see how to get down. When I look down I get dizzy. I have to get down, but I don’t have the courage to throw myself off. I can’t hold on and I’m longing to fall, but I don’t fall. I know I won’t have any peace until I get down, down to the ground! (Stockenstrom 22).
Julie will use Jean as a way to “throw herself off” of the pillar, since she doesn’t have the courage to do it on her own.
On the other hand, Jean is as fascinated with climbing up on top of the pillar as Julie is in throwing herself off of it. He counters with a description of his own dream: “I dream that I am lying under a tall tree in a dark forest. I want to get up, up to the top, to look out over the bright landscapeI’ll go right to the top just like climbing a ladder. I haven’t reached it yet, but someday I will” (Stockenstrom 23). Jean is attracted to Julie because of her social position. He wants desperately to see himself as more than most servants. He allows himself to believe that being with Julie proves that, and so he allows himself to get caught up in her seduction of him.
Unfortunately, their intimacy is immediately followed by stark realization. Jean learns that Julie doesn’t have access to the money that will fund his dreams, and Julie realizes that without that money, she is nothing to him but a common whore.They are utterly ruined for one another, and for no reason other than a distinct difference in social class. In this way, Strindberg uses the social relationships of Miss Julie to help define his understanding of Naturalism.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament was written as part confession, part explanation, and part last will and testament. Beethoven wrote it in October of 1802, although it wasn’t found until after his death. At the time of his writing, Beethovan had been removed from essentially all society and company for a full six years (Prevot). The emotions expressed in the Testament can serve as a guide through which to experience Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Beethoven begins his Fifth Symphony with the now unmistakable four note phrase. It is simple, yet deliberate and commanding. It is arrogant and yet suggests frustration. This seems to fit perfectly with the opening lines of the Testament which are, “O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case” (Prevot). Later in the first movement, Beethoven introduces us to some more melodic phrasing, but it is consistently underscored by the original four note phrase. This parallels Beethoven’s feelings of wanting to interact with other members of society, but feeling limited by his disability. He writes, “Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in othersO I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood” (Prevot). The lilting melody of the flute represents Beethoven’s love of society as well as his love of music. The harsh, demanding brass interrupts these happy feelings to remind Beethoven of his failing hearing.
The fourth and final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an energetic, uplifting piece. It is elevated and grand, much like the final parts of the Testament. Beethoven tells his brothers, “It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness” (Prevot). There is a joy in this final movement, just as there is joy in the final lines of the Testament. He wishes his friends well, asks that they make use of his fortune, but not to quarrel, and ultimately writes that when Death comes, “will I shall meet thee bravely” (Prevot). The last movement ends with a peaceful resignation, although still remembering the original tragedy that was Beethoven’s hearing loss.
Gerould, Daniel. Theatre, Theory, Theatre. New York: Applause, 2003. Print.
Packard, William, David Pickering, and Charlotte Savidge. The Facts on File Dictionary of the Theatre. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Print.
Prevot, Dominique. “The Heiligenstadt Testament – Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Website.” The Heiligenstadt Testament – Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012.
Strindberg, August. Miss Julie. Ed. Truda Stockenstrom. Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1996. Print.