Aristotles Poetics is considered the guide to a well written tragedy; his methods have been used for centuries. In Aristotles 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. ).
Shakespeares Hamlet follows this definition for the most part, and even though it is not always in agreement with Aristotles 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 Hamlets quest to avenge his fathers 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 fathers death by killing his uncle.
Shakespeare also follows Aristotles 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 fathers 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 fathers 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.
Hamlets 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 Hamlets 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 rules. The play spans over a significant period of time. Also, the action occurs in various settings ranging from the palace to a plain in Denmark. Finally, there are several plots taking place simultaneously. For instance, as Hamlet is struggling with the death of his father, Ophelia is going insane because Hamlet is not returning her love or showing any interest in her. The audience feels pity for Ophelia throughout her ordeal as well. Aristotle would not approve of all the subplots that occur within this play.
Shakespeares Hamlet is a great and effective tragedy which follows most of the guidelines set by Aristotle in Poetics. There are some aspects of Poetics that Shakespeare does not include or follow, however the play still effects the audience in the desired manner. In reality, Hamlet would not have the same impact if it followed all the guidelines. For instance, the whole aspect of the subplot about Ophelias insanity adds so much to the play. Shakespeare broke some of Aristotles rules and still wrote an effective tragedy that has been appreciated by audiences for centuries.