Shakespeare’s First Major Tragedy
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1600 or 1601, when he was 36 years old. The Tragedy of Hamlet was his first major tragedy, although Julius Caesar may have been written slightly earlier.
A Previous Play of the Same Name
As a working member of a commercial enterprise, Shakespeare did not hesitate to use in his plays ‘whatever source material lay at hand. A play called Hamlet existed prior to Shakespeare’s own. It was a revenge play by Thomas Kvd, and employed the familiar contrivances of this popular tradition: ghosts seeking revenge, ‘i’mouse-trap” plays, the antic disposition of the avenger, and a bloody finale. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, in the late 1580’s, set a standard for the genre, and Shakespeare had made a clumsy attempt at revenge tragedy in Titus Andronicus. Also at hand were the non- dramatic legends of Hamlet, especially the twelfth-century Historia Davioa of Saxo Grammaticus.
The Hero’s Universal Dilemma
Whatever his sources—and they all strike us as comparatively savage and immature—Shakespeare achieved a transformation in Hamlet that was exquisitely attuned to the sophisticated questionings of his own era. Hamlet stands at the dividing point between two great periods of Shakespeare’s creativity, one chiefly optimistic and one overwhelmingly tragic. The hero of the play stands between a Christian, medieval world of faith, and one of skeptical uncertainty. His universal dilemma becomes our own.
A New Tragic Pattern
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, when Shakespeare was developing his art the need began to be felt for a deeper and more understated kind of tragedy than had been produced before. In the tragedies written before the time of Shakespeare, there was little subtlety or complexity in the situations presented, and little depth of character portrayal. With Shakespeare, a new tragic pattern began to emerge, very much universal and deeper than the old one, sounding intimately the philosophy of the human mind and thought, and the moral themes and morals of human behavior.
Shakespeare’s Conception of Tragedy
According to this scheme, an ideal tragedy would concern the career of a hero, a man great with all royal powers. The hero’s action will involve him in choices of some importance which, however virtuous or vicious in them, bring about certain consequences unforeseen by the hero, which cannot then be halted and which brings about his downfall.
The Response from the Audience
The effect of such a pattern is to arouse the maximum possible response from the audience, so that the audience may share fully in the tragic emotions of pity or sympathy and fear or horror. These responses are gained through our fellow-feeling for the sufferings of others, our deepest convictions as to right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil, our dislike for ugliness and discord, and a heightened sense of dignity and the admirable possibilities of the human spirit, which every great tragedy gives rise to. It is perhaps this last element that makes tragedy, in spite of the bitter defeat it depicts, a heartening and elevating experience rather than a depressing one.
The Central Problem of the Play
Hamlet, though tragic in its effect, does not perfectly fit this pattern. Hamlet’s greatness is an inward greatness of spirit. He is not externally active in character; his power and his opportunity are very limited (his enemy has the obvious power). It is one of the great unsettled problems of the play that, rather than struggle towards his goal, Hamlet seems to delay and delay, to avoid it ; he seems often to be uncertain as to what his goal really is. His very virtues are such as to weaken his capacity for forthright action. His nature, on the other hand, is interesting and attractive, his suffering is profound, and the pity and sympathy of the beholder are powerfully aroused; so are the emotions of fear for Hamlet and horror at the dire events. The disorder of Denmark is made obvious at the beginning, aggravated by the action, and dispelled at the end: in this sense Hamlet succeeds because the disjointed times are set right.
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A Mixed Work
Besides these tragic attributes, the play is remarkable for its richness and variety, its fullness of interesting characters, each one a developed personality, and its striking contrasts. Preparations for war, revelry, intrigue, and journeys to and from Wittenberg, Paris, Norway, Poland, England, a play within a play, an exciting duel- scene, love, hatred, counselors, countries, grave-diggers, follow each other through a story full of the most surprising twists and turns. The result of all this is an excitement and a tension which are not entirely of a tragic kind, so that the play appears to be a mixed work not exclusively devoted to a tragic pattern.