In this guide, he sets out the six elements that compose a great tragedy. 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 ornaments are separate parts of the play in the form of action, not of narrative, and in the form of pity and fear effecting sympathy from the audience.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet follows this definition for the most part. 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 “perfect people”, but people whom the audience can 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 feeling that is aroused by “unmerited misfortune. “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.
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 therefore they speak like common men. There are some aspects of Aristotle’s 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. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great and effective tragedy which follows most of the guidelines set by Aristotle in Aristotle’s Poetics. There are some aspects that Shakespeare does not 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 Ophelia’s insanity adds much to the play. Shakespeare broke some of Aristotle’s rules, but still wrote an effective tragedy that has been appreciated by audiences for centuries.