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Compare and Contrast the Ways in Which Shakespeare and Webster Present Hamlet and Bosola as Tragic Heroes. Essay

Bosola from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, both present elements of Aristotle’s model of the tragic hero; through both of the characters, Shakespeare and Webster use the features of the tragic hero to engage Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences in an exploration of issues linked to the Renaissance, religion and philosophy. This essay will explore how the playwrights present the tragic flaws in their heroes’ character and how they face struggles due to their inner conflict and may exhibit villainous behavior but are not complete tyrants. Greek philosopher Aristotle recorded his ideas about tragedy dramas and the ‘tragic hero’ in his noted book of literary theory titled Poetics (335 BCE), the book was rediscovered during the Renaissance and became commonly used as a playwriting manual. Aristotle stated that the tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness but although they are seen as pre-eminently great, they are not perfect.

The tragic hero’s downfall will come down to being mainly of their own doing through the result of free choice rather than accident or villainy or some other malevolent fate. Aristotle characterised the tragic hero as displaying hamartia which is usually translated as tragic flaw. There is also some increase in awareness and a sense of discovery upon the part of the tragic hero. Hamlet’s biggest flaw in character is that he over philosophises and delays killing Claudius up until it is too late for his family and himself. After he decides Claudius is guilty of murdering his father, he still relents from taking his revenge, he says “Haste me to know ‘t, that I, with wings as swift/ As meditation or the thought of love/ May sweep to my revenge.” (Act I, scene V). This quote displays Hamlet’s deep desire for revenge, the words are powerful and using words such as ‘swift’ gives the impression that he will not delay in taking action suggesting that he is ready, however the juxtaposing simile embedded within the quote is soft and suggests Hamlet’s cogitating over thoughts of love possibly his love for Ophelia, ‘meditation’ also implies that he dwells in deep thought.

Hamlet procrastinates a lot throughout the play; Smith says that “due to his brooding and introspective nature, he often wrangles with language to help him understand a reality where he has little control. Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy questions the righteousness of life over death in moral terms and discusses the many possible reasons for either living or dying”, this does however show the audience Hamlet’s humanity, Shakespeare can also use his character to engage with the prevalent philosophical ideas during the Renaissance period; Judkins states that “the Renaissance embraces a series of religious, economic, and political changes which ripple into areas of science, literature, and philosophy”, at a time of change and new ideas many writers such as Shakespeare would have been interested in the ideas explored during the Renaissance and so create characters to reflect it. One example of Hamlet’s dilemma reflecting the debates in Elizabethan society, is linked to morality and law; Hamlet finds himself torn between his desire for revenge but also his philosophizing over the futility of life; J. J. Lawlor argues that “the avenger delays, not from despair or indecision which are finally rejected in favour of the duty of revenge, but… because there is a scruple about revenge itself”.

Hence, Hamlet’s scrupling reflects a man trapped in changing times between the Medieval Age when bloody revenge was accepted and the Tudor era of legal reformation where private revenge was outlawed. Bosola also shows internal conflict which could imply that he fits Aristotle’s model of the tragic hero, however it is shown more through his asides rather than soliloquies as shown in Hamlet. Bosola is very bitter towards the system and the way the country is ruled, with those above him abusing their power; but still he continues to carry out his ways, due to his greed ‘poisoning’ his morals, it can be said he is plagued by his own melancholy and will only debate the consequences afterwards. Boas suggests that “the tragic hero is made to feel him-self caught in a situation over which he has little control but in which he must make some decision, however futile. But the unhappy out-come always emerges from his decision. He must choose and cannot choose well”, so although Bosola chooses to avenge the duchess he kills her, her children, Antonio and himself in the process.

It could also be said that Bosola fails to redeem himself because his actions are driven by revenge, after he kills the Cardinal and Ferdinand he says, “Now my revenge is perfect. Sink, thou main cause/ Of my undoing! The last part of my life/ Hath done me best service” (Act V, Scene, V). Like Shakespeare, Webster’s presentation of inner conflict in his protagonist also seems to suggest that the path of private retribution is complex and will lead to destruction. Bosola does also come to terms with his fate; “existential nihilists claim that, to be honest, one must face the absurdity of existence, that he/she will eventually die” (Unknown Author). Bosola states that people are merely the “stars tennis balls” (Act V, Scene IV) that a person’s fate is already mapped out and everything is inevitable so Bosola feels like a victim of circumstance. John F Buckingham states that perhaps there is also an “etymological significance in Webster’s adjustment of the source name, ‘Bozola’ to a new spelling that references the word ‘Bossola’; Italian for a mariner‘s compass, pointing up the irony that Bosola‘s own final journey is directionless, away from justice”. It could be said that Hamlet also comes to terms with his fate and carries it upon his shoulders like a burden. “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” (Act I, Scene V), here it could be said that Hamlet indisputably feels that he was born to avenge his father’s death, thus he vows to dedicate his life to vengeance.

In the final scene Hamlet realizes that a person should be ready to accept the undeniable fact that death will come; Hamlet says to Horatio, “There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all” (Act V, Scene II). Both Hamlet and Bosola show villainous behaviour, but it can be argued that they aren’t in fact completely evil. Hamlet soon finds himself acting upon passion and is “at least at crucial moments of his experience, passion’s slave, as in his castigation of Ophelia and, more tragically, in his murder of her father” (Allan). Hamlet is not a bad person yet the pressure and intensity of his vengeance tears away at him; he finds himself acting sometimes rashly and uncertainly, and in the case of Polonius’ murder, he does not initially show any signs of remorse as he looks down on him calling him a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (Act III, Scene IV), which suggests he is almost saying it is Polonius’ fault for getting involved and does not take responsibility. Hamlet’s actions are caused by his desire to avenge his father the old king Hamlet who was murdered by his brother Claudius and so it could be argued that had Hamlet not known that

Claudius murdered his father, he would not have carried out the murders and would therefore not be villainous, as Hamlet was loved by the people and was known to be a smart scholar who went to university. Shakespeare uses Ophelia to reflect these views when she says, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (Act III, Scene I). Hamlet did not intend on hurting his loved ones in the beginning and should not be seen as ‘evil’ as his aims were to only avenge his father. Allan comments that, “violence of word and deed do not come naturally to [Hamlet’s] reflective and moral temperament”. On the other hand, critic Augustus Schlegel argues that “[Hamlet] has a natural inclination for crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover up his want of determination”, this suggests that Hamlet is just as Machiavellian as Claudius but this reading would be too simple, and does not consider the impact of Hamlet’s humanity which is evident in his delay and conflicting thoughts. Bosola however is more entangled in Machiavellian scheming, serving the Duchess’ brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and so it could be said that he is not in fact a villain but instead just a working man. Bosola refers to himself as their “creature” (Act I, Scene I) with its connotations of unthinking, loyalty and inhumanity, Bosola carries out their deeds for his own material gain seemingly regardless of his morals most likely due to his bitterness and discontent with social structure and other existing conditions. Bosola is a key part of the plot and acts as a spy and a murderer but although it was his choice to have this way of life, in the end he stands for his beliefs.

Bosola has already been to prison which implies he is criminal, but during his asides, it is evident that he is not an evil assailant but a man doing a job, “For the good deed you have done me, I must do all the ill man can invent”. He recognizes the consequences of his actions and feels remorse, for example, when Bosola is ordered to kill the Duchess, he cannot face her as his true self due to his sympathy towards her and so he disguises himself; C. G. Thayer states that “having caused the Duchess so much agony already, [Bosola] cannot now bear to have her recognize him as he comes to supervise her murder, or, more simply, that he is ashamed to appear in his own shape”. This idea of the counterfeit shape links to Machiavellian ideas but also links to his own sense of morality and feeling towards the Duchess and Antonio and his shame for how he is ruining their family and lives. Bosola cannot be seen to be a villain completely as at the end of play he plans to kill the Cardinal for making him kill all those people and for committing crimes, hoping to help save Antonio, and although he kills Antonio accidently, he did change his ways and tried to help, this is an excellent example of how Bosola resembles the tragic hero figure. In conclusion it is clear that Hamlet fits the model of the tragic hero and it is evident that Bosola also fits the characteristics of a tragic hero.

Smith describes Hamlet as “the quintessential tragic hero. Not only does he begin with the noblest motivations but by the end, his situation is so dire that the only plausible final act should be his death”. If we consider Bosola as the malcontent of the play, the audience can see he tends to view things cynically, and makes numerous critical comments on the nature of Renaissance society. Bell states that “Bosola also acts as a choric figure at regular intervals during the play and he often makes judgements on the other characters and the series of events”. However despite these more seemingly malcontent traits, it is evident that he can also be seen as a figure resembling the tragic hero. Hamlet and Bosola both display a tragic flaw in character, both display villainous behavior yet it is clear that they both have a sense of morality, neither character realize the right thing to do until the end of both plays and so fail to attain happiness. Shakespeare and Webster both use the traits of the tragic hero to engage in and explore topics which were being challenged and revamped by the discoveries of the Renaissance period.

Allan, Phillip. Hamlet: Phillip Allan Literature Guide for A-Level. Hodder Education: Oxford shire, 2011. Bell, Millicent. Hamlet, Revenge! The Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 310-328. Boas, George. The Evolution of the Tragic Hero. The Carleton Drama Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Greek Tragedy (1955 – 1956), pp. 5-21. Buckingham, John F. The Dangerous Edge of Things: John Webster’s Bosola in Context & Performance, 2011. Judkins, David. Life in Renaissance England [Online] available at: Lawlor, J.J. The Tragic Conflict in Hamlet. The Review of English Studies. R.E.S New Series, Vol 1, No. 2, 1950. Schelegel, Augustus William. Criticisms on Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Hamlet. Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. London, 1846. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. Norton and Company: New York, 1992, pp. 155-7. Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Smith, Nicole. Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a Tragic Hero [Online] available at: Thayer, C. G. The Ambiguity of Bosola. Studies in Philology, Vol. 54, No.2 (Apr., 1957), pp. 162-171. (Unknown Author) Nihilism [Online]
available at:

Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi”. London: Methuen drama, 2001.

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