In literature, a tragic hero is a great or virtuous character whose flaws and mistakes end up leading to their downfall (Tragic Hero). Often times, the tragic hero is portrayed as the protagonist and is praised for their admirable characteristics, pinning them as the victim. In Hamlet, however, this definition of a tragic hero is defied and instead of being the victim, the tragic hero is often times responsible for the devious acts. Although Ophelia does possess many qualities that would embody this definition of being a tragic hero, I believe that Claudius represents this role entirely.
Claudius, who embodies a large amount of distinguished qualities, allows his evil elements to eventually lead to his demise, portraying the exact definition of tragic hero Shakespeare was trying to illustrate.
In a tragic hero, you can find both good and bad qualities. In Hamlet, Claudius has many admirable characteristics, one being his ability to be a great leader. We see this quality come out first when he was crowned as king at the beginning of the book.
In his speech, he displays his leadership skills by talking about some major events that were recently occurring in Denmark, these being his brother’s death, his recent marriage, and the incoming threat from Norway. He realizes that his brother’s death is very important to his kingdom, so he makes sure to address it.
Realizing that King Hamlet was worshiped by his citizens and his death took a significant toll on them, he asks that they forget about him.
By saying “That we with wisest sorrow think on him, together with remembrance of ourselves”, he reminds them to return their focus back on him and his current reign as king (Shakespeare,1.2.6-7). He communicates that he does not want the memories of his brother to interfere with his future for the kingdom, but he will do whatever he can to meet the needs of his people. Realizing that the people are still needing time to mourn, Claudius compromises, telling them that as long as they also think of him they can continue to mourn the late king. The ability to compromise illuminates Claudius’s leadership skills.
Not only does he have a good sense of leadership, but he recognizes the backlash behind his marriage to Gertrude. He recognizes that his marriage does look like a result of lust, but clarifies that it was done in the intention of political reasons. He states that he did seek approval from his people before going through with marriage and that if he did not receive approval he would not have gone through with it, showing the respect he has for his citizens. With the impending threat from Norway, Claudius demonstrates a large amount of delegation skills. Instead of sending a huge army, he decides instead to send Fortinbras’s uncle a letter to inform him of his nephew’s actions. By doing this, he communicates that he wants the best for Denmark and would only use war as the last option. Claudius’s ability to address these three important topics exemplify the true meaning of a great leader.
Along with all of his other great qualities, Claudius shows love and respect for Gertrude, showing that he possesses many qualities of a good husband. We see this quality come to play when he excuses Hamlet from killing Polonius. Although Hamlet is now his step son, this was an act that should not have been forgiven. Claudius later tells Laertes “She is so conjunctive to my life and soul that, as the star moves not but in his sphere, I could not but by her” (Shakespeare,4.7.15-17). He risks his title as king because of his wife and the love that she has for her son. At the end of the book, his love is questioned when he fails to stop Gertrude from drinking the poison. Even though he does say “Gertrude, do not drink”, many say that he did not do enough to prevent her death (Shakespeare,5.2.277). In my opinion, I believe he did this in Gertrude’s best interest. By drinking the poison, she died not knowing of the role Claudius had played in her late husband’s passing and the possible murder of her son. By allowing her to drink the wine, he prevented her from experiencing a great amount of heartbreak, demonstrating his love for her in a very unconventional way.
Other than being a good husband to Gertrude, he also shows that he can be a good uncle. He advises Hamlet to move past his father’s death and quit mourning. By saying “To reason most absurd, whose common theme is death of fathers, and who still hath cried, from this corpse till he that died today”, he justifies his reasoning by telling Hamlet that death is inescapable and he would have to be burying his father at some point (Shakespeare,1.2.103-105). Throughout the book, he shows countless times that he supports Hamlet. When Hamlet brings up the idea of returning back to school, Claudius advises him to stay in Denmark because of his mental state. Claudius was able to realize that sending Hamlet back to school would have jeopardized his health and possibly the health of others. By doing what was in the best interest for Hamlet, Claudius illustrates his love of family and his ability to be a good uncle.
Even though he does possess many good qualities, in order for him to be a tragic hero he needs to have a flaw that lead to his demise, which he does. In my opinion, his demise comes as a result of his own greed. His need for power led him to murdering his brother. He realized that the only way to the throne was through his brother so he decided the best way to resolve that issue was through death. Killing someone is already bad enough but when you kill a relative it’s even more cruel. After killing his brother, Claudius displays his greed by saying “My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer can serve my turn” (Shakespeare,3.3.51-52). This shows that he views his greed as a way of getting out of asking God for forgiveness. He realizes that he has already obtained rewards from his act, his wife and his role as king, and he would rather have that than God’s forgiveness. In the end, Claudius decides to choose greed, which leads to his downfall.
The combination of Claudius’s intelligence and manipulative nature portray the qualities every tragic hero possesses. In this story, Claudius is shown as the main villain, killing his brother, the former king. To an average reader, his action of murder is still wrong no matter what other good qualities he possesses. In my mind, Claudius did these to benefit Denmark, believing that he would be a better ruler, using his high level of intelligence we see throughout the book. Claudius began as virtuous but ended up letting his greed get the best of him, embodying the true definition of a tragic figure.