Monday, September 16, 2019

How far, and in what ways, do you agree that the story Essay

‘Hamlet’ is a revenge tragedy; a genre originally developed by plays such as ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ by Thomas Kyd from 1585-1590. The genre is characterized by the inclusion of death, murder, betrayal, madness, poison, surveillance and the supernatural in the narrative – themes that all frequently occur in ‘Hamlet’. However to what extent does the story of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes conform to this idea of a revenge tragedy; and more broadly, how does the story of the family conform to the genre of tragedy as a whole? One issue is how to define a tragedy; Thomas Heywood wrote: â€Å"Comedies begin in trouble and end in peace; tragedies begin in calm and end in tempest†, ‘Apology for Actors’, 1612. By this definition, tragedy generally can be summarised as a sequence of events that lead to the destruction of the majority of its characters. In this sense, the story of Polonius and his family conforms to the basic skeleton of a tragedy – by the end of the play Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia are dead. However the family’s story does not conform as simply to other definitions of tragedy. ‘[Tragedy] would look with a sceptical eye at what was happening in the world around’, M. Mangan (1991). ‘Tragedy would look with a sceptical eye’ implies that tragedy has the role of both viewing and criticising society. This concept can be applied to Polonius, a character remarkably similar to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Shakespeare spent the majority of his life under Elizabeth’s rule; hence the Elizabeth’s gentry may have aided Shakespeare in creating his constructs. Polonius is characterized by his long, rambling speeches, for example in Act 2 Scene 2; ‘Either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastorical-comical, historical-pastoral, tragic-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral unlimited’ The absurd repetition of the words ‘tragedy’, ‘comedy’, ‘history’ and ‘pastoral’ emphasize the loquaciousness of Polonius, but is perhaps also mocking Sir Francis Walsingham. Shakespeare is crafting a stereotype that spymasters are loquacious, obsequious characters. Perhaps Shakespeare is criticising society; society does not require spymasters spawning insincerity and deceit. If so, Shakespeare is using satire as a tool to portray this viewpoint. Polonius may be used by Shakespeare as a means to act as such a ‘sceptical eye’ on society, conforming to Mangan’s concept of the relevance of tragedy in real life. Aristotle was a key figure in defining tragedy, and stated in his ‘Poetics’ that a typical tragedy consisted of a noble protagonist, with a hamartia (tragic flaw), whose peripeteia (reversal of fortune) is brought about by an anagnorisis (moment of recognition). However it would be unwise to assume that Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, written in c. 335 BC would still be completely relevant to Shakespearean tragedy, written some two thousand years later. However several aspects of Aristotle’s tragedy can be applied to Polonius and his family. Polonius has his tragic flaw: his obsession with spying. He tells Reynaldo before departing to France to spy on Laertes: ‘By indirections find directions out’ (Act 2 Scene 1) Not only does this indicate his unnatural interest in his son’s affairs, so much that he is willing to send a spy to observe his sons possible hedonism in Paris; but it also shows that he is experienced as a spymaster. Such advice is most likely to be learned from several years of manipulating people to his advantage. Essentially what he is saying is the most direct method of finding the truth is through being indirect, which holds to be true as we see later in the play with Hamlet’s ‘The Mousetrap’; a play within a play which exposes Claudius’ villainy through indirect and subtle methods. Furthermore on the topic of hamartia – Laertes has his tragic flaw of overreaction; a stark contrast to Hamlet whose tragic flaw is procrastination. When asked by Claudius what he will do when Hamlet returns to Denmark to avenge his father in Act 4 Scene VII, he replies ‘To cut his throat i’ the church. ‘ This directly mirrors the church scene, where Claudius is vulnerable yet Hamlet refrains from acting out his revenge. This displays Laertes’ as a traditional revenger, willing to act, unlike Hamlet who considers the legitimacy of the ghost’s claims before even considering revenge. Laertes does not take much persuading from Claudius. However it is this over-willingness to act that is the cause of his death. In his rage at the death of both his father and sister, he plots with Claudius to kill Hamlet; a move which kills him as he himself is poisoned by the sword intended for Hamlet. Over-willingness to act is Laerte’s hamartia; and so Laertes also conforms to this tragic skeleton laid out by Aristotle. However perhaps more tragic, although not conforming to Aristotle’s works, is the question; why is Laertes so willing to act? His father was voyeuristic, deceitful and loquacious – he used Ophelia as a tool to gain favour with the king, and spied on Laertes to ensure his name was not tarnished. He was a far from noble man, his life summarised accurately by his death; behind an arras spying on someone. In this regard, it is questionable whether Laertes’ brashness in relation to revenge is justified. From the aspects of Polonius’ character seen in the play, it does not appear that he was a ‘good’ father; in fact he seems villainous at times – for example when he disallows Ophelia to express her love for Hamlet, then makes her feel to blame when Hamlet puts on his antic disposition. It is questionable whether Polonius ‘deserves’ to be avenged. Hamlet seems to simply shrug off the murder of Polonius, noting of what the little worth he was when referring him simply as ‘guts’. This could be seen as tragic, as the worthlessness of Polonius’ character implies that Laertes died for nothing. One explanation is that Laertes may have been inclined to act out revenge with such little persuasion due to the fact Polonius was all he and his sister had. Since Hamlet put on his antic disposition, Ophelia lacked a love interest, as did Laertes assuming he did not have a lover in Paris; moreover they were not allowed to have a love interest due to Polonius caring too much about his image than the wishes of his children. With no love interests, and apparently no motherly figure, they were left with no figure of authority but Polonius, which may be the cause for Laertes’ brash attitudes towards revenge. Also likely is the concept of family honour driving Laertes’ revenge, a concept which an Elizabethan audience may have empathised with. The death of Ophelia in a modern day sense is considered tragic, like any suspected suicide. However during Elizabethan times her death would be considered on a more religious basis; the priest comments on the ‘questionable’ nature of her death, and whether it would warrant a Christian burial. This is an example of how the definition of tragedy shifts over time; even Laertes does not seem as shaken by the announcement of his sister’s death compared to his fathers, perhaps due to the nature of her death. Ophelia’s death is considered a tragedy in a modern day sense, but at the time her death not so much tragic, but rather symbolised the death of innocence in the play, as part of the build up to the climatic deaths in the final act. However, Ophelia’s death is an example of how ‘Hamlet’ is able to transcend traditional ideas on tragedy, and can hold relevance to modern day interpretations of what is considered tragic. In the 21st century, a tragic event is where an individual or group suffers to a greater extent than they are perceived to deserve. It could be argued that however you spin the story of Polonius and his family, they will always conform to this modern interpretation of tragedy, as well as the traditional tragedy theorised by Aristotle. Ophelia is being perpetually commanded and ordered throughout the play by the significant characters in her life; first Laertes, when he displays his disapproval of her intimacy with Hamlet, and Polonius when he conducts his own ‘play within a play’, ordering her to talk to Hamlet while he observes behind an arras. She has little to no freedom, despite the fact she has ‘done nothing wrong’; unlike her brother who had enjoyed the ‘primrose path of dalliance’ while in Paris, and the voyeuristic indulgence of Polonius. The death of Ophelia to a modern audience is tragic, so in this sense the story of Polonius and his family is a tragedy. I agree that the story of Polonius and his family should be considered ‘a tragedy within a tragedy’. Their story contains many of the frequently occurring aspects of a tragedy; death, love, murder, revenge and surveillance. As well as this, the family conforms to the concept of a tragedy as laid out by Aristotle. Finally, the story of Polonius and his family conforms to what is considered tragic in the present, as the tragedy has transcended the period in which the play was written. References Primary Text Shakespeare, W (~1600) ‘Hamlet’ London: Penguin (2005) Secondary Texts Aristotle (350 BC) ‘Poetics’ London: Penguin (1997) Heywood, T (1612) ‘An Apology for Actors’ New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints (1999) Mangan, M (1991) ‘A Preface to Shakespeare’s Tragedies’ London: Longman.

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